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Artist’s Choice: Kurt Elling on Recent Vocal-Jazz Innovation

"Boundary-stretching, original, emotionally resonant and pleasurable" singers

Kate McGarry
Bobby McFerrin
Becca Stevens with the Bjorkestra
Renée Fleming
Theo Bleckmann
Kurt Elling in performance at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa.

My goal here is to respond in writing to some of the highest-quality recent recordings of singing artists-vocalists whose work grows out of the jazz tradition and is, at the same time, boundary-stretching, original, emotionally resonant and a pleasure to listen to. This is by no means a comprehensive list: If you don’t see the name of your favorite innovator, please consider the cause a lack of space and not a lack of interest or respect on my part.


Becca Stevens Band
Weightless (Sunnyside, 2011)

Stevens is one of the current crop of highly educated young musicians. The writing and arranging on this recording show a level of contrapuntal accomplishment that could only have come from a long engagement with theory. Stevens’ lyrics seem similarly constructed, and are well tailored to her dense melodies. The combination creates a mathematical thicket that could make a listener tense up from concentration, if it weren’t presented with such a relaxed and graceful vocal technique. Stevens is a preternaturally precise vocalist, and ultimately it is her natural and abundant youthful energy as a singer that makes the success of such complicated arrangements possible. Moreover, her lyrics flower in substance with vivid images and knowing messages. Stevens is effortlessly charming in her stage demeanor and lights up like a firefly in performance. She is a treasure.

“It Never Entered My Mind”

JD Walter
Live in Portugal, Vol. 1 (JWal, 2009)

JD Walter is a wizard of both electronically and naturally produced special vocal effects. It seems to me that Walter is doing the kind of work Bobby McFerrin might be doing now, had he been interested in individually produced, electronically enhanced vocal harmony rather than acoustic choral collaborations.

I have an “archival” recording of Walter doing this arrangement in a live setting-effects and all-as he opened a concert that included a long line of accomplished New York-based singers. On listening, I find myself envying none of them in the task of following the JD Walter juggernaut. Oh, and he is equally burning in an acoustic setting.

“Sunny Sunday”

Theo Bleckmann/Ben Monder
At Night (Songlines, 2007)

Speaking of vocal effects, I must also recommend Theo Bleckmann-a soundscape artist, new-music proponent, sonic inventor, visual (collage) artist, internationalist, fashion statement and all-around aesthete. Bleckmann’s search for new frontiers is fused with his commitment to quality, craftsmanship and a precise technique; there are no raggedy corners here. I especially admire the work Bleckmann does as a duo partner with the equally searching guitarist Ben Monder. I like to listen through headphones while jogging on tour. The recordings transfigure every landscape into something right out of a David Lynch film.


Bobby McFerrin & Chick Corea
Play (Blue Note, 1992)

Twenty years on, this recording still represents state-of-the-art improvisation for a singer. To my knowledge, McFerrin’s level of vocal-musical mastery is simply unparalleled.

Fauré: “Soir,” Op. 83/2

Renée Fleming/Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Night Songs (Decca, 2001)

For my money, the voice of Renée Fleming is one of the singular glories of our age. To demonstrate, I could point you to the recordings Ms. Fleming has made with bona fide jazz musicians (Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, Bill Frisell). But I believe that the most gleaming manifestation I can suggest exists on this duet session of art songs with the French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Here, Fleming engages her radiant sound in the service of small romantic masterpieces in ways that are implausibly gorgeous. Quality like this is more than merely boundary-stretching. It is timeless.

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