There are some jazz fans who come over all queasy when jazz singers are mentioned. They seem to feel vocal jazz is somehow too emotional. To have someone singing to you rather than playing a piano or the drums or even a trumpet, is too personal, too… “oooh, I don’t know where to look”.
They might also feel that jazz singing is somehow not quite serious; that it is more a cabaret thing or easy listening or some such genre beneath their jazz seriousness.
Am I making these people up? I don’t think I am. Ask any jazz promoter. There are men – and they are mainly men, and probably of a certain age – who will come along regular as clockwork to hear an instrumental group, and the tougher the music the more they like it. But put on a jazz singer and they would rather have their pint of real ale down the pub.
Which is a pity, because they are missing out on so much great music and so many great musicians.
The thing I like a lot about jazz singers is that they aren’t bullshitters. They can’t be. There really is nowhere for them to hide. And they can’t be all head and no heart, either. When your instrument is your body you have to fully engage with the music. Any weakness of technique and you can’t blame your tools – there are no tools.
And let’s face it – instrumental musicians only have to deal with the notes, which for a singer is only half the story. There are those pesky words they have to deal with as well.
There is a prime opportunity right here to consider all this and come to your own conclusions because this week is vocal week in the Midlands, with three excellent singers stretched between the two main cities, and an expansive range of vocal jazz well represented.
In Birmingham on Friday night, the CBSO Centre bill is shared by Claire Martin and Sara Colman.
Claire Martin is one of our most enduring singers – and I mean that in a wholly complimentary sense. She has an astonishing 15 albums to her name, not including two compilations, and has made the transition from new kid on the block to a kind of keystone of modern British jazz singing. She has an OBE, after all.
And she has done it all with a sharp sense of style and a firm attention to her art. There is nothing fuzzy around the edges about either her character or her music.
She is possibly our finest interpreter of the Great American Songbook, while not being averse to adapting an EST song when the mood takes her.
Her latest album, Too Much In Love To Care, was recorded in New York with Kenny Barron on piano, and she has played the top venues there, including The Algonquin Hotel and the Lincoln Center.
With her on Friday will be her superb regular collaborators Gareth Williams on piano and Laurence Cottle on electric bass with Ian Thomas in on drums.
Sara Colman studied at Birmingham Conservatoire before there was a jazz course and has developed a three-pronged career in singing, composing and teaching, all of which she is exceptionally good at.
Her most recent album is called Ready and is a rich mix of jazz standards, adaptations of rock and folk tunes, and original material. She has more recently been studying song-writing in greater depth, and leads a strong band as well as making guest appearances in her brothers’ Colman Brothers Big Band.
So I think we can expect a couple of new tunes in there with the familiar favourites on Friday evening. Sara will have her long-time rhythm team of Ben Markland on bass, and Carl Hemmingsley on drums, with Malcomb Edmonstone in on piano,.
Both singers love improvisation and encourage it, so even if you prefer instrumental jazz to the vocal stuff, you will not feel short-changed.
This double bill is a Jazzlines event, curated by Sara Colman, and it starts at the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street at 8pm.
More information and tickets at www.thsh.co.uk
On Monday evening at Warwick Arts Centre, is a vocalist of a different but equally absorbing kind.
Susanna Wallumrod is an extraordinary singer as anyone who has ever heard her version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene will testify. Since her work with the one-man Magical Orchestra and her album of rock covers – which included similarly compelling versions of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and AC/DC’s It’s A Long Way To The Top, Susanna has concentrated on her own compositions and her latest release, Wild Dog comprises all her own songs.
She has also collaborated with alt country singer Bonnie Prince Billy and with classical harpist Giovanna Pessi, showing that she can bring something fresh and original to any music from the last four centuries.
Whether the songs are covers or originals she favours slow tempi and uses the seemingly contradictory approach of coolness and meticulous attention to detail and diction to bring an extraordinary intensity to a lyric.
Her music might be in a kind of no-man’s land between singer/songwriter, rock, jazz and arthouse territories, but it is deeply moving and well worth hearing in performance.
Susanna, on vocal and piano, brings Helge Sten on guitar and Erland Dahlen on drums to the suitably intimate Warwick Arts Centre Studio on Monday at 7.45pm. More details and booking at www.warwickartscentre.co.uk
If you have previously been reluctant to give singers a fair hearing, do it at these two gigs. I suggest you will find new musical riches and great rewards. For the rest of us, we already know this and count ourselves very lucky indeed.
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