Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Can I Say?

I am in receipt of this email:

"Dear Mrs. Sloane,

You are an inspiration for all of us. I’d like to invite you to hear a few examples of my jazz singing. Please, listen the tracks entirely and you will see me imitating a trumpet with my voice on “‘Round Midnight” and doing the scats on “My Funny Valentine”.

Jazz is relatively poor in male singers but I assure you that I am a real jazz singer."

* * *

Although I audibly groan anticipating the sound of a voice imitating a trumpet on "Round Midnight", or even more frightening, that I'm about to hear a machete-chop through "the scats" on "My Funny Valentine", nevertheless, with misgiving aforethought, I visit the site he provided, instinctively sensing I am stepping through and into the portals of Vocal Hell.

This poor guy can't sing a note, let alone the challenging melodies and intervals each of those songs possess. How did he ever become so delusional? How do any talentless people persuade themselves they can do it better than Mark Murphy, Sinatra, Joe Williams or Nat King Cole, to name a few. Why hasn't someone delicately and with utmost consideration for his feelings advised "Don't give up the day job? Shall I be the one to (1) burst his dangerously inflated balloon, or (2) simply reply that I am unfortunately unable to offer any helpful assistance at this time, or (3) should I ignore the note completely. The last is just too rude. I'm going with Door No. 2.

Speaking of screwing up cherished melodies, I will recommend you NOT GO NEAR the newest recording by famed operatic soprano Jessye Norman ("Roots: My Life, My Song", a 2-cd set on Sony). I will confess to having heard only the stingy snippets provides, but they are enough to make my head spin. Ms. Norman "pays tribute" to Ellington and Monk (!), and acknowledges her admiration for and being influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Lena Horne and others, producing calamitous, seriously flawed readings of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "Take The "A" Train", and "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". Please believe me: Indeed, it don't.

Although I feel certain hers is a sincere tribute to Ella et al, I don't quite see it that way. In her interpretations of standard jazz classics, she has basically trivialized the music rather than elevated it. These songs were brilliant at birth, filled with the original joyous content of syncopation and swing. For all her vocal prowess, Ms. Norman is beyond her depth here, and it would all be quite laughable if it weren't also so embarrassingly awful.

* * *

I am off to sweltering Manhattan next week to sing four songs with Bill Charlap and an All-Star band. His Jazz In July series at the 92nd St. Y will feature Hollywood film music, and so I will explore familiar material not previously absorbed by my larynx: "When You Wish Upon A Star", "Moon River", "The Days Of Wine and Roses" and (heaven help me) "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". The program closes with "As Time Goes By", a song beloved by all, and which I know by heart along with all the dialogue from "Casablanca".


Barbara said...

I vote for Door #1. I think you should kindly tell him the truth. Maybe it will prompt him to do some actual study.

Why do opera singers insist on performing music they haven't studied to any degree, don't understand, and can't do justice to? Why don't they understand that the voice is used in a different way and the story is expressed in a different way? And they actually have to confront rhythm! It's frustrating and makes me want to throw plates. And this goes for a certain opera diva who considered herself a "jazz" singer early on. Bleeaah...

Charlton Price said...

These high-powered classical divas just can't do it -- none of them can. I recall a video (maybe somewhere on You Tube) in which André Previn, Ray Brown, and Mundell Lowe were trying to get Kiri Te Kanawa to do "once more with feeling" on one or more standards. You could see her trying hard and just not getting it and knowing she wasn't getting it (apparently more than Jessye Norman knew as a result of her efforts). You would remember too the looks of pain and commiseration on the faces of Previn and Brown, in particular.

Sloane said...

Thanks ... I'd love to know if Ms. Norman insisted she could do justice to the material, and/or if she in diva fashion dismissed with a wave of her hand anyone who even hinted she might be on the wrong path.

claiborne said...

I am often appalled by opera singers who think they can sing jazz or pop, but I liked that album by Thomas Quasthoff. Would be curious to hear what you think of it, if you heard it.

Sloane said...

Dear Claiborne ... I admire Mr. Quasthoff enormously, but I do not feel he attempts to sing jazz. He is so honest and so obviously respectful of America's best pop/jazz composers, I can only applaud his efforts and hope he continues to incorporate the music in future recordings.

Jim Puskar said...

Ms. Norman is in desperate need of a 'hip' transplant. Why do so many singers and musicians underestimate the amount of talent and feeling it takes to sing and play this great music? They seem to think that because jazz incorporates improvisation, it must be 'easy' to sing and play. Nothing could be more wrong; this music requires much more than 'book-learnin' You have to have it inside you before you can let it out.

Sloane said...

Thanks Jim ... couldn't have said it better myself!

Sloane said...

D.P., a correspondent in South Carolina sent this:

My son, the opera singer, hornist, conductor, and daytime business analyst for a software firm had this to say about your comments: "I love Jessye Norman and her Christmas album is the best, but that is not a voice that should go anywhere near pop music of any sort."

Many thanks, and please tell your son Ms. Norman's "Four Last Songs" by Strauss is my favorite version of that gorgeous piece.