What defines the essence of a jazz singer anyway? Is it the voice of Billie Holiday, sandpapered by time, a human cry dressed up in a song? Or is it the growl of Louis Armstrong, alias Satchmo, with a cornet in one hand and a hankie in the other to soak up the music? Or perhaps Sinatra, sporting a cool straw hat cocked back to reveal, well, just how damned hip one cat can be.
An emphatic "yes" to all of the above. But that was the jazz singer of yesterday. In the 21st century, the line that separates who is from who ain't has blurred.
Today, a jazz singer can be confoundingly multi-culti. Take Arto Lindsay, for instance, a New Yorker who borrows Brazilian pop stylings, then deftly funks 'em up. Last Sunday at Go! Studios in Carrboro, Lindsay knitted together English and Portuguese lyrics with the strings of lilting bossa nova guitar.
Lindsay's not the only one who's swinging. The air is thick, in fact, with irresistible voices. Have you heard the whirring beatnik poetry of Kurt Elling, the Chicago-based shaman of scat? Or Cassandra Wilson, a Mississippian by birth, who bolsters the country blues with citified sophistication? Or Canadian Diana Krall, a stylish time-traveler rejuvenating yellowed old texts by the Brothers Gershwin. With subtle phrasing, she makes George and Ira sound brand-new.
In my book, all these new voices qualify as bona fide jazz singers. Jugglers of rhythm. Coy rhymers. Quick-tongued improvisers, by god, who utilize the flexibility of the human voice as a means to achieve something sonically fresh.
Wilson and Krall aren't the only queens in the deck. Truth is, among cognoscenti, the Triangle has become the headquarters for several divas on the move. As if to prove the point, the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center on Saturday, Feb. 19, will sponsor an unprecedented summit of sassy sisterhood. Kicking off at 7 p.m. at UNC's Memorial Hall, Lois Dawson, Eve Cornelious and Nnenna Freelon will each perform a set with their respective bands.
The show is titled "A Night in Paradise" for a reason. Dig: The Three Divas reside happily in Durham, yet they've never appeared together all at once.
"When I'm on the road," explains Dawson, "people ask, 'Hey, what's in the water down there?' Jazz people always associate North Carolina with singers, primarily Eve and Nnenna."
Though Cornelious and Freelon are known to aficionados in every corner, Dawson's star is just beginning to twinkle. After years of woodshedding locally, she waxed an incandescent debut disc in 1998 called Sunrise (Myriad). Fueled by top-drawer instrumentalists like guitarist Scott Sawyer, Dawson's autobiographical tunes consist of jazz slow-dipped in gospel and the blues. The shorelines unwind like thoughtful but spontaneous snippets of conversation.
Recalling the spirit of Cassandra Wilson's loose-limbed records on the Blue Note label, Sunrise is anything but easy on the ears. Listen closely--and listen again, the music begs. Such is the soulful luminance of Dawson.
Meanwhile, this particular diva would rather talk about her colleagues. "Eve Cornelious was one of the first performers I saw when I came to this area," Dawson remembers, "and she inspired my interest in vocal jazz. I don't necessarily mean to make comparisons, but there's an elasticity in Eve's voice that's vintage Sarah Vaughan. She has such amazing vocal range."
A high-stepping performer with an easy smile, Cornelious first blossomed in the late '70s as a student of two legendary pianists: Mary Lou Williams, the late Duke University artist-in-residence, and Brother Yusuf Salim, the mentor for a host of Durham-based vocalists. She soon discovered another accompanist, Chip Crawford, a dazzling pianist, whom she later married.
Stylistically, the musical cooperative of Cornelious and Crawford has metamorphosed into divergent forms. Regardless of the format--from caustic electro-funk to unamplified jazz at its most spontaneous--C&C creates music of a very high order, no exceptions.
Their latest album, I Feel Like Some Jazz Today (Pooky Looky), features the duo's working quartet. The nine cuts churn with juggernaut intensity--just like a kickin' club-date. There are introspective moments on the record as well. "My Funny Valentine" and "Flamenco Sketches" inspire romance, and linger as kisses to a jazz icon, trumpeter Miles Davis.
"I've always loved Miles," Cornelious confides. "When I was growing up, my brother had a copy of his classic Sketches of Spain. I never forgot it." So began the singer's study of jazz as art, an endeavor that continues to this day.
"Did you know that Eve just finished up her music degree at N.C. Central?" Dawson enthuses admiringly. "As a fellow singer, I believe she understands the music on an intellectual level. That's so rare."
Freelon, no doubt, is also a serious student. Her 1999 disc, Maiden Voyage (Concord Jazz), collects music and lyrics penned by women, all presented within the context of scintillating jazz.
Speaking with the urgent tone of a crusader, Freelon has testified: "I get discouraged hearing kids say, 'I don't like jazz' when to me, it is freedom music. It's music which says, 'This is where I stand.' In this music, I find the greatest opportunity to be who I am. This is the music that allows me to express my feelings and allows me to change them--at a moment's notice."
Freelon told me that nearly 10 years ago. Since then, she has become one of the most celebrated jazz singers in the world. She's recorded five successful CDs and earned a Grammy nomination. Yet, to hear Freelon at her best, Dawson advises, she must be experienced live and in color.
"It's really something to see her with an audience," Dawson says. "Her voice is rich and warm, but it's the way she communicates with people on a human level that's truly special. When she works in schools and community centers, she makes the connection between jazz education and culture. She's an ambassador for the music."
If Freelon is that smokin' alone, imagine what sparks will fly Saturday with Dawson and Cornelious in the house. Move over, Luciano, Placido and Jose. Three Divas is a concept whose time has come.