Looking for Better Than That

Figuring Out Who’s in Tune as the Smoke Clears

Early Tuesday, September 11, conniving for a lead to begin this column, I fancied myself Diogenes in search of an honest singer, squinting through the light of my lamp and defeated by darkness time and again. A meager joke, but at 8:30 a.m., having listened to dozens of new recordings by women vocalists (saving the men for later), jokes were still easy to come by. Those who began the day with the Timeswere treated to a side-splitter, as the paper of record inexplicably devoted an arts lead to the book plugging of two unrepentant Weathermen bombers who said, from their prosperous academic perches, that they would do it again. The punch line was yet to come, of course. I suddenly recalled a promise to an editor friend to write 300 words about Harry Belafonte's The Long Road to Freedom, so I turned to do that—the easy stuff. Then I discovered a voice-mail message from my assistant, Elora, who said she would be late because, apparently, a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and subways were stalled. I had finished Belafonte and returned to Diogenes when a thumping on the door revealed my wife, Deborah, aghast and breathless, having just been evacuated from her office in the Empire State Building. Had I heard? Yeah, some kind of accident. The Pentagon was also hit, she said, and I, still in Diogenetic mode, said, "That's not necessarily a bad thing." Then we turned on the TV, and the jokes went out of me like bad food. Hours later, when I listlessly tried to return to the job, I felt ludicrous solemnizing over whether this singer was in pitch or that chart suitable. If I had chosen something to rave about, like the Belafonte, maybe I could have continued, certain in my faith that art conquers all. But the task of equivocating, of giving these women a hard time, seemed if not, to use a favorite word of talking heads, heinous (long a or long e, take your pick), certainly inappropriate. Never had I felt so utterly feckless as a writer.

If warfare waged by monsters who count life worthless could make my job insupportable on Tuesday, why should it seem less so on Wednesday or Thursday? Because—I reasoned, reduced to clichés—art is a balm, a reason for living, a hallowed calling, a religion that, unlike others, kills no one; at its best it wounds pride and shocks complacency, but it always leaves body parts intact. The only value of politicians is to keep political trouble at bay so that we can safely savor family, friends, and art—that's my mantra; at the risk of sounding Dorian Gray ("Was it not Gautier who used to write about la consolation des arts?"), I believe it. Critical attacks that get personal are unwarranted, but rooting out meretriciousness is always necessary. By late Wednesday I could begin again, buoyed by little incidents of the day. Crossing 14th Street on my way to the Voice, I had been stopped by a state trooper who was manning a barricade. He asked for ID and destination, and explained that as he wasn't from New York I would have to tell him where 36 Cooper Square is. When I did, he said, "Have a good one," which you don't expect at Checkpoint Charlie. At the editorial meeting I was moved by how moved everybody else was; journalistic cynicism was in smithereens, and Diogenes off sunning himself. Later I stood 10 minutes in line at Astor Place to buy a Times, just missing the last one. When I pointed to the copy where the vendor was sorting his change, he handed it to me, refusing my money! Since he had refused no one else's, I took this for an omen: Give Diana Krall a break. Or some such, oracles being so oracular.

Most of the problems with these singers—that they begin well but cannot sustain the length of a CD, that they repeat the same songs, that they are poorly served by arrangers looking for a moneyed sound—are secondary to an issue echoed by events on TV: an insufficient attention to the meaning of lyrics. Following his AWOL afternoon, the president proved why the job should require respect for the English language. Pundits parroted FDR from 60 years ago, but all one could recall of Bush two minutes later was his nervous clasping of hands and an overwrought metaphor about steel girders and steel resolve that will live only in infamy. Similarly, Krall, who was so imaginative and even lively in her recent concert appearances and on last year's When I Look in Your Eyes, has knuckled to flat mannerisms on The Look of Love(Verve), an intermittently pleasing lite-jazz set orchestrated by veteran menace Claus Ogerman, who, lacking the honest schmaltz of a Gordon Jenkins, resorts instead to drawn-out endings and showy classical lifts. Deprived of her cheery trio, Krall is reduced to decorative piano solos ("Love Letters"), João Gilberto and Julie London imitations, half-spoken phrases, and practiced groans. She is better than this, better than lite, better than Ogerman, better than the booklet's cheesecake.

Jeanie Bryson's first album in six years, Deja Blue(Koch), on the other hand, is not to be missed. But it is hardly the unalloyed delight it ought to be. Bryson and arranger Ted Brancato have revived the indefensible Fender Rhodes, which is going around like flu; combined with vibes and guitar it insinuates an arid 1970s sound at odds with Bryson's gift for economical heat. Still, it boasts a masterpiece, "Am I Blue," a slow and steady composite of vulnerability, mockery, and assurance in an elegant arrangement that begins with Christian McBride bowing "Con Alma." Ethel Waters's version has had no peers for three-quarters of a century, but it does now. Having paid homage to Peggy Lee on the memorable Some Cats Know, Bryson shows how deeply she has absorbed Lee's lessons of directness and thrift. Here and on other tracks, including two solid vehicles by her mother, Connie Bryson, "Deja Blue" and "Do You Sometimes Think of Us" (a third, "Sadness," is trite and doesn't sit well with her voice), her lightly smoky contralto gives each tale its due. She gives the players room—Steve Nelson has a pointed vibes solo on the title cut—and effortlessly holds her own in a duet with Etta Jones. But beginning with Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man," she is distracted and the listener deadened by Fender-bent charts that may evoke nostalgia for her, but mean root canal to me. She is better than that. "Am I Blue" is legions better than that.

Etta Jones also pops up on Vanessa Rubin's Girl Talk(Telarc), which peaks early with a confidently swung "Comes Love" and—notwithstanding Jones shaking it up on "But Not for Me"; hearty solos by Cedar Walton, Javon Jackson, Larry Willis, and others; and a battle-of-the-sexes concept—succumbs to good manners, supper club conventions, and intransigent songs. Cannonball Adderley could make something of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," but not even he could have salvaged "Loving You"—singers are better than that. The other Etta, however, knows no restraints in her conceptually similar CD, Blue Gardenia. Etta James, whose influence on young white women singers may have finally displaced that of Aretha, has sung jazz standards since the beginning, but has usually shied away from jazz settings—maybe because Dinah Washington once cleared a nightclub table of glasses and chased her off the stage for singing "Unforgettable." Her voice is heavier now, at times strained, but her phlegmatic phrasing and imperious melisma give the familiar material (including Dinah homages "This Bitter Earth" and "Blue Gardenia") a backbeat tang that is nothing if not genuine—no forced metaphors or compromises.

For honesty without melisma and with an evenly dispatched beat, the new release by the FDR of lyrics readers, my pal Rosemary Clooney, is exemplary. Backed by a vigorous neoswing big band, Matt Catingup's Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Back, her Sentimental Journey(Concord) might be distributed as a textbook in meaning what you sing. Much of the charm redounds to her equipment, which has sacrificed range and purity but not personality or distinction. Yet the voice alone cannot explain why when she sings "I'll Be Around," you feel comforted; or why when she intones a line like "I got my bag, got my reservation," you think bags and reservations; or how she manages to invest "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" with unmistakable pride; or, best of all, following a canny 1950s block-chord piano solo, how she uncovers a world of irony in "You Go to My Head." Clooney made many compromised records in her heyday. What a shame if Bryson, Krall, and others wait as long to assert their own best instincts. Listening to her, an honest singer, the weight of the day begins to lift.

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