Four Masters of Vocal Art Play the Bay

a new generation of singers creates excitement at venues across the region

Jazz Spy
July 14, 2013
Four Masters of Vocal ART Create a new level of excellence
By Ken Vermes
Recently four very talented vocalists appeared in the Bay Area, almost simultaneously. Each is part of a new generation of singers who share one quality. They are perusing a level of performance that has a sense of deep intelligence. This characteristic is not just “smarts”, but in an artistic sense, it is a very high level of artistic seriousness. They express an attitude that vocal performance deserves a new place in the musical hierarchy. Because in their eyes, they are creating music that is no longer just a singer with the band. It is that of a musical leader, standing up right along with the musicians on the stage. None of them have achieved a national reputation yet, but that may soon change. Each singer is a master of vocal performance, a brilliant show producer, a band leader, and a member of a new wave of song interpreters that is changing the landscape of singing, and creating a new level of excellence and art.
When I interviewed Cecile McLorin Savant, I was immediately impressed by her seriousness. And coming from a twenty four year old, it was very impressive. It is also impressive that before a sold out SFJAZZ audience she led a group of dazzling jazz players through their paces as if she had been doing it for twenty-five years. Of the four singers, Cecile is working most directly in the classic jazz repertoire. But she is clearly not settling into singing standards. Take, for example, her re-working of the song. “John Henry”. This folk tune is usually not done by jazz singers. And Cecile turned it into both a powerful statement about Afro-American life, and a mini-tragedy about men, who historically, were worked to death, at times. Cecile did not have to explain the song. And it worked because it stood by itself, a statement of tragedy, injustice, and the horrible truth about human suffering that everyone could understand. Cecile went on to sing songs from almost the entire history of show businesses, jazz composition and the history of singing. Her show was a dazzling and brilliant tour de force. And like each of the other singers in this list, she proved that she was crafting a complete show experience delivered with tremendous power and craft.
In an almost an entirely different realm is the remarkable art of Martha Redbone. Martha, who appeared at the Freight and Salvage performance hall in Berkeley, comes from a world that is far from that of Cecile or any of the other singers discussed here. Framed by heritage that includes both American Indian and African American roots, Martha is channeling everything from Woody Gutherie, hill country blue grass, old time folk songs, and unbelievably, the poetry of William Blake. What puts her in the center of this list is the same artistic intelligence and power that Cecile demonstrates. Just like Cecile, the audience was completely riveted and filled with the most extraordinary concentration and joy. And whether she was singing the most gorgeously re-worked version of a William Blake lyric, or re-creating the beautiful and haunting Indian piece, Witchi Tai To, her very carefully interpreted style was not only original, but stunningly crafted interpretive singing at its highest level.
And again, from an entirely different direction is the music of Nicole Henry, appearing at the recently opened Feinstein Supper Club at the Hotel Nikko. Miss Henry specializes in interpreting standards, in this case a number of them from the 1970’s pop repertoire. But she does this in such a powerful and emotive way, that listeners are brought to new heights of response. Whether it is the song, “They Put Up a Parking Lot,” or the Bill Wither’s tune, “You use me Up,” Nicole digs in to the very heart of a tune, romancing the audience with her magical musicianship and joyful control of every aspect of the delivery. She also managed to lead a band made up with local musicians, led by Frank Martin on piano, that was able to match Henry’s spectacular technique and drive. It wasn’t too long ago when singers like this would be staples on television late night programs. Those days may be gone, yet one cannot help but marvel how this performer is able to concentrate such intense power and grace into her work, and at the same time deliver a profound message of joy and optimism. No one can experience this on television now, and even owning a CD gives you very little of the sheer bliss this performer can give her listeners. But in a small, intimate night club, listeners could feel every note.
Gregory Porter appeared at the Filloli gardens. The gardens are part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and probably one of the most beautiful concert venues in the US. Gregory performs entirely original material. And just like each of these musicians, he demonstrates an incredible power and art in every song. Backed by a terrific band with the wailing sax of Yosuke Sato, Porter has the ability to capture an audience from the first notes. And he is difficult to categorize, as his repertoire moves smoothly between jazz, rhythm and blues, and a very personal writing style that is nothing less than haunting and full of emotive power. Porter’s compositional style is very personal. In a song like “Be Good, the lion’s song”, he tells an an allegorical tale about love and maleness, in a lilting waltz that dances around what must be about painful memories of romance and loss.
These performers leave one with a new optimism about the direction of music in our time. The emergence of performers on this level is a beacon of what may be to come. They each are completely unique but linked by a remarkable genius. It has been a long time since there was this much excitement created by vocal art. Each one has developed a individualized, powerful persona that they present with the highest level of musicality. And how they individually, and as a group, develop their art, will be fascinating, and thrilling to see.

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Ken V