Three jazz singers go outside of the Great American Songbook — with entrancing results.
By Michael Ullman
Here are three entrancing recent discs: wonderfully recorded and performed, sung by justly celebrated jazz vocalists who this time around want to do more than pay allegiance to what used to be called the Great American Songbook. Their intent is to pay tribute to wider traditions: pop, gospel, Motown, soul, and blues. Dee Dee Bridgewater sings the Temptations, Cécile McLorin Salvant revives Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” and Lizz Wright opens Grace with the unique gospel song “Barley” before taking on “What Would I Do Without You” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
Bridgewater is the veteran of the trio: I first heard her live with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater’s big band in what must have been the early ’70s. Intelligent, daring, and tasteful, she deserves all the accolades she has received since. She’s respectful of traditions: she has recorded sessions dedicated to Billie Holiday, to Ella Fitzgerald, and (a little more surprisingly), Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver. Yet on Memphis: Yes … I’m Ready she goes back to music she heard on WDIA, a Memphis-based radio station where her dad had been a DJ alongside of B.B. King. She may be singing songs such as Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1964 hit Givin’ Up, but she approaches all the material on the disc seriously. In her album notes, Bridgewater explains: “What you hear on this album is the result of my investigation into my past..My questions have been answered. My life circle has been closed.” The songs rounding out her memories include the Staple Singers’ ingratiating protest song “Why, Am I Treated So Bad.” (Many readers will remember Cannonball Adderley’s version.) She sings St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s usually mournful “Goin’ Down Slow,” which Oden said he wrote after he had observed a sick young woman. Ironically, Bridgewater’s version is surprisingly upbeat. She sounds positively sassy when she sings “I’ve had my fun….if I don’t get well no more.” She can be brassy as well, and sardonic in ways that play with the rhythm: “Write my mother” she sings, and then, in a stolid stomping descent, one beat per syllable, hammers out “tell her the shape I’m in.” B.B. King’s The Thrill is Gone is an inevitable choice, but not so two other songs, Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, popularized by that other king of Memphis music. If there’s a (relative) failure here, it is Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness — I keep hearing Redding. Bridgewater redeems herself on the disc’s final tune: Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel hymn Precious Lord.
Grammy-nominated Cécile McLorin Salvant makes impressive use of a comparatively girlish voice, lithe, flexible, and often intimate. Yet she can also sound brassy and melodramatic when she wants. Her two disc set, Dreams and Daggers, was (mostly) recorded live. It includes a quietly intense “My Man’s Gone Now,” played over the sparest of accompaniments. In the bridge she builds up to a bitter crescendo, issuing a snarl of protest that brings in a nuanced touch of melancholy. She’s a brilliant vocal comedian, as she proves on “Sam Jones Blues,” which is a song about infidelity that has nothing to do with the bassist Sam Jones. Salvant resurrects Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues….” Listen to the appreciative comments and chuckles from the listeners. Someone (I hope it is her mother) advises her to take care. Still drawing from era of the twenties, she sings Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Give me Some.” Most remarkably, she brings back (in French) Josephine Baker’s “Si J’étais blanche (If I were white).” At first, the singer feels marginalized because of her color: she admires the blonde figures in store windows, appreciates the whiteness of Mont Blanc. Yet she finally asserts herself. In my (awkward) translation: “In the sun it’s by externals that one gilds oneself/ It’s the flame of my heart that colors me.” Good for Josephine Baker and for Salvant, whose mastery of her live audience is joyously palpable.
Lizz Wright is either a jazz singer who sings gospel or a gospel singer who sings jazz. She was born in Georgia, and went to a church where her father was the minister and led the choir. Grace starts with the thump of a bass drum and a shuffling rhythm on what sounds to me like a gourd. “Barley” is a defiant song: “The fire that takes the kindling,” she sings, and then pauses, coming somehow off the beat, “will not take me.” Her rich voice suggests that she is holding back some of its power. The intensity of this song dramatizes just one of her many moods. I’ve rarely heard a more sensuous version of “Stars Fall on Alabama” than the pensive version supplied here. “Southern Skies” moves sweetly, while “Singing in My Soul” rocks. On another record, Wright sang, “Just like the salt that’s in the stew/ One thing that life can’t do/ It can’t take your song from you.” Here are three singers with handfuls of salt, going back to serve up some superb songs, many of them unexpected — all their fresh tuneful stews beautifully prepared.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.