The Joan Baez of Jazz


Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, whatever. Elvis, Motown, Beatles, whatever. P-Funk, old-school, Jay-Z, whatever. The story in three chapters of our last hundred years. Full of holes but onto something, if only the aesthetic whereabouts of the baby boomers. Jazz: pre. Rock/soul: boomer. Hip-hop: post.

Instrumental music can escape this narrative, but singers sing songs that have words that tie them down. Old songs represent old times, and old jazz lyrics signify a past. Only last-surviving-vital-pre-rock-jazz-singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln can ignore it. Della Reese embraces the limits as classicist discipline. Andy Bey exploits musical history to meditate on aging. Oddball snobs like Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber play the tradition for elitism. Cassandra Wilson steers clear of the canon as a trap.

But what if you tip the story upside down and treat it as an opportunity to extend your reach? Many toyed with this idea, but no popster got it until 1991, when Natalie Cole’s simplistic, effective Unforgettable breached the pop/jazz rock/soul gap.

And then along came Diana Krall, whose stroke of genius, besides being beautiful, was to see the jazz past as a completed canon that she could adapt within the current subdivided pop context. Some may dismiss her as a less hip Anita O’Day, but that actually makes her more hip, because it addresses what’s really going on: that the canon is the past, but can be used by a younger artist to display competence and define persona. Compare Joan Baez, who established herself as a great beauty in complete control of source material that she infused with created identity. Krall’s “You’re Looking at Me” equals Baez’s “Silver Dagger.”

Krall’s packaging, including her grooming and her conceptually unified albums, announced that she was more than a jazz musician. She was also a pop product: the confident young woman, the skilled professional and glamour girl. And as the Krall juggernaut rolled on, another young jazz singer, Karrin Allyson, began her own assault on the charts.

At this point Allyson’s been certified by liner notes from Frank Conroy, Neil Tesser, Rex Reed, Terry Teachout, and Nat Hentoff. What sets her off, though, is not her ability to pass jazz inspection, but to do so while communicating what in the context of an older art form is an interesting emotion: innocence. Allyson sounds like she couldn’t be happier swinging a standard, and has just run into it. She also sounds like she knows the canon, but is ready to apply her gifts to whatever comes along.

Her first five albums applied those gifts with abandon. But with 1999’s From Paris to Rio, her public image started coming into focus: smart, adventurous, sexy, and not afraid of feelings. The next album sealed the deal: Ballads, the pop songs Coltrane covered on his original Ballads plus “Naima” and two others. Nowhere is her method clearer than on her most fantastic cover of a cover: “Too Young to Go Steady.”

You know that she knows that you know this is John Coltrane covering pop, in the early, pre-Beatles ’60s. And you know that she knows that Coltrane found the emotional core in something corny, rather than reinventing it with hip irony. We all know that neither Coltrane nor Allyson is too young to go steady. Only Coltrane didn’t have to deal with the words. If Allyson’s going to sing it, she’s coming up against those lyrics. But a too obviously hip reading wouldn’t really be hip, because it would falsely suggest we need more distance from the place where this song was sung by Nat Cole, Connie Stevens, Tommy Sands, and Perry Como. We’ve got plenty of distance from that; by now, we’ve got plenty of distance from Coltrane—too much. So Allyson closes the gap and sings it straight. Which is not really straight because she knows you know she’s decided to sing it the way Coltrane played it. And that’s the hip path to innocence.

There’s a political problem in all of this, and Allyson addresses it in her next album, Blue. Revitalizing the past can become a conservative or in this case neoconservative endeavor. Real conservatives don’t like any music after Bach, but pretend they like country. Neoconservatives, however, think things were pretty good until the middle of the ’60s, so they like jazz but not rock or hip-hop. Here we’ve got this nice jazz student from Omaha in New York refurbishing the ’50s. For white people. That could get dull in a scary Leo Straussian kind of secret message way. So Allyson highlights a (Mose) Allisonian subtext, recording a centerpiece of her live shows, his “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”: “calling for peace on earth/just as soon as we win this war.”

This is key, because it displays her ability to apply her aesthetic to the Current World Out There. And that suggests an inevitable pull toward applying the Allyson approach to the corpus of post-jazz pop. Which in turn brings us to Allyson’s new Wild for You, Diana Krall’s marriage to Elvis Costello, and why Cassandra Wilson might need to work with James Blood Ulmer.

Krall’s career-summing Live in Paris ends with a Joni Mitchell and a Billy Joel. Allison’s new album revisits the adolescent songs that made her want to sing by the likes of Mitchell, James Taylor, Elton John, and Carly Simon. So does the Great American Songbook now lie depleted? Can Rod Stewart extract more platinum from it? Can jazz singing extend past the standards?

Allyson’s Wild for You and Krall’s new The Girl in the Other Room, largely co-written with Costello, don’t answer the question with a clear yes or no. They both work about half the time, on slower stuff; the stabs at swinging newer tunes are too often clumsy. Allyson’s high point is Melissa Manchester’s “I Got Eyes,” which has a nice lilt, but nothing jumps. Wilson’s 2003 Glamoured also leaves the question in the air, once again suggesting desire to build a wider audience thwarted by a delivery too complex for full accessibility.

And yet. Norah Jones is widely perceived as a singer of jazz standards even though there’s just one on each of her albums. And Jones’s first CD was easy for her audience to “get,” even if the tastemakers thought they got it wrong. Similarly, Krall and Allyson have untied a knot with jazz and made themselves easier to comprehend, while Wilson always seems tied too tight—if only she could tie one on like Ulmer on No Escape From the Blues. Maybe jazz singing is mutating toward a kind of folk take on pop, an innocence that accepts tradition extending beyond the aging rock hegemony into the past and then into the future. Where the Monkees sit down with Muddy Waters, and all the Elvises meet with all the Nat King Coles, and Miles Davis hears Hank Williams, and Melissa Manchester waits inside the heart of bebop.

Or maybe not. Maybe this is just a last gasp and sentimental sigh before jazz singing becomes a permanently esoteric art form, or a kind of aural costume dragged out like the sequined jumpsuits of Elvis imitators, donned by junior Frank Sinatras and Harry Connick Jr.’s as they parade outside of history.