Bland new world:Watered-down jazz singers are being promoted as the real thing

They’re young, glamorous, beautiful, talented, evocatively dressed, sumptuously photographed — and, oh, so boring to hear.
Packaged to appeal more to the eye than to the ear, the new jazz singers — or at least the vocalists being marketed as such — have sold millions of records and, therefore, have redefined the art form for listeners around the planet.

There’s one nagging problem, however, with the stunning ascent of the new vocal stars who draw on jazz-swing traditions: On purely artistic (rather than commercial) terms, they’re dwarfed not only by the jazz masters who preceded them but by lesser-known contemporaries, many of whom are hustling to pay the rent.

Though the murmuring Norah Jones rules as the biggest selling vocalist on Blue Note, the most prestigious label in jazz, her diminutive voice and limited technique pale alongside the work of her less-hyped label-mates, such as the vocally plush Dianne Reeves and the steeped-in-blues Cassandra Wilson.

Though generic singer-pianist Diana Krall is about to ride a wave of publicity for the forthcoming release “The Girl in the Other Room” (which she co-wrote with her pop-star husband, Elvis Costello), her jazz chops have proved rudimentary compared with, say, the formidable singer-pianist Patricia Barber.

Among the men, too, the gulf between the photogenic, easy-listening artists and their hard-core jazz brethren is gaping, at least as far as artistic achievement is concerned. Uncounted fortunes have been spent promoting such bathed-in-nostalgia singers as Peter Cincotti, John Pizzarelli and Steve Tyrell, but does any informed listener really consider them in the same league with the brilliant, oft-explosive — but decidedly less commercial — Kurt Elling?

Stack up the pretty boys, and girls, against fierce and fearless individualists such as Elling, Barber, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lizz Wright and Philip Manuel, among others, and it’s clear that the 21st century has ushered in a bland new world of watered-down jazz singing, a pseudo-chic Muzak for a new millennium.

“I think we’re very oriented toward image, toward a certain kind of ‘look’ these days,” says Michael Friedman, whose Chicago-based Premonition Records released several of Barber’s breakthrough albums, including “Cafe Blue” and “Modern Cool.”

“There’s not much attention paid to a Kurt Elling or a Patricia Barber or people who are doing interesting things in the vocal area — people who are trying new ideas.

“It’s driven, instead, by image. Peter Cincotti is a handsome dude. Jane Monheit is a beautiful young singer.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with talented young musicians playing a conservative, easily digested music for a large, record-buying public that is embracing the musical equivalent of comfort food. Though it’s debatable whether most consumers actually listened to Jones’ blockbuster Blue Note debut “Come Away With Me” or simply played it as background music, there was no questioning the quality of its production values or the back-to-basics appeal of a quiet little voice singing over a straightforward instrumental backdrop.

For jazz devotees and musicians, however, the rub comes when artists such as Jones, Krall, Cincotti and the rest are marketed by jazz and pop labels as the real thing, the new stars of swing-based music.

“I’ve been trying to figure this out, and I think what has happened is that the record companies have found a way to finally control what is called jazz,” says Bridgewater, a Grammy- and Tony-winning jazz singer.

“The record companies had this idea of taking a Diana Krall and putting lots of money behind her and selling her in the way that they do pop artists — putting her out there and having her visible, a huge marketing scheme, and people bought into it.”

It’s worth noting, however, that it wasn’t record company promotion alone that fueled the ascent of the easy-listening singers, for writers and critics have done more than their share.

When Monheit emerged, in 2000, writer David Hajdu, author of the critically acclaimed Billy Strayhorn biography “Lush Life,” wrote in the New York Times that she “sings like a black jazz master of the past, specifically Ella Fitzgerald.” A few years earlier, critic Stephen Holden in the same publication said Krall “suggests the young Peggy Lee,” a comparison he continued to invoke.

The vocalist who even approaches the technical virtuosity of Fitzgerald or the cunning stylistic economy of Lee has yet to emerge, but the gushing encomiums helped generate media buzz, publicity and sales.