The first thing I do when I listen to an unfamiliar singer is determine whether or not the voice seduces me. This is exclusively subjective and truly does not reflect upon the talent itself. Some voices are acquired tastes and require an aesthetic maturation in order to grasp the scope of artistry.
I begin the probe by asking these questions: Is the voice warm? Is the intonation uniquely and interestingly beautiful? Is it elastic, relaxed and easy on the ear? Is there clarity of diction? Is the voice authentic and honest?
In peeling the various layers off the vocal veneer, I begin to search underneath this patina for the emotional content and intent. Is the lyrical landscape fleshed out and fulfilled by the artistic mind behind the tone? Am I being informed, and surprised, into a deeper, more personal connection with the subtext of the story.
Paramount to this inquiry is to ascertain evidence of a musical intelligence. If it exists, does it shine upward from the core, emanating throughout the song’s arc, creating a suitable and fitting aural aura?
Is it a musical intelligence of the first order? This question breaks out like the tines of a fork into parallel questions: Is the selection of songs well chosen, well-suited and solid compositions to refract through the lens of the singer’s personality? Are the arrangements cluttered or do they put into sharper relief the overall intentions of the authors and the singer? Is there a balance of all instrumentation or is there a conspicuously competitive rivalry? Are the singer and musicians acting as “clearinghouses for nature” (a phrase a vocal coach once drove into a session like a vintage car) to allow the syngergy of the final blend to clearly manifest a singularity or is it merely a vanity project? Did this musical intelligence conspire and orchestrate all these vital and seemingly disparate elements into a true communication of the artistic intention between the singer and the listener?
I find so often in today’s manufactured climate of sound, self-indulgent hipsters who are simply caricatures possessing mere generic voices; who have scaled heights no greater than a bonsai tree, and who inhabit a world of smoke and mirrors – in what Virgil Whitney (Julius Monk’s friend, in Whitney Balliet’s New York Voices) called the “venal, narcissistic world of show business”. True artists value integrity, honesty, daring boldness and technical mastery over formulaic patterns. These creative souls have highly developed musicianship and a natural and unforced musicality that enchants rather than imposes.
It is the difference between eroticism and pornography. This distinction has to do with a true understanding of imagination. Eroticism selectively reveals and pornography deciphers the entire message. Alfred Hitchcock (a master of film suspense) knew he could not compete with the imagination, but he realized – or brilliantly discovered and intuited – that one needs to feed the imagination only a few key ingredients to actively engage it. The imagination superseded any mechanical invention he could have devised to create the suspense he desired. In art, the same is true, the artist need only intelligently and selectively allude to the essence of the thing itself; e.g., the Picasso one line drawings. Less is always more! And so to with the voice, especially the ballads; a great singer punctuates space by inserting parenthetical fragments of phrases against this “background canvas of silence”, with just the right tension, counterpointing and moving through the musical time, to suggest the intended pathos.
This blog will focus on reviewing CD recordings of vocal jazz artists, both old and new, that I think are outstanding based on these criteria.
Remain forever young and bring a youngster to a live vocal jazz set and then go meet the artists!
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