Saturday, February 12, 2011

All that jazz

I have long been a fan of jazz, with my active participation in the genre waxing and waning over the years with a recent long dry spell ending with a gift of a ticket from a friend for a concert at the local college.  The music at the concert, particularly the small combo pieces, evoked memories of former lives where I spent evenings in smoky bars in Rochester, NY listening to great jazz from musicians inspired by Miles Davis or Chick Corea.  No vocalists stick in my mind from that time, all instrumentalists.   The Manhattan Transfer had made their mark earlier than this time and Harry Connick, Jr. had yet to hit it really big.  Or perhaps if I did hear any vocal music during this time I blocked it out because the way smooth jazz was becoming white bread left me totally cold. 

What resonated with me vocally left me feeling very displaced in terms of the times I was living in because I listened to the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.  Nobody was singing like that, at least not when I had the opportunity to listen.

I don't know where this came from, this affinity with jazz.  I remember my siblings (all older) being into rock, folk and the inevitable classical in piano and violin lessons.  There was a hefty dose of Broadway and movie musicals, too, I have a vivid memory of belting out songs like, "There is nothing like a dame," as a six or seven year old.

It was a long time later, when I put on some music, it might even have been a Sarah Vaughan album, when my dad, a Julliard-trained organist, expressed surprise at my knowing "those old songs."

Anyway, I'm grateful for the opportunity to re-explore some old territory and get to know some of the newer artists at work today.  Ella Fitzgerald is still unbeatable, and what a kick to listen to, especially on those recordings where she forgot the words and started making stuff up.  She also, which is a game in our household, inserted words or motifs from other songs into whatever she was singing. 

That's not allowed for a "legit" singer and it certainly wouldn't make a "best of" album these days.  You've got to sing what's writ.  With classical music, the most improv you might get to do is in ornamentation or coloratura, but even then I've heard about and witnessed directors who transcribed a singer's noodling in the expectation of hearing it sung the same way at the next rehearsal or performance.  Even worse is asking a singer to sight read and then perform a scat as written (yes, that really happened).  That particular experience left me speechless and just a little bit irked.  It makes me wonder if the quest for the perfect presentation can obscure the adventure that is musical performance.

Right on, Ella.

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