Andy BEY'S singing is a flashback to an era in which jazz was populated with male vocalists characterized by their sumptuous baritone voices. Herb Jeffries, Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman were the best known of these romantic balladeers, and Clint Eastwood acknowledged their powers by using a Hartman recording in one of the most intimate scenes in the film "The Bridges of Madison County."
Bey, 64, arrived too late to be directly included in that grouping, slipping instead into the pop world of the early '60s with Andy & the Bey Sisters, a soul-styled vocal trio that also featured two siblings. In the late '60s and early '70s he was featured with Gary Bartz, Max Roach and others before beginning a lengthy association with Horace Silver. But he was barely visible on the jazz radar for years before launching a comeback in 1995.
"American Song" (Savoy Jazz) is his fourth album since 1995's "Ballads, Blues and Bey" and is the work of a jazz artist fully in his prime. The program is mostly devoted to ballad standards -- "Never Let Me Go," "Lush Life" and "Lonely Town" among them -- showcasing Bey's dark, velvety voice. Supported by a rhythm section featuring superbly empathic accompaniment from pianist Geri Allen, with occasional solo contributions from Frank Wess' tenor saxophone and flute, Bey finds the inner life in each song. On one tune, "Prelude to a Kiss," his voice is surrounded by the lambent sound of a woodwind ensemble.
A few numbers -- "Caravan," "Paper Moon" and "Satin Doll" -- display Bey's mastery of time and rhythm as well. In the former, a rhythmically heated arrangement springs him -- startlingly -- into his top, head tone register. In "Paper Moon" he dips into his soul roots, and in "Satin Doll" his voice floats over an insinuating rhythmic groove, countered by a gently tiptoeing tenor solo from Wess.
Bey's interpretations seem minimal until one realizes that part of his artistry is his capacity to allow the words to breathe, the music to flow. The result is the sort of intimate singing Frank Sinatra was doing in the mid-'50s, minus the large orchestral accompaniment but with the same sort of utterly engrossing emotional connectivity.
When interpretation is everything
Bey's performance typifies the continuing belief in individual interpretation that is fundamental to the field of jazz singing -- a belief in personal expression that transcends the recent tendency to box the music into easily marketable forms. Here are similarly fascinating recent recordings by other jazz stylists who follow their own unique musical pathways.
"Talk of the Town" (Telarc)
Bentyne is best known, of course, as one quarter of the immensely successful vocal quartet the Manhattan Transfer. But her gradually burgeoning solo career also reveals a performer whose skills reach well beyond the Transfer's four-part harmonies and genre-crossing repertoire. Here, she takes on a program of standards, backed on most tracks by the sterling rhythm section of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Lewis Nash, with solo contributions from fluegelhornist Chuck Mangione and tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman.
Although Bentyne refers to her Transfer association in tunes such as the fast-paced "Farmer's Market," it is her ballad work that is most captivating. Tunes such as "These Foolish Things" and "The Very Thought of You" are delivered with a gorgeous sound and an exquisite focus upon their stories. Other ballads -- "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" -- settle into easygoing, gently swinging grooves.
"Agents of Change" (Blujazz Productions)
Far less known than she should be, Chicago-based Borla is a constant risk taker. Here her program includes Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus" and Bill Evans' "Remembering the Rain," both with lyrics by Borla, as well as Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks." She also sings wordless renderings of Joe Lovano's "Remembering the Rain" and Johnny Carisi's "Israel."
Add to that her spoken rendering of a poem, "Battle Report" by Bob Kaufmann, and Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away," and the menu can hardly be called typical jazz vocal fare. But like Sheila Jordan -- one of her mentors -- Borla eschews the commercial route for a more adventurous journey. That journey reaches from imaginative scat singing to surprisingly soft-toned lyrical passages. No matter what she sings, however, it is done with the craft and the imagination of an inventive vocal artist.
"Heart and Soul: Live in San Francisco" (Mad-Kat)
Margolis, like Borla, is an impressive scat singer -- a discipline that is too rarely done so well. For this latest album, she has set aside the studio manipulations that have characterized her recent albums in favor of a live on-stage recording. Although some of the tunes run a bit past their peak productivity -- not uncommon in live recordings -- Margolis' ebullient enthusiasm invests each of the numbers with high-spirited pleasures. Her choice of material ranges from Mose Allison's quirky "Your Mind Is on Vacation" and the too rarely performed "A Sleepin' Bee" to the lovely "While We're Young" and -- in a touch of whimsy -- Tommy Wolf's sardonic "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco." Margolis handles it all with the intelligent musicality that is her essential stock in trade.
"Presence" (Laughing Horse)
Imagine a singer who can move -- sometimes within a single phrase -- from the sweetness of Norah Jones to the rasp of Janis Joplin and who can do so while maintaining a strong sense of swing and a probing improvisational focus. Even that, however, doesn't quite describe the offbeat Sokolov. Listening to her wide-open performance of a program that includes everything from "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" to "Chain of Fools" makes it precisely clear why she has been, for the past two decades, a vital participant in Manhattan's avant-garde jazz scene. But that's not to say that "Presence" is a difficult listen. To the contrary, it is filled with fascinating moments, with the sheer out-of-the-box energies of an artist who is shifting and shaping her music in search of ever-new perspectives.
"Dancing in the Dark" (Telarc)
One blessing of the Great American Songbook is the endless fruitfulness of its material. Certain performers may seem to own certain songs -- Frank Sinatra and, say, "Fly Me to the Moon" as well as dozens of others -- until someone comes along and offers a completely new interpretation. Not necessarily better, the newly minted versions provide convincing evidence that great songs never die. Which is what Sutton has in mind with this engaging collection of Sinatra-associated songs such as "All the Way" and "Last Night When We Were Young." Working with her longtime trio -- pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker -- she has also included the less often done "I Think of You" (based on a theme from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2) and the atmospheric "Only the Lonely" in versions that preserve the Sinatra associations within the framework of Sutton's own musical viewpoint. (An especially pointed example is a vibrant 7/4 romp through "Fly Me to the Moon.") Orchestral arrangements by Jacob provide additional enhancement, but it is Sutton's mellifluous voice, musicianly phrasing and stirring interaction with her players that spark new life into these familiar songs.