Shrinkucci's Ramblings

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I was born at a very young age and...bud um boom...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What Makes a Jazz Singer?

Trying to define what makes a jazz singer is similar to trying to define pornography; we know when we hear or see instances of each but we have great difficulty explaining why we know. Recently, a friend of mine said that he thought that Tony Bennett sang with honesty and told a good story but was not a jazz singer. I agreed with him but I was not sure why. Our conversation prompted me to try and figure out what the criteria might be to determine which singers deserve the jazz singer label.

Here is my list of those qualities that the perfect jazz singer would possess. I believe that the first four are essential qualities and the remaining four, while very important, are not.

Required Qualities
1. Story telling ability / taste / honesty / emotional range
2. Improvisational skills / ears / interaction skills
3. Good time / relaxed swing / hip phrasing
4. Unique style

Important but not required additional qualities
5. A good sound
6. Technique / range / can scat
7. Good intonation
8. Ability to relate to an audience

My underlying assumption is that a jazz singer should possess the same essential qualities demonstrated by jazz instrumentalists. When Johnny Hodges played a ballad he played tastefully and honestly and the result is that he told a believable story. He understood that showing off one’s technique is not in good taste and that to do so is to sacrifice honesty. He was not only a fine improviser; he also had impeccable technique and wonderful time. His lovely sound, flawless intonation and great chops were all bonuses.

One way to assess the usefulness of the above list of qualities is to use it as a guide while analyzing a few singers with whom we are familiar. Even though some of the artists I refer to are no longer with us, I will refer to them in the present tense since we can still listen to their recordings.

Billie Holiday
Billie has the required four qualities but is, at times, short on sound, technique, range and intonation. Naturally, one can argue: “If technique is the ability to execute the things one wants to express, then Billie has technique.” I agree that she can execute but I must point out that her voice is at times undependable and shaky and as a result her range, and intonation suffers. She is an example of a jazz singer who possesses the four essential qualities but does not have full and consistent access to the other four. However, her style is so unique and her ability to create a mood and tell a story is so rich and powerful, we are more than willing to accept her shortcomings.

Sarah Vaughan
Sarah, perhaps the most talented of all jazz singers, has all eight of the listed qualities. If she has a weakness, it is that she sometimes lets her prodigious technique get in the way of her story telling. She cannot resist, at times, doing a huge, exaggerated bottom note or a big swoop in a spot where it negatively alters the story mood. We marvel at her virtuosity but we cannot help notice that the story suffers a bit.

I have the same reaction to Sarah that I do to Art Tatum. Each has the ability to add scintillating filigree to a solos; but such filigree, while very impressive, detracts from the mood of the performance. I feel a bit on edge listening to Tatum because he so often squeezes in one of his magical runs just when I am getting caught up in the mood generated by the lovely changes and passionate melody playing.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella, like Sarah, has all eight of the qualities. She also had a highly personal, almost girl-next-store voice quality that makes you like her without knowing her. Like Sarah, she could do it all—improvise, scat, swing like mad, sing in tune and tell a story. The difference between Ella and Sarah is tied more to Sarah’s harmonic knowledge. Because she is an accomplished pianist and has very educated ears, I think she is a freer and more creative improviser. However, I think Ella makes a stronger connection with the audience because she is more emotionally vulnerable.

Dianne Reeves
Ms. Reeves meets all the criteria for a jazz singer. She tells an authentic story, has fantastic time (e.g., check out her comfort in 7/4 on her “Best OF” CD), can improvise and has a unique style. She is, I believe, the most talented of the current jazz singers.


Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett has two of the essential four qualities. He tells a wonderful and authentic story and has a unique sound. I do not think, though, that he meets the criteria for jazz singing because he cannot improvise and he has, at best, average ability to swing. I think it is easy to confuse his ability to swing with his trio’s. He uses great pianists (e.g., John Bunch and Ralph Sharon) and they do an excellent job of giving the impression that he swings. Like Billie Holiday, his ability to create a mood and tell a story is so powerful that we tend to give him slack in other areas. He is, I believe, a jazz-oriented singer, not a jazz singer in the fullest sense of the term.

Billy Eckstine
I though it would be fun to contrast Tony Bennett with Billy Eckstine. Based on the above criteria, Eckstine, like Bennett, is not a jazz singer. He does not swing very hard and is not much of an improviser. He is essentially a jazz oriented crooner. He has a great sound, good technique and range and a wonderful stage presence but because of his need to emphasize his fat and unique sound he tells a so-so story. Yes, he is the legendary “B,” is very hip, dresses beautifully, had a famous bebop jazz band and hangs with jazz musicians; but these things do not qualify him as a jazz singer. He is, like Tony Bennett, a jazz oriented singer.

Kurt Elling
Though I have a couple of his CDs and admire his talent, I do not listen to Elling very much. I am put off by his sound and his uncertain intonation. However, based on the above criteria, he certainly qualifies for the label of jazz singer. He has a unique sound, can tell a story, can swing and is a skilled and creative improviser. I include him in this analysis because he is an example of a singer who meets the essential criteria but because of his sound, will probably never become widely popular. I have played his CDs for friends and few have liked him. Like me, they have admired his ability but not his sound.

Summary

I do not believe it is possible to definitively list those qualities which determine who is or who is not a jazz singer. The above criteria are simply my attempt to analyze and answer a very difficult question. Hopefully, I have written a piece that will generate some interesting discussion. There are probably as many definitions of jazz singing as there are listeners and I welcome hearing from anyone who has thoughts on the subject. I am taking the liberty of including a short list of those singers whom I believe meet the above criteria. The list is far from complete and I have no doubt that I have left folks off who belong on the list.

One obvious drawback to my criteria list is that I ended up leaving some famous blues singers off the list (e.g., Bessie Smith) because the recorded samples I have of their music indicate that they could not improvise. I think that this points out how limiting such a list can be. A friend suggested that perhaps I should make the cutoff for inclusion three out of four of the essential criteria. It is an interesting thought. Psychiatrists routinely assign a diagnostic label to patients who exhibit three out of four symptoms listed in the DSM IV Diagnostic Manual. Why can't jazz fans do the same?

Singers who I believe meet the jazz criteria listed above
Louis Armstrong, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Anita O’Day, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Abby Lincoln, Bobby McFerrin, Carmen McRae, Cassandra Wilson, Jimmy Rushing, Lou Rawls, Jackie and Roy Kral, Ray Charles.




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Friday, August 11, 2006

Colonoscopies, passing wind and competition

About six months ago I had a colonoscopy. The doctor, in order to puff the colon up so that he could more freely root around with his camera-headed snake, filled it with air. The result of this inflation was that when he had completed his sight seeing I was left with a lot of the air still in my colon. Of course, before they discharge you from the post-colostomy waiting area the nurses want you to pass the air. That is, they tell you that you need to fart. Apparently, by farting, you show them that all is well and then you can be safely discharged.

The nurses in the room knock out the social taboo against farting by applauding and cheering all farts by all patients. Further, they give longer and more enthusiastic cheers and applause to those who fart long and loud. Naturally, the applause brought out the competitive spirit in me and I pushed and strained, trying for the loudest, longest and "best fart" of anyone in the room. When I received strong applause for ripping off a number of thunderous and fortunately non‑smelly farts (the empty colon doesn't produce odor) I was very proud. (Be clear—when I talk about applause, I literally mean the entire staff and all the patients’ relatives are yelling : "Yaayyyyyyy" and clapping long and loud).
If I might toot my own horn a bit, none of my competitors' farts were as impressively in tune, demonstrated as much diaphragm support or had as big a tuba-like bottom. Like my dad used to say: "If you're going to do something, do it as well as you can."

This re‑defining of farting as a socially approved behavior was accepted by my wife and, of course, being the supportive and loving spouse that she is, she stayed with me in the waiting room and enthusiastically applauded me for my musical efforts. I must admit that I wondered if her enthusiasm was as real as it appeared; but I was greatly reassured that same night. At 3 AM I woke myself up with a very long and loud fart; probably the last of the forced-air pockets. She woke up, gave a little giggle, sang a sweet little cheerleader's "Yaaaay..." and then drifted back off to sleep. With a smile on my face, I too drifted back off to sleep secure in the knowledge that I still "had it" and that she knew it.

We are indeed funny and odd creatures. I must admit that now, in light of this victory, I am actually looking forward to having my kidneys checked.