In compiling my “Best Jazz of 2017” list, only two recordings contained a significant amount of singing and, in both cases, the music was not led by the vocalist. Yet I listened to a lot of vocal music in 2017 and great stuff too. The dilemma remains: if you’re singing “All the Things You Are” like Ella, then “jazz” singing isn’t moving forward much. But if you’re not, how is the variance part of the singing in the tradition? A consideration of the state of things in 2017.
Pushing Away from Singing Standards
In some cases of the 2017 releases, great vocalists simply made records that fell outside the boundaries of what we collectively think of as “jazz”. For example, Dee Dee Bridgewater made a very rich album, Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready (Okeh), that is a joy, but it’s really a classic soul album. I hadn’t heard singer Kathy Kosins before (she’s from Detroit, once toured with Was Not Was, and has a series of tasty jazz recordings), and I’m taken with her Uncovered Soul, which captures a certain kind of mid-’70s soul/jazz date (wah guitars, Roy Ayers Ubiquity, come-on lyrics, soul singing). Cool music, but not jazz today.
Similarly, the brilliant Becca Stevens released Regina in 2017 and I listen to it constantly and consider it a scintillating “singer-songwriter” recording that draws from jazz, pop, soul, whatever. But I can’t figure out a way to fit this album into the “jazz” box. I suspect that’s how Stevens wants it to sound. Coming from the other side of things, I found it intriguing that the brilliant folk singer Jennifer Kimball chose to collaborate with the reed player Alex Spiegelman (of the indie-pop band Cuddle Magic), but his saxophones didn’t make Avocet jazz. Hence, it is not on my 2017 list.
(Note: I know that categories and labels are bullshit. I know that they are merely tools that the industry — and critics — use to fit music into little boxes. But they are useful tools for communication and to create some kind of focus. The title of this column has been “Jazz Today” for a decade, and I’d change it except that “Creative Music in the US-but-Really-Now-Worldwide Tradition That Started with US Black and Blues-Based Music and Included Improvisation Usually But Not Always” is way too awkward.)
Then there were vocal recordings that were most certainly “jazz” that I very much liked but didn’t love. The most intriguing, perhaps, was Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) from Cecile McLorin Salvant, the young jazz singer who has been cast as the “best of her generation” by Wynton Marsalis and who won the Monk competition in 2010 as well as a Grammy in 2016. This double-disc release is ambitious and the singing is stunning, but what’s best about it (setting aside some weak original material) are the standards she recorded live at the Village Vanguard, providing a master class in how to update Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan, to be sure. But the notion that she’s doing anything that’s fresh as well as fantastic is always half-off, at least to my ears.
There’s an ever-growing category of recordings that seem to find some “jazz” in new places and in new sounds, not channeling Billie/Ella and also not merely funking up some old standards. Young Kristina Koller just released a debut, Perception, that contains some “straight” versions of standards, some reimagined standards (her “Blame It on My Youth” is recast as a Latin tune with a complex set of shifting rhythms, “Devil May Care” becomes a sly tango with Fender Rhodes atmospherics, but her “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a moody misfire), and a couple modern pop tunes (Blink 182’s “I Miss You”, for example) played as jazz.
Better was a harder to categorize recital from singer Rebecca Martin and pianist/composer Guillermo Klein, The Upstate Project, a set of original tunes by the leaders (or collaborations with Bill Frisell, Larry Grenadier, Ron Sexsmith, and Kurt Rosenwinkel) that have the harmonic daring and sense of exploration of jazz while not “swinging” like jazz used to. Grenadier’s acoustic bass and Jeff Ballard’s drums bring a rhythmic elasticity to the performances that make it breath with a sense of jazz tradition. Similar is Ocean Av, the third album from relative newcomer Emma Frank, to be released in 2018. It features Frank’s quirky-gorgeous songs, arrangements worked out in coordination with jazz pianist Aaron Parks, and percussion from Jim Black (!). Her vocal style has a gauzy directness, but the art woven all around it is undeniably connected to our jazz tradition. It’s a minor masterpiece — an interview with her will be an upcoming feature.
Ariel Pocock’s Unpretentious Sophistication
The jazz vocal record that most captivated me in 2017 came from a young singer who’s most certainly singing and playing jazz but who also captures the way that the tradition needn’t be a trap. Ariel Pocock’s parents were musicians (classical pianists who also worked as orchestra managers), and she heard the famous Mel Torme/George Shearing record when she was eight years old. Growing up in the Seattle area she got lessons, benefitted from strong jazz band directors, and then earned a scholarship to Miami’s esteemed undergraduate jazz program as a pianist but also started singing.
Touchstone (Justin Time) was recorded when she was still a student, featuring four standards, tunes by Monk and Keith Jarrett, one original, and modern songs by Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Kate Bush, and James Taylor. Miami alum and jazz producer Matt Pierson came in as producer. This year brought the more mature Living in Twilight (Justin Time), also produced by Pierson, which presents both a pianist and a singer who has found a “jazz” identity that sounds free of all the jazz cliches. Her singing is untrained, perfectly intoned, but interesting because it is expressive in a manner that uses sparingly the usual tools of SINGING: vibrato, melisma, tricky embellishment, and soul affection.
Here is a “jazz” album where you can hear “Someone Like You” by Adele, subtly reharmonized and grooved by acoustic bass (Adrian Vedady) and Jim Doxas’s drums. Here’s an instrumental version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” that uses a harmony on toy piano in the arrangement, which you realize is perfect and which demonstrates piano chops that dazzle without being show-offy. And here is a solo recording by a jazz musician of the Kate McGarrigle song “Go Leave” that is perfectly capable of breaking your heart.
The “jazz” elements of Living in Twilight are fresh. “The Very Thought of You” is given a few hip figures that make it sound new, but it still swings. Cole Porter’s “So in Love” starts as a traditional ballad but develops a double-time skip, and his “I Love You” picks up a set of tricky stops but otherwise walks like a classic. Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High” is performed more delicately than ever before (including the original). The newer material feels authentic to Pocock’s sound and approach — she adds the “Poinciana” groove to a tune by The Weepies, and Sufjan Stevens’s “To Be Alone with You” blends textures nicely between Rhodes and acoustic piano but otherwise could be a modern instrumental by the Bad Plus or Brad Mehldau.
An Interview with Ariel Pocock
Living in Twilight seemed like an achievement unique enough that I really wanted to talk to Pocock about the genuine puzzle of trying to be an original jazz singer in 2017 — while also being a serious jazz pianist. We spoke this past summer, with Pocock just two years out of college and with her second record on the verge of release.
You seem to have avoided becoming a teenage “jazz star” like some others. In retrospect that seems like the best thing possible.
Historically jazz has had a preoccupation with kid prodigies. All music has. I was lucky to have teachers and mentors who steered me away from just getting the flashiest chops. For example, my teacher in high school asked me if I had thought about singing, accompanying myself. He had me learn a couple of standards — and it was really hard because when you’re used to just playing it’s a whole different skill. He had me check out Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, whose music I hadn’t heard or learned before. That pushed me in a different direction rather than just working to put together a dazzling two-minute YouTube video. We have that culture right now where something you see online spreads like wildfire and some talents get passed over because they don’t fit in a sound bite or they’re not young enough. Maybe if I had just stuck with the piano and tried to become Art Tatum reincarnated I would be more famous right now. But I had teachers who told me I could always get more chops later but that I should learn fundamentals. I’m grateful for that.
I try to have a purpose to my playing. I try to balance my singing and playing because if you are going be a singer and pianist, you are always going to be thought of mainly as a singer. I’m often asked who is playing piano on my records. That’s just the way it is, so I try to be as honest as I can be, musically, with the piano playing. I’m not going to try to be anybody I’m not.
You’ve made two albums, both produced by Matt Pierson and featuring a balance of approaches and styles. How were the processes different?
I got a fairly big advance for first record. A representative from Verve UK got in touch because they wanted to sign a young jazz singer. She came to Miami with a contract — like a pop star contract. They had me fly London to meet producers and signed me to a ten-album contract. Matt Pierson came in, but then the jazz division was shut down, and they weren’t going to make the record. I had already booked a studio and deposited the check! That’s why my first record has famous players on it. I was petrified recording my first record at only 20 years old. But the musicians were sweethearts: patient, nice, and with lots of ideas. I stepped into a scary experience that ended up not being scary. They made us sound like a cohesive band.
On the second record, I was able to use a trio I’d played about 30 shows with over the years when I would go to Montreal. We’ve been on tour together, so I was more emboldened to be super-picky and a taskmaster this year. Matt Pierson stepped back a little bit, this time.
Matt Pierson has worked recently with Becca Stevens and is working now with Camila Meza, both jazz singers and instrumentalists who are bend the tradition. Talk about the dilemma of being a jazz musician — and a woman — who sings. How hard do you have to think about remaining free to be yourself, not a throwback, not whoever the industry wants you to be?
Starting in high school. I really looked up to Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato, who are musicians blurring genre lines. Of course, jazz musicians have always been doing this, using pop songs. But maybe we have a problem now with some of the gatekeepers in the music, including journalists, who always ask whether it’s jazz, whether it’s pop, singer-songwriter. Jazz is improvised, black American music, and we’re lucky to be a part of the tradition. You have to do your homework and know where it came from, but it’s ridiculous if the rule is that, to be a jazz musician, you can only play from this book of 500 standards and modern jazz tunes and if you play a pop tune you’re a crossover sellout.
There’s just way too much emphasis on the question, “What genre is that?” If you play a song that’s true to the tradition, if you improvise, then you are playing jazz. I used to be a lot more hung up on it. On the first record, I did a Randy Newman song — I love that song — and I worried at first whether people would think I was trying to be a pop sellout. But now I’m just trying to play the songs I like and not worry about it too much. I have models. I don’t think Becca Stevens is sitting around worrying, Is this a pop song, or is that jazz? She’s just doing things in her unique, original way. As a performer, I do think it’s good to give people a wide range of music to hear. I don’t want to cater to or pander to an audience, but I think it’s good to offer a variety and I won’t get worked up by the idea that it doesn’t all fit inside a little box. Jazz has never been about that — it’s been about picking and choosing from all over the place. I’ll let listeners decide.
How do you approach songs that aren’t on the jazz list? You aren’t really “jazzing them up”.
That’s true, to some extent. The Adele tune is very simple in the original, and there I did add some stuff that I heard, I even changed the melody a little bit and reharmonized it some.
On the new record you have three vocal standards, plus “500 Miles High”. To my ears they sound fresh. Talk about your approach to these tunes.
I arranged “So in Love” and “The Very Thought of You”, and “I Love You” was arranged by a friend of mine. I think it’s important to have your way of playing standard tunes. Why should someone listen to my version as opposed to the other billion versions? When I work on a tune, I think it through for days and days and see what comes naturally. I try to be pretty organic. But you have to strike a balance, respecting the songs, not trampling them into something they’re not. You can get carried away with odd meters and changing the melody.
You have some strong originals. “Hymn” has an obvious source, and it reminds me of the funky “Barrel Roll” from your first album, which was memorably followed by Keith Jarrett’s “Country”. All of these tunes get a boost from a the kind of gospel-driven piano that Jarrett has loved through his career.
I love those Jarrett albums with Jan Garbarek and also the ECM albums with Garbarek playing with Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden. Those albums are quite driven by folk songs. I love how the players can really go crazy, but then it comes back to this gospelly place. The flow of my song “Hymn” was taken directly from those ECM records, with a simple idea that goes free and comes home again. In playing that tune on tour, we would do it differently each night. I also currently play at a church in Durham, NC where we play spirituals and gospel music. We’re lucky to have a couple of older guys in the band who have roots in Motown and real church music. I started playing with that group about a year ago, and I kinda got my butt kicked. As a jazz musician I thought, Well, I can handle a hymn with two chords in it, but it’s so hip, and there’s so much going on. That has helped influence my playing beyond the jazz box.
Let’s talk about the question of vocal filigree. You are singing with a kind of directness that seems almost out of fashion; you’re not a “soul” stylist but something else. Is this your natural way of singing?
I don’t have a big voice or range. In my talking voice, I sound like a little boy. So, physically I’m limited, and I’m not a trained singer. When I’m learning a new song, I read the lyrics out loud to try to not get too affected. While I do choose to change my voice for different songs, I’m not all that conscious of doing this. I’m just trying to be as direct as I can.
Among the singers I really like — people like Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, the McGarrigles — I tend to gravitate toward emulating the more unaffected ones. In jazz, singers like Billie Holiday and Carmen McCrae have a more direct sound with less vibrato. Naturally, that’s what my voice wants to do — I’m not going to be a Sarah Vaughan, certainly.
You’re now in Durham, North Carolina. Talk about that choice. What keeps you musically busy there? Is it inevitable that you’ll head to New York eventually, or is there another path?
I moved here after school because it’s where my parents now live. I thought I would stay for six months, but then I got a teaching job and found there’s a thriving jazz community here. For example, the singer Kate McGarry and her husband, the guitarist Keith Ganz, are here and they do their part keeping the jazz scene here very healthy for audiences and musicians. They have been very supportive of me. There’s a trumpet player here, Al Strong, who runs a music festival called “Art of the Cool”, which is a bit more commercial but it’s cool. So this year I’ve been working a lot in Durham and Charlotte playing other people’s music, learning. I’ve been almost more busy than I know what to do with.
Right now, I’m thinking about New York or L.A. for next year, but I’m not in a huge rush. It may be a myth that you have to be in one of those places to be successful. I’m sure it opens lots of doors and you meet people, but you can find great players and opportunities almost anywhere.
How do you think about making a living in a music that is on the margin versus deciding to make a bid at music that is commercial? That would seem to be harder today than it used to be.
It’s true; 20 or 30 years ago you could just do it, be a creative musician. But I enjoy teaching, which gives me more flexibility about how many gigs I feel I have to take. Musicians who aren’t happy teaching may feel they have to take every gig — event the Top 40 gigs, for example, that they may not want to play. I’m miserable but at least I’m gigging. I can see myself working at a university at some point, though that’s not at the top of my list.
I grew up watching my parents hustle and be freelancers. They would teach, gig, accompany, so that doesn’t seem too weird to me. They would have five jobs at a time. I have classmates whose parents are doctors or lawyers, so it might seem harder to them. But, if you’re smart and look out for your mental well-being, you can make it.