Jazz Singers Exhibit

DSCN8595I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of curating the new Jazz Singers exhibit at the Library of Congress. I’m grateful to all my colleagues in the Music Division and the Interpretive Programs Office for help and support during the months leading up to our Feb. 11 opening. Special thanks goes to Exhibition Director Betsy Nahum–Miller for keeping us focused and on schedule. Betsy and I are now working on a version of the exhibit we’ll send out to Disney Hall in Los Angeles in the Fall.

I’m pleased to report that we got a nice early boost from the New York Times when they posted a preview, then Milenio, the national newspaper in Mexico, weighed in. I was especially pleased when Will Friedwald, who has written several important books on jazz singers, came to Washington to view the exhibit and and for context spent time delving into more of the jazz treasures in our special collections. Will then returned to New York and wrote this insightful, perceptive review for the Wall Street Journal.  Continue reading

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Before & After: Dee Dee Bridgewater

IMG_0015Too bad we didn’t video record this listening session. To see Dee Dee Bridgewater’s animated facial expressions and watch her respond, both physically and emotionally, would add an extra layer or two of meaning to the text. I caught up with the peripatetic vocalist (and her little Maltese, Iyo) at her hotel during a tour with the Monterey Festival All-Stars, a few hours before their performance at the Kennedy Center. The actress and three-time Grammy winner continues to host NPR’s Jazz Set while pursuing her intercontinental musical adventures. Her latest recording is the compilation, Midnight Sun, on her own DDB Records.

 

1. Betty Carter

“Thou Swell” (from Social Call, Columbia). Carter, vocal; Ray Bryant, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1955.

Betty, man. She was so friggin’ underrated. She was a genius. I mean, just the way she heard music and how she could take a simple song like “Thou Swell” and turn it into a masterpiece of the moment. The trio was so tight and she just floats on top of it like a horn. People say they’re inspired by Ella, Sarah and Billie, but she’s my main inspiration. Continue reading

Before & After: Janis Siegel

janisEverybody knows Janis Siegel from her three decades singing with The Manhattan Transfer, but her own taste and musical personality are best reflected by her various solo recordings. Siegel’s recent studio efforts have dealt with standards, Broadway show tunes and the grits ‘n gravy world of the Hammond B-3. Her new CD, A Thousand Beautiful Things (Telarc), features some of her favorite contemporary songs by Björk, Nellie McKay, Annie Lennox, Sam Philips, Raul Midon and others, recast in Latin arrangements by pianist Edsel Gomez.

In person, Siegel is both thoughtful and quick, and very much in the moment. She recognized many of the artists immediately, poring over the CD notes to examine and comment on song choice. She also expressed genuine interest in the new names, writing some of them down for later downloading. At one point she flipped the script and began playing me songs from her iPod, asking me to identify them. Continue reading

Before & After: Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit wears her musical heart on her sleeve. Maybe it’s because she’s passionate about the music she loves and sings. Or maybe it’s because she’s a hopeless romantic, still basking in the glow of her recent marriage to drummer Ricky Montalbano. In any case, the 26-year-old singer was eager to sit and listen and talk on a beautiful autumn day, while her band did their sound check for that evening’s performance at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland. Unlike some musicians who can be frustratingly reticent or enigmatic, Monheit enjoys conversation and is both insightful and unfailingly polite when discussing her fellow singers. Only once was she less than articulate-when she heard Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza, she welled up with tears and finally admitted she could not find words to adequately express just how much Mitchell’s music means to her. Because we had such a limited amount of time, we jumped right in.

1. Ella Fitzgerald
“Looking For A Boy,” from Pure Ella (Decca Jazz). Fitzgerald, vocal; Ellis Larkins, piano. Recorded in 1950.

Before: Oh, I know this. [sings along]. This is the record with Ellis Larkins, right? This is one of my favorite sides of Ella. I loved when Ella kept it simple. Her voice was so beautiful and so pure and I really tried to learn that lesson from her. These records were such an excellent example for me when I was trying to pare things down and really get to the bottom of the music, rather than worry about vocal gymnastics. And Ella, who could do anything she wanted, made these gorgeous recordings where she was really thinking about the melody. I just love the way Ellis accompanies her, too. They’re both so well suited to each other that they can interpret the tune exactly the way they want to and it’s still a perfect fit. I love the recording they did together of Stardust.

What makes this timeless?

The lyrical content and the beautiful melody. I’d much rather listen to this than hear her wail with a big band, though I love that too. This is something I aspire to. It’s a challenge to just sing the melody. For her to make the choice to stick to the melody-that’s a really powerful thing when it comes from a woman who could do absolutely anything.

Continue reading