R&B rewards the grandiose: There’s a reason the appellation “diva” gets tossed around so frequently when discussing the style. And while a soulfully ornamented vocal line can wend its way into the gut and plumb the deepest emotions, the vocal acrobatics associated with R&B singing all too often make for a shallow pyrotechnical show. Despite its spiritual intentions, the same can be said for gospel, where many singers seem to labor under the impression that octave leaps and eardrum-piercing shouts are the only way for their words to reach the heavens.
Both styles have, of course, yielded their share of gifted jazz singers who’ve brought valuable lessons from R&B and gospel to bear. But entering the vocal-jazz tradition with either background can mean shedding some bad habits, as vocalists Lizz Wright and Will Downing recently shared.
Downing has straddled the fence between jazz and R&B throughout his entire career, beginning with the house-music version of “A Love Supreme” on his self-titled debut album from 1988. He continues to strike that balance between “art and popularity,” as he defines it, on his latest album, Soul Survivor (Shanachie). He’s learned a thing or two about subtlety over the past three decades, and cautions other singers trying to transition into jazz to hew close to the timeless melodies that have made standards into, well, standards. “R&B vocalists are so busy sometimes trying to show off our vocal acrobatics that we can miss the beauty of the melody,” Downing says. “So sing the melody—at least one time. At least for the first verse. In the second verse you can add a little variety to it, and then by the time you get to the bridge, go ahead and do your thing. But come over to the melody side. That would be my highest priority for R&B singers trying to sing jazz.”
Wright got her start singing in church, and was thrilled to find that she could apply the same heartfelt expression to a broader range of topics through jazz. She hasn’t turned her back on her spiritual side—witness the title of her latest release, Grace (Concord)—but says she’s found an ideal marriage between the emotion of gospel and the rich complexity of jazz. “Jazz involves a different study of the music, the melody and the chord structure,” Wright says. “The beautiful thing is if you walk into it from a gospel or church background, you’re already thinking about the sentiment and the feeling that you want to create with it. There’s a beautiful meeting place, because a lot of times the delivery of a standard can come across as a little institutional; the warmth will be missing, if we’re not careful. So coming from a background where there’s such an emphasis on emotional and lyrical delivery is a great plus.”
The trick is to not get carried away by that emotion. As Downing says, “Less is more. With jazz, you’re not necessarily the focal point of the song. The joy of working with jazz musicians is that one of them might do something that will inspire you, or vice versa. You need to listen more to what the musicians are doing and it will add that element of creativity. There’s a marriage, a dance that goes on.”
While it’s best not to fall back on the power and acrobatics of gospel and soul, it can still be valuable to have those abilities in your pocket. As Wright says, “It’s important to live a nuanced life where subtlety, softness and tenderness are allowed but where power is welcome when you feel it. I think it’s important not to over-identify with any end of the spectrum. It’s very difficult to sing what you don’t live, and sometimes what we hear in people’s voices is just a lot of work. The odd thing is that it’s still a human sound, so it still triggers compassion and interest. But it’s important to respect the power of your full emotional and dynamic range.”
As always, the best path is to learn from the masters. Wright points to legends like Billie Holiday, Betty Carter or Ella Fitzgerald, and to a singer who stands as one of the best examples of tastefully melding R&B and jazz, Nancy Wilson. For male singers, Downing suggests a generational span that includes such artists as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Hartman, Nat “King” Cole and Gregory Porter. “Learn how to listen and don’t be afraid to expand who you’re listening to,” he says. “There’s a little bit of jazz in every genre of music, so look for it. Don’t be afraid to listen and learn.”