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The Gig: What Is Jazz Singing, Anyway?

Nate Chinen muses on the current state of jazz vocals

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Theo Bleckmann

The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, held the first week of October in Washington, D.C., introduced the world to at least one promising new talent: Cécile McLorin Salvant, a 21-year-old Floridian who has spent the last several years honing her craft in Aix-en-Provence, France. As winner of the competition, the most prestigious of its kind, Salvant won a $20,000 scholarship and the potentially more valuable prize of a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. We’ll be hearing more from her.

Meanwhile, the competition and its attendant coverage invites a conversation about what really constitutes “jazz vocals” today. It’s a timely question, in light of the new book by Will Friedwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon), reviewed in this issue. At a time when jazz itself slips past so many stylistic checkpoints, what distinguishes jazz singing from the other vocal arts? What are the criteria, and what do they reward? What, for that matter, do they exclude?

The Monk Competition, as always, did its best to establish a quantitative system. Among the guidelines for evaluation were such genre-blind fundamentals as pitch, intonation and tone, as well as stage presence and dynamics. Still, given a judges’ panel as jazz-literate and pop-savvy as this one-it included Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves-there were endless subtleties and subjectivities also in play. Were the competitors judged on swing? On the ease and ingenuity of their scatting? On the hipness of their repertoire? We don’t know, but I’d guess so. And, by that token, there was no mistaking the bona fides of Salvant, whose performance at the semifinals I’ve studied carefully, albeit after the fact. (Footage is available at

She opened by confidently scatting through a version of “Bernie’s Tune,” and then went on to tackle songs by Monk (“Monk’s Mood”) and Bessie Smith (“Take It Right Back”). Some of this was standard protocol: During the semis, everyone had to sing an uptempo piece, a ballad and a Monk tune. At one point Salvant went in for extra credit, juicing her “Bernie’s Tune” scat choruses with a quotation of Monk’s “Nutty.” Her projection was strong, either swoopingly Vaughan-like (as in Sarah) or stoutly Lincoln-esque (as in Abbey). She sounded prepossessingly aware of her lineage, and, whatever else you might say about her, she sounded clearly, unmistakably like a jazz singer.

But then so does Gretchen Parlato, who won the Monk Competition the last time it focused its high beam on vocalists, in 2004. Parlato, whom I hope you’ve heard-In a Dream (ObliqSound), her sophomore album, was one of last year’s standout vocal releases-sings in a sleek cadence, silvery but sure, and with the cosmopolitan gleam of our era. Her style inhabits the same plane as, say, bassist-turned-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, with whom she has memorably recorded. It’s an improviser’s style, sinuous and agile. Yet if you were to impose the strictest definition of jazz singing, one dependent on songbook extraction and rhythmic swing, it might not fit the bill.

What is jazz singing, anyway? Friedwald got into that rhetorical bramble some 20 years ago, in a previous book of his, Jazz Singing. (Originally published by Scribner’s, it was later reprinted on Da Capo.) “Definitions confuse as much as they illuminate,” were his very first words, in a preface that goes on to ponder the generally accepted parameters of jazz singing and the inexact nature of determining them. Despite the elegant drift of his argument, readers are left to shrug their shoulders and forge ahead. Jazz singing is apparently like hardcore pornography, insofar as you know it when you see it (and there’s occasionally an unseemly bit of grunting).

And as we’ve seen so many times, it’s easier to meet the outward requirements than it is to fulfill the inner ones. Rod Stewart just released Fly Me to the Moon … The Great American Songbook Volume V, on J Records. Volume V! All these standards later and he’s still no closer to being a jazz singer. I would argue that a similar artificiality suffuses the output of Nikki Yanofsky, the teenaged jazz-vocal phenom, whose fealty to Ella Fitzgerald skirts the edge of impersonation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, there’s a world of feeling in the output of the R&B singers Beyoncé and Bilal, or the indie-rock singer-songwriters Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear). Those artists were all jazz-trained, to one degree or another, and the training has fed their art. I’m thinking of a line from Friedwald’s preface: “There are many completely jazzless singers who have more to say to jazz as a whole than most jazz singers, such as Mabel Mercer and Edith Piaf.” (Friedwald, rarely on point when it comes to present-day pop, knows his mid-century warblers cold.)

All of which leads me to José James, a lithe and charismatic vocalist, and the subject of a cautionary tale. James, who competed against Parlato in the Monk semifinals six years ago, has made his career with a seductive strain of post-millennial soul, most winningly last year, on an album called Blackmagic (Brownswood). It wasn’t jazz; it wasn’t trying to be. Then, this year, he released For All We Know (Verve), with the Belgian pianist Jef Neve. Hailed in some quarters as a valentine to Johnny Hartman-esque balladry, the album is at best a tepid bath, not half as vital as James’ main line of work. It is obviously a jazz album, though; that much can be said, weakly, in its favor.

By contrast, consider the brilliant new album by Theo Bleckmann, a willowy fixture in the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. I Dwell in Possibility (Winter & Winter) is a solo-voice recital, with Bleckmann accompanying himself on an array of instruments, from autoharp to zither. The closest it comes to jazz orthodoxy is a debonair version of “Comes Love,” with upbeats creaked on an Indonesian frog buzzer. Yet I can’t help but imagine someone like Bleckmann (is there anyone else like Bleckmann?) onstage at the Monk Competition, bewitching and befuddling the audience. Possibility-now there’s one thing jazz singing shouldn’t do without.

Originally Published