Can it be that little more than a decade ago, jazz singing was widely written off as a dead art? No one had come along to take the stages abandoned by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae, though Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln had survived the wilderness years to reassert their own claims as supreme individualists in an uncrowded field. They in turn influenced many young singers, which was a great relief from that strange period in the ’70s when all black woman singers tried to sound like Aretha and all white woman singers tried to sound like Annie Ross—a trite landscape of unholy melisma and runaway hipsterism. Yet the most gifted singer of the boomer generation, who might have changed all that, Dee Dee Bridgewater, relocated to Paris after a fleeting try at disco and was rarely heard; while the most promising singer of the next generation, Cassandra Wilson, was mired in M-Base science fiction and seemed to consider it a matter of artistic integrity not to connect with her audience.
The subsequent return of Shirley Horn, who’d been away longer than Lincoln and Carter combined, testified to a hunger for words as well as music. Soon we were engulfed in singers, mostly indifferent, but often promising or damned promising. If the ’50s influences predominated, they had been absorbed and transfigured, mitigated by the discovery that rock and its tributaries have been flowing for nearly half a century. Now people are actually arguing about singers again—their affect, hair, and cheesecake as well as repertory, pitch, and style. (I’m focusing on the women, because the men mostly disappoint and I don’t get Kurt Elling.) Say what you will of Diana Krall, but she is about to open at Radio City Music Hall, reminding us that jazz has long depended on singers to popularize it. Abbey Lincoln continues to reign as queen bee, as a forthcoming triptych of concerts at Lincoln Center attests, but center stage is now dominated by Bridgewater and Wilson, who, at long last, have planted themselves squarely at the crossroads. They are matchless performers who sound like nobody else even when paying homage—pantheon singers at a time when many had assumed the pantheon was closed for good.
Significantly, the latter three have played major roles in solving the dilemma usually blamed for the demise of jazz singing: a dearth of new material and a wearing out of the old. No one writes the kinds of songs that fueled the great singers of the pre-rock era, and contemporary pop doesn’t lend itself to balladic or swinging treatments. So Lincoln and Wilson have written their own songs, and Wilson and Bridgewater have additionally added to the repertoire—the former by drawing on blues, rock, and country, the latter by looking to jazz itself and reinvigorating golden-age standards. Last week, both were in town—Wilson at the Blue Note and Bridgewater at Iridium—and hearing them back-to-back suggested the cornucopia of old New York, when a maze of high-priced saloons competed with Sarah, Billie, Peggy, Ella, June, Dinah, Anita, Chris, Della, Lee, Kay, Nancy, and the rest. I mean to say that these two beautiful, exquisitely authoritative women, who could not be more different had they hailed from Jackson and Memphis, which in fact they do, made the skyline glow like Fat City.
Wilson previewed her CD Belly of the Sun (Blue Note, due in March), which was mostly recorded in Mississippi with various guests. At the Blue Note, she had the band heard on most of its tracks—two guitarists, two percussionists, a bassist—and from the first notes of “The Weight,” she radiated pleasure and faith, mining her cello range, enunciating the words, her voice mixed way in front of the ensemble, the better to crest its steady and untroubled waves. But then, at some point, perhaps when “Waters of March” suddenly switched, with nary a second for applause, to “Wichita Lineman,” the set morphed into something like an open rehearsal or party, possibly a reflection of first-night jitters, or of an insouciance bordering on the impulsive.
Navigating from Caetano Veloso (“Little Lion,” recorded for but cut from the album) to original songs (“Cooter Brown,” “Show Me a Love”) to James Taylor (“Only a Dream in Rio”), she stamped them all with her smoked timbre and unfeigned embellishments. Yet the sameness of the ensemble arrangements—despite an incredible array of guitar-family instruments, including mandolin, dobro, and banjo, played by Kevin Breit, and a small forest of percussion instruments played by Cyro Baptista—undermined the drama. At times, one pined for a genuine soloist to spell or interact with her. “Corcovado,” however, which will be on the Japanese edition of the album only, picked up the tempo; and her voice and phrasing were glistening on a medley encore of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” (from Blue Light ‘Til Dawn) and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” (slated for but cut from Belly of the Sun), accompanied by guitarist Marvin Sewell for the kind of slow-drag recitation she has made her calling card, rocking way back on her heels and coasting on the resolute backbeat.
The forthcoming album is a contender for best-to-date, assimilating diverse material with disarming ease. The dour “Wichita Lineman” is perhaps the ultimate representation here of the axiom “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” She slows it down to a mid-afternoon glide, puts the lyric in the third person, and unfolds the story as if were blues. For “Darkness on the Delta,” a 1930s standard popularized by Mildred Bailey and later adopted by New Orleans revivalists and Thelonious Monk, she is backed solely by pianist Boogaloo Ames; a choir of children accompany her on “Waters of March”; India.Arie shares the vocal on her original, “Just Another Parade”; an old friend of Wilson’s, Rhonda Richmond, wrote and plays piano on “Road So Clear,” with Olu Dara on trumpet. She gives a particularly shrewd reading to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” and closes with the most upbeat and unlikely of Johnson’s delta visions, “Hot Tamales.” Indeed, not unlike “Love and Theft,“ Belly of the Sun suggests a compendium of American music, specifically that of someone who came of age in the early ’70s, and wasn’t afraid to turn the knob on her radio. Yet almost every piece is made to reflect the singer’s Mississippi roots. It should be a big hit.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is something else again: a consummate entertainer of the old school—funny, ribald, unpredictable, frequently outrageous. No other jazz singer has ever played so exhaustively with her sexuality. Someday one of the ringside patrons she fondles and bats her eyes at is going to keel over dead. And yet she is also one of the hardest-swinging musicians alive, almost relentless in her energy. Accompanied by a trio led by her longtime pianist and organist, Thierry Eliez, she walked out onto the Iridium stage singing the vamp to “All Blues,” and was soon scatting through at least three octaves of her glistening voice, aggressive and gritty, a demonstration of full-frontal id, holding nothing back, her body advancing from body English to dance to near-calisthenics. It was the kind of number the old pros put at the end of a set, because what could follow it? For Bridgewater, it was just an hors d’oeuvre.
If Wilson is laid-back and cool in the belly of the Mississippi sun, Bridgewater, who was born in Memphis but raised in Michigan, is almost always scorching. Having paid wicked homage to Horace Silver and canny respects to Ella Fitzgerald on previous albums (though a better place to start is Live at Yoshi’s), she will devote her next album to Kurt Weill (typical Dee Dee one-liner: “It’s coming . . . and so am I”), and most of her set served as a preview: “September Song,” “Speak Low,” “My Ship,” “This Is New.” She drew on her powerful vibrato to accent the beat in the slow-motion verses, then opened up on the choruses—rising to the top of her range with improvisational crescents that recalled the Dinah Washington who matched high notes with a trinity of trumpet players on Dinah Jams. “We’re a little timid with these songs,” she said, “because we just rehearsed them.” Actually, she was exhausting, and the superbly modulated “My Ship”—a ballad qua ballad—was a gratefully received respite.
Silver’s “Cookin’ at the Continental,” a Bridgewater specialty that didn’t make her Love and Peace album, was more characteristic, taken way up, spotted by a healthy organ solo, but never more vigorous than in the singer’s emphatic drive. Happily, a fan asked her for “Come Sunday,” and, cradled by Ira Coleman’s arco bass, she perched herself on a stool and burnished every note, every syllable; I’ve never heard a more stark and persuasive version, and can’t imagine why she doesn’t settle down more often. From Ellington’s God of love, she snapped into familiar territory (“let’s talk about sex, baby”) with what has become a signature closer that she really would be hard-pressed to follow. Her near literal interpretation of “Love for Sale” is an extended fantasia with autoerotic gestures, dancing, and audience-caressing, and it had half the audience shimmying in its seats. When the lights went up on her 75-minute set, she was still scatting one last chorus. Call it a defiant gesture to prove that jazz singing is still diverse, and still in flower.