Kurt Elling on Recent Vocal-Jazz Innovation

My goal here is to respond in writing to some of the highest quality recent recordings of singing artists—vocalists whose work grows out of the jazz tradition and is, at the same time, boundary-stretching, original, emotionally resonant and a pleasure to listen to. This is by no means a comprehensive list: If you don't see the name of your favorite innovator, please consider the cause a lack of space and not a lack of interest or respect on my part.
Becca Stevens Band

Weightless (Sunnyside, 2011)

Stevens is one of the current crop of highly educated young musicians. The writing and arranging on this recording show a level of contrapuntal accomplishment that could only have come from a long engagement with theory. Stevens' lyrics seem similarly constructed, and are well tailored to her dense melodies. The combination creates a mathematical thicket that could make a listener tense up from concentration, if it weren't presented with such a relaxed and graceful vocal technique. Stevens is a preternaturally precise vocalist, and ultimately it is her natural and abundant youthful energy as a singer that makes the success of such complicated arrangements possible. Moreover, her lyrics flower in substance with vivid images and knowing messages. Stevens is effortlessly charming in her stage demeanor and lights up like a firefly in performance. She is a treasure.

“It Never Entered My Mind”
JD Walter

Live in Portugal, Vol 1 (JWal, 2009)

JD Walter is a wizard of both electronically and naturally produced special vocal effects. It seems to me that Walter is doing the kind of work Bobby McFerrin might be doing now, had he been interested in individually produced, electronically enhanced vocal harmony rather than acoustic choral collaborations.

I have an “archival” recording of Walter doing this arrangement in a live setting—effects and all—as he opened a concert that included a long line of accomplished New York-based singers. On listening, I find myself envying none of them in the task of following the JD Walter juggernaut. Oh, and he is equally burning in an acoustic setting.

“Sunny Sunday”
Theo Bleckmann/Ben Monder

At Night (Songlines, 2007)

Speaking of vocal effects, I must also recommend Theo Bleckmann—a soundscape artist, new-music proponent, sonic inventor, visual (collage) artist, internationalist, fashion statement and all-around aesthete. Bleckmann's search for new frontiers is fused with his commitment to quality, craftsmanship and a precise technique; there are no raggedy corners here. I especially admire the work Bleckmann does as a duo partner with the equally searching guitarist Ben Monder. I like to listen through headphones while jogging on tour. The recordings transfigure every landscape into something right out of a David Lynch film.

Bobby McFerrin & Chick Corea

Play (Blue Note, 1992)

Twenty years on, this recording still represents state-of-the-art improvisation for a singer. To my knowledge, McFerrin’s level of vocal-musical mastery is simply unparalleled.

Fauré: “Soir,” Op. 83/2
Renée Fleming/Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Night Songs (Decca, 2001)

For my money, the voice of Renée Fleming is one of the singular glories of our age. To demonstrate, I could point you to the recordings Ms. Fleming has made with bona fide jazz musicians (Fred Hersch, Brad Meldhau, Bill Frisell). But I believe that the most gleaming manifestation I can suggest exists on this duet session of art songs with the French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Here, Fleming engages her radiant sound in the service of small romantic masterpieces in ways that are implausibly gorgeous. Quality like this is more than merely boundary-stretching. It is timeless.

“Stages I, II, III”
Sidsel Endresen

Exile (ECM, 1994)

Everything there is to love about a European singer working with ECM is on this track. The craftsmanship is impeccable on every level: There's the self-possessed artistry of the singer; music and lyrics that are at once hyper-literate and as simple and elegant as a perfect cube; images that mean everything and nothing at the same time; open-ended motives that nevertheless stand in balanced composition; and that sound. Everything here sings of civilization—of refinement of the mind in its most sophisticated and delicate expression.

From this recording of almost 20 years ago, Sidsel Endresen has continued to push the envelope. Her most recent recording, Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012) is a collection of compositions based on mouth sounds, vocal stuttering, clicks, grunts and general glossolalia that required remarkable technical self-discipline to perform.

“We Kiss in a Shadow”
Kate McGarry

Girl Talk (Palmetto, 2012)

Kate McGarry's unique musical gift is her ability to broadcast emotional transparency with undeniable and artless force. The singer one hears in McGarry's work is gracious and endearing; she is vulnerable yet unbroken; she is always rapturous. With her musical and life collaborator, the guitarist Keith Ganz, McGarry has been forging a signature approach to standards and new compositions that is immediately fresh and very personal. Here she makes the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic into a plea for civil rights for same-sex couples. It is just like McGarry to aim her work at the increase of enlightenment and love in the world.

“Real Good Hands”
Gregory Porter

Be Good (Motéma, 2012)

Here is the first thing to like about Gregory Porter: He is a very good singer with his own rich and full sound. Here is the second: It seems like he's writing. A lot. He wrote seven of the 11 songs on his first disc (Water, 2010) and 10 of the 12 songs on his second. The writing is not yet up to the level of Oscar Brown Jr. or Bob Dorough or even Mose Allison, but whose is among the younger men on the scene—myself included? The cat needs some room to grow. With a bit of luck and a healthy dose of discipline and ambition, Porter could come to fill an important and currently unoccupied place in the contemporary jazz constellation. I hope he does.

“Rainy Day People”
Lori Cullen

That Certain Chartreuse (Lori Cullen, 2011)

Here’s a singer you should have heard by now. She’s already known among cognoscenti in her native Canada for her ability to reinvent pop songs in unexpected ways. (In addition to the Gordon Lightfoot composition suggested above, do yourself a favor and check out Cullen’s version of the Bee Gees’ “Emotion” on the same record. Very clever, indeed.) Cullen also has great taste when it comes to new pieces, writing some herself and relying on her Canadian bandmates for others. The pronouns and verb tenses seem to get a little confused sometimes, but I think I hear a charming Québécois accent coming through which may explain the deviations. The overall effect is so light and charming, however, that it’s easy to overlook these slight miscues. I can’t wait to hear more of this lovely singer.

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Since debuting in 1995 with the Blue Note album Close Your Eyes, Kurt Elling has been one of jazz's most acclaimed singers. His most recent effort is 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project (Concord Jazz). Visit him online at kurtelling.com.