Friday, August 12, 2005

9 Jazz Vocals Everyone Should Own

A curious process has taken place in the world of Jazz and the Blues. What started life as the music of extreme poverty, blatant discrimination and (in many cases) drug abuse has now ended up as the music listened to by an upmarket, trendy, selective niche group of listeners. If you walk into the Jazz section of any good music shop, the difference is palpable. The browsers are somehow different, older, smarter. In a feeble attempt to redress this imbalance, I am putting forward a highly arbitrary list of my favourite Jazz standards. If you have them already (in which case you are truly civilized) you can forget about the rest of this entry. If you don't, I beseech, implore and beg you to buy, steal or illegally download these songs. In random order, here goes.

Fever - Peggy Lee

This has got to be one of the sexiest and craziest songs ever written. It is also the only song I know of which uses the word "forsooth" in its lyrics. The background use of strings and percussion is unmistakable and distinctive. Peggy Lee doesn't sing- she purrs her way through the song. And (unlike many jazz standards) there's a sense of humour at work. Not to mention literary influences. Romeo and Juliet. Pocahontas. Madonna did a passable rendition but cut out many of the most imaginative lines.

I Get A Kick Out Of You-Frank Sinatra

Nobody sounds like Sinatra. His voice is his signature- one that nobody has ever been able to forge. Picking a favourite Sinatra song is not unlike asking a child to restrict himself to one piece of candy. The choices are unlimited as Sinatra continued recording till the day he died. I Get A Kick Out of You is the choice I was compelled to make from scores of other songs because it showcases the swing in Sinatra's voice to perfection. Cole Porter's lyrics are romantic without being overly mushy. Oh yes. The older versions of this song contain the line " I get no kick from cocaine." Champagne eventually replaced cocaine as the vice of choice.

My Baby Just Cares For Me - Nina Simone

Nina Simone is brilliance on the edge of a carving knife. I saw her in Brussels eons ago where she had arrived to launch her Baltimore album. She was apparently on a cocktail of some very potent drugs and alcohol and was literally carried to the piano by hefty bouncers. Once she got her bearings (which took a little time) she was pure magic. Her voice is deep, low and wicked. My Baby Just Cares For Me was an obscure little song in her amazing repertoire until it featured in an advertisement for Chanel No 5. George Michael did a fun cover version where he slyly replaced Nina's trademark (the Lana Turner smile) with his own (the Ricky Martin Smile).

Sway - Dean Martin

Sway is my current favourite Jazz vocal. It evokes the dance clubs of the 50s with some of the most romantic words ever written. ("Like the lazy ocean hugs the shore/ Dance with me, sway me more.") Dean Martin was not the greatest jazz singer ever, but he manages to marginally redeem himself with this song which has since spawned a host of cover versions. Most recently, it features in the truly dreadful Shall We Dance, featuring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. This is the kind of music which makes me regret not knowing how to tango.

Summertime - Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong

I've cheated a little here by giving two of the greatest Jazz stars ever a single billing. Fitzgerald has a voice which sounds like honey flowing down a smooth surface. Armstrong's trademark croak is diametrically opposed to this. The combination is magic. Summertime is from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and has an amazing sense of irony wrapped into some of the most delicious lyrics ever written in the style of -wait for it- a lullabye. ("Your daddy's rich, your ma is good looking/ Now hush little baby don't you cry.")

Stormy Weather - Lena Horne

Lena Horne was one of the victims of an amazing campaign of discrimination. She was of mixed parentage in an era where even a hint of black was enough to disqualify your music from being heard in white establishments. Stormy Weather is the kind of song you listen to when you're low and you want to wallow in it for some time. It keeps on raining all the time.

Southern Fruit - Billie Holliday

Billie Holliday's life is even sadder than her music. There is, literally, no such thing as a happy Billie song. They range from the mildly sad (Don't Explain) to the downright tragic (I Cried For You). She charts the lowest depths of sadness and at points in my life I have had to stop listening to Billie simply because I feel she wants to drag me down with her. Southern Fruit is a strange song as it is not based on love (or its absence) but instead on the lynchings which took place across the Southern United States, where blacks were fatally assaulted and left hanging on trees. Hence the grisly reference to "fruit" in the title of the song.

The Girl From Ipanema - Stan Getz, Tom Jobim and Astrud Gilberto

Latin jazz has got to be one of the most happy jazz forms around. Even if you don't speak the original Spanish or Portuguese in which most of this genre is sung, the happiness and gaiety is almost infectious. The Girl From Ipanema is slightly different in that it is not in fiesta mode, but has a quiet, sad (but not tragic) melodic quality to it. The lyrics (sung in English) are about unrequited love. The Girl from Ipanema is beautiful, "but when she walks she just passes by. How can I tell her I love her?" Sounds familiar?

My Funny Valentine - Chet Baker

It is only recently that Chet Baker has acquired something of a reputation as a singer. His voice is strangely wispy, almost feminine. This is in stark contrast to the masculine notes which exemplify most male jazz singers. My Funny Valentine has got to be one of the rudest love songs ever written - "Your looks are laughable. Unphotographable". Yet it remains one of the most endearing. On a superficial note, Baker was one of the more photogenic jazz stars (that's his picture above) which may have something to do with the cult status he has acquired.


Blogger livinghigh said...

hahahah... will never forget de time i walk into a delhi music shop and ask for some jazz CDs (bbye gift for then boyfrnd), and de guy hands me Jazzy B - a small town punjabi 'singer'! lol... ROTFL.

1:25 am  
Blogger say what? said...

you know i liked the little jazz music i have heard, nina simone and sinatra.

but i never had access to any other than those.

i will try to find these.

11:01 am  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

LivingHigh: Don't worry. Most people here thing Jazz is a prepaid mobile service. Why give jazz to say bbye ?? :)

2:21 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

tdh: I hope you enjoy it

2:21 pm  
Blogger assiniboine said...

Hmmm...I would have thought these rather vanilla to qualify as jazz vocals, frankly. That sounds rather snotty, I realise, so I hasten to add that in general I'm a bit of a jazz philistine.

But given the definition of the genre for present purposes, may I suggest an eleventh item, namely Bobby Darrin's version of "Mack the Knife" from "Threepenny Opera."

(Or Ella Fitzgerald's, for that matter.)

3:13 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

mac: i was deliberately starting from vanilla! chocolate is a long way off. Mack the Knife is a great song and Darrin's version is definitive (more so than Ella). But then I think this is about the best (if not the only jazz) track he's ever done.

6:04 pm  
Blogger assiniboine said...

Of course if Dean Martin qualifies for the list then one could as a footnote to the Porgy and Bess item make passing reference to his version: "Suppertime, and the liver is greasy..."

7:17 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Dean, by my own admission, qualifies, because I think "Sway" is a great song. Tango anyone ?

3:50 am  
Blogger s said...

i can't believe you watched nina simone perform...

i think i just died of envy.

2:53 pm  
Blogger s said...

oh and i have 6 out of the 9, so i suppose i am moderately civilized.

haven't heard southern fruit (i feel the same way you do about billy holiday...although i love her voice and music, it's extremely depressing). haven't heard of any song by lena horne nor 'The Girl From Ipanema'.

and now that i have gotten over the jealousy of knowing that you watched nina simone perform, i have to admit that i loved the list and hope you do one on non-vocal jazz tunes, next!

3:19 pm  
Anonymous Sin said...

I think that it will be essential for you to give me copies of all the CD mixes that you burn for people before I leave.

11:52 pm  

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