June 15, 2006

Brave Women

Every day, it seems, the mail brings new discs for me to review for SoundStage!, and I’m surprised how often they seem to follow a trend (good thing some of my coworkers like screaming metal bands). Lately, I’ve noticed that the pile of music in my living room awaiting my attention contains a number of titles by young women who are jazz singers. It takes a lot of courage to toss your hat in that ring. The number of women jazz singers who sell music in any quantity is so small that only a love of the art form could draw these brave souls into following such a risky career path.

Even well-established singers don’t always get the attention they deserve. One of my favorites, Holly Cole, is smart, sexy, and has a good ear for choosing standards and newer material, both of which she interprets with understated elegance. Her last two discs weren’t even picked up by a US label (they’re available on Amazon.com and from her own website, www.hollycole.com). Her last three discs show a little more pop influence than the preceding four, but they’re still filled with intelligent, enjoyable music. On no account should you miss Temptation (1995), her collection of tunes by Tom Waits.

If a singer like Holly Cole can’t catch people’s ears, at least in the US, what chances do other singers have? Natasha Miller, following the example of pop musicians who have had success marketing their own music through the Web, established Poignant Records in 2001, soon after she had left a lucrative job in advertising to pursue music full time. Although Miller was trained as a classical violinist, in 1995 she began writing and singing her own pop songs, accompanying herself on guitar and piano. She recorded a disc of her songs, Her Life, in 2002, and later that year released Talk to Me Nice, a collection of jazz standards.

In 2003, songwriter Bobby Sharp, then 78, heard Miller being interviewed on a Bay Area jazz radio station. Sharp had written songs for Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughan, and Ray Charles, who had a big hit in 1961 with Sharp’s "Unchain My Heart." Drug abuse forced Sharp to drop out of the music business and turn his life around. But he had a huge cache of songs he’d written over the years, and when he heard Natasha Miller, he knew he’d found someone to sing them. He called her, sent her some lead sheets and cassettes of his songs, and the result was I Had a Feelin’, a collection of 11 of Sharp’s tunes, many never previously recorded.

Miller’s new disc, Don’t Move, contains 11 more Sharp tunes, and it’s a gem. Miller’s gift to Sharp is to invest his songs with honest emotion. She’s a subtle singer and she loves melody, letting her technique call attention to the beauty of the song but never overwhelming it. Sharp’s gifts to Miller are sublime melodies matched to lyrics that are clear and uncommonly free of clichés. Most of his songs would be standards now if, 30 or more years ago, someone had brought them to Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Miller has chosen a group of swinging, sympathetic musicians, especially Josh Nelson, whose understated arrangements show the same taste and respect for Sharp’s tunes that Miller’s singing does.

Poignant has also just released a disc of Sharp singing his own songs, The Fantasy Sessions, produced by Miller. Sharp accompanies himself on piano, and many of the musicians from Don’t Move give him the same subtle support they give Miller. Sharp sounds half his age -- music has rejuvenated him. Both discs are very well recorded, by the way. You can buy them at www.natashamillerweb.com, www.poignantrecords.com, and at Amazon.

Lisa B. (Lisa Bernstein), also based in the Bay Area, has released three discs on her own Piece of Pie Records. What’s New Pussycat?, her newest, takes as its theme cats and their mysterious, independent behavior, but the result is sultry and witty and not at all precious. Some songs are overt in their references to their subject (the title track and the singer’s own "Slay Me (My Young Cat)"), some less so ("You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To"), but she sings all of them in a sensual, throaty voice. Lisa B. is also a poet who has published two collections of her work, and here she weaves spoken-word portions into some of the selections. Her own songs are fun and sexy, and she brings a fresh voice to well-known songs. At first, I was reluctant to take What’s New Pussycat? seriously because of its playfulness and overt sexuality. I’ve found that I play it all the time, and like it more with each listen.

Great musicians make What’s New Pussycat? come alive and help Lisa B. keep the atmosphere fun and swinging. Ben Flint’s keyboards on the first two tracks help set the tone, and Frank Martin’s clever piano playing on the rest of the disc complements Lisa B.’s singing perfectly (check out the electric piano in "Cha Cha de la Gata (Kitty-Cat Cha)"). The recording is vibrant and detailed. What’s New Pussycat? is fun, impressively played and sung, and, yes, very sexy. You’ll find it, along with Lisa B.’s other discs, on Amazon and on her own website, www.lisabmusic.com.

Seattle’s Kelley Johnson plays with rhythm in a way great singers such as Anita O’Day and June Christy did, and that makes her newest disc, Music is the Magic, a delight and a surprise. While Johnson is absolutely assured as a singer, with a clear, warm tone and flawless technique, she constantly goes off in unexpected directions. She begins "Tea for Two" at a medium tempo, then kicks it up to a quick clip without ever losing her footing. She makes other well-known songs, such as "Old Devil Moon," sound new. She has an intuitive understanding of how to phrase them, but she’s brave enough to veer off in her own direction and present standards in a natural way that most young singers lack. As on the other two discs mentioned here, the musicians are topnotch, with special kudos going to pianist Geoffrey Keezer and trumpeter Brian Lynch. Available at www.kelleyjohnson.com.

I’ll bet there are many more women singing jazz across the country who have made recordings as enjoyable as these three, but they’re competing with established singers and new major-label discoveries in a market that doesn’t ship platinum. These three deserve your support. You should also check your local newspaper to see who’s singing at some of the clubs near you. Someone’s there who could use a few more devoted listeners.

…Joseph Taylor


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