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Year of the voice

Norah Jones' success leads to new interest, new releases for jazz vocalists

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Those of us who adore the art of jazz singing should pause for a moment, assume a collective I-am-not-worthy pose, and shout in sanctified unison: "God bless you, Norah Jones."

Since its release last winter, Jones' unassuming smash of a CD, Come Away with Me, has sold 8 million units and counting. Staring out in apparent shock and weighted down by an armload of glistening Grammies, she's been CNN-ed, USA Today-ed and crowned princess of pop, an unlikely star with a jazzy flicker.

I'm not one to argue that Jones is a jazz singer, since it's a tag she rejects. Yet her meringue-light, piano-based arrangements and the singer's push-pull sense of swing come straight out of the jazz tradition. Cue up a heart-aching Billie Holiday dirge next to something by young Jones and the segue is seamless. Nope, Norah ain't the next Lady Day by any stretch. But there's no denying that Jones and jazz simply sound good together.

And don't forget that Come Away with Me is property of Blue Note Records, the most famous jazz imprint on the planet. Amazingly, in the span of a year-and-a-half, Jones' quiet debut has out-sold legendary sides by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and all the other hall-of-famers who've appeared on Blue Note since its first day of business way back in 1939.

Although Blue Note will undoubtedly pump the Jones-generated windfall into the coffers of EMI, the label's corporate mothership, her tremors of success have shaken the world of jazz to its core. Vocal records are en vogue. Blue Note has signed Van Morrison and Al Green, mainstream soul men with crossover potential. Rockers like Rod Stewart and Boz Scaggs, now older and grayer, are cuddling up to standards by George Gershwin and Cole Porter with varying degrees of success. The record racks are rife with jazz-inflected recitals by vocalists of all stripes issued by both major labels and boutiques.

So what's new among jazz singers? Plenty. Here are my top vocal discs for 2003.

Cassandra Wilson
Glamoured
(Blue Note)
The preeminent female jazz vocalist on the scene today, Wilson continues to scrape the soil away from her tangle of Mississippi roots, updating earth-toned blues with modern lyrical touches of her own. Against a backdrop of unplugged exotica (finger-picked guitars, banjos and African percussion), her rich timbre and broad tone dominate the scenery. Unlike many watch-me-now singers, Wilson communicates with feeling, not virtuosity.

But her meandering original tunes don't yet measure up to the carefully chosen covers, which range from Muddy Waters to vintage Dylan. Wilson's unforgettable take on "Lay Lady Lay" cuts everything else on the disc, warmed by hectic hand-drums that perc like cafe Cubano.

Let It Be Jazz:
Connie Evingson Sings the Beatles
(Summit)
A resident of Minneapolis, Evingson is a conventional jazz singer, but her inspired Lennon-McCartney tribute is anything but. The arrangements, ranging from burnished rock-lite to searing samba, bristle with uncommon imagination.

"Blackbird," a favorite of many improvisers lately, zips along courtesy of electric sitar and a fresh Indo-inspired intro. Ms. E then ups the ante, stripping away the tune's familiar harmony and substituting the ethereal modality of Miles Davis' "All Blues." A crow no more, the new "Blackbird" struts like a peacock.

Avoiding the obvious choices--imagine: no "Yesterday"--Evingson revisits 14 numbers from seven different Beatles albums, including divergent takes of "When I'm 64" from Sgt. Pepper's. (Take 1 is a tango; 2 is quasi-Klezmer.) The sessions must have been a ball, because you can literally hear a giggle in the grooves.

How's that for a switch? Jazz that smiles.

Barbara Sfraga
Under the Moon
(A440 Music Group)
A marvelously nuanced outing by the Long Island native who on this record fronts a crack band of Chicago-based all-stars. Reminiscent of vocalist Patricia Barber, another post-modernist, Sfraga half-sings, half-speaks in compact, vibrato-less phrases full of deft dips and hairpin turns. Guitarist John McLean, whose complimentary notes dart and glide, shadows Sfraga like a spy. He's the singer's secret weapon.

The repertoire is mostly old-school--from Duke Ellington to Richard Rodgers--yet everything sounds up-to-the-minute because the approach is fresh. Fave cut: "Under the Moon and Over the Sky," a tropical Angela Bofill workout rescued from oblivion and turned into a tour de force. Sfraga, uninhibited to the max, mimics jungle birds and wild beasts.

Ronald Isley
Here I Am
(Dreamworks)
This ambitious, big-budgeted tome reprises the unforgettable songbook of composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David--and it's absolutely gorgeous. Key to the project's success is Bacharach himself, who produced and penned the expansive arrangements.

Despite the ever-present rush of 101 strings, it's Isley's sentimental crooning that wins the day. Listeners will recognize his trademark yelps and yowls from the Isley Brothers' soul discography, but the cushy context of choirs and cellos is uncharted territory for Ronald. Soaring like a determined kite, Isley's heaven-bound falsetto defies the pull of gravity. And he improvises with abandon, taking Bacharach's memorable melodies to rarefied places they've never been. The ghost of the late Sam Cook is everywhere, a testament to the elegant weave of Isley's velvety R&B.

Move over Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, whose interpretations of the Bacharach-David songbook defy time. If not definitive, Isley's "The Look of Love" comes close.

Abbey Lincoln
It's Me
(Verve)
I always considered Lincoln's rickety voice, worn at the edges and wobbling in and out of tune, an acquired taste. But this lovely record, another strings 'n' things affair, has changed my mind. It's Me is for everyone.

Sandwiched between cool ballad arrangements is rousing gospel, straight-up jazz and subtle lyrical asides. Lincoln, a sly ornithologist, likes to ruminate about her fine, feathered friends. Accordingly, her sandpapered pipes commingle with the flute of Jerome Richardson, which chirps canary-like. There's a flyover by Hoagy Carmicheal and Johnny Mercer's majestic "Skylark," and, later, a conversation with Irving Burgie's metaphorical "Yellow Bird."

"What makes breezes blow?" Lincoln asks earnestly. Then, "What makes rivers flow?" A simple couplet rife with poignancy, and the wizened Lincoln, at age 73, is smart enough to read the lyric sans adornment.EndBlock

Five more:
Kurt Elling--Man in the Air (Blue Note). Part dare-devil, part poet, Elling long ago outgrew the comparisons to fellow beatnik Mark Murphy, his role model. The repertoire is demanding as ever, featuring familiar melodies by instrumentalists like Pat Metheny retooled with the singer's unflinching lyrics. Passionate music by an American original.

Nancy Harrow--Winter Dreams (Artists House). A mixture of cabaret and jazz opera, Dreams is a high-minded song cycle based on the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There's nothing like it in the jazz cannon. Portrayed by Harrow and Grady Tate, who storytell in animated fashion, the famous characters of Gatsby and Daisy emerge, as do Zelda and Fitzgerald himself. Fueled by love, champagne and the bubbling piano of the late Roland Hanna, Harrow's masterwork is a potent cocktail.

Ithamara Koorax--Love Dance (Milestone). Divergent guest spots by Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, guitarist John McLaughlin and bossa nova legend Luis Bonfa insure a certain, ah, eclecticism. And dig: the Brazilian chanteuse scats in four languages.

Dianne Reeves--A Little Moonlight (Blue Note). And candlelight, too. An intimate small group affair delivered by a confident singer with liquid tone, but one also prone to bombast. No pyrotechnics here, though. Just warm standards delivered with tasty reserve.

Luciana Souza--North and South (Sunnyside). Music from North and South America sung by a Brazilian. The result is a rare bossa nova-style record minus guitar. Instead, the piano (Fred Hersch and others) brings the beat and Souza, the soul.

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