KE in London: How important are lyrics in jazz?

Many jazz classics feature vocals, but the London Jazz festival programme reveals a form dominated by instrumentalists
Do singers – or lyrics for that matter – mean much to jazzers? And should they? As a quick scan of the current London Jazz festival’s packed programme reveals, jazz remains a predominantly instrumental music, despite the fact that when it makes its rare incursions into the world of chart hits or mainstream acclaim, it’s usually because a singer has taken it there. After all, you don’t have to be one of the cognoscenti to have heard of Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones or Diana Krall – or their giant predecessors Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan.

In general, however, singers have mostly been peripheral to a music dominated by the sax sounds of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the trumpets of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, or the pianos of Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett. The message seems to be that these artists have said more by those means than words ever could.

It’s not a simple issue, however. The imaginative British saxophonist Iain Ballamy was one of the jazz musicians invited to participate in the Guardian’s Radiohead-cover project, and in discussing the venture afterwards, he rather unexpectedly revealed that when he improvises on a familiar song, he likes to bear the lyrics in mind, and to avoid sax-phrasing that scrambles the meanings, or the way the words would have been sung. Even the members of the edgy free-improv ensemble Trio VD thought about the moods suggested by the lyrics of Radiohead’s Nude as they worked their way through a succession of instrumental interpretations.

The American singer Kurt Elling played the festival on Tuesday, with a programme dedicated to one of John Coltrane’s few excursions with a singer, the 1963 recordings with vocalist Johnny Hartman.

Elling took care to foreground the lyrics of a programme of classics including Lush Life, as well as subjecting them to an improvisational barrage of sax-mimicking scat, whoops, growls, gibbers and all the other jazz-vocal gymnastics that the more commercially popular Cullum, Krall or Jones avoid, sensing that their less jazz-committed public doesn’t want to go that far.

The crowd erupted for Elling’s virtuoso improv flights, and applauded more politely for his straighter renditions of some heart-on-sleeve songs that are increasingly showing their age. Crooning doesn’t really suit Elling, despite his lustrous baritone voice and startling range. His gestures look forced, and the emoting he adds to some already tearstained lyric-sheets gets cloying. He seems to sense this himself, often leading him to then assault the sentimentality of the song with abstract improv, as if applying the antidote.

Elling is really an instrumental singer, in a band of very classy instrumentalists, that on this occasion also included the former Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock saxist Bennie Maupin. Maybe his performance simply added weight to the theory that in the often enigmatic and evasive world of jazz, the less said the better.