Review By Willard Manus
If you love
the sound of a great--or even near-great--jazz singer, you'll want to
pick up a copy of Scott Yanow's THE JAZZ SINGERS--THE ULTIMATE GUIDE (Backbeat
Books). The paperback provides, in alphabetic order, more than five hundred
profiles of jazz's major vocalists, beginning with Suzanne Abbuehl, the
Swiss-Dutch star, and concluding with Monica Zetterlund, the Swedish thrush
who achieved a measure of international fame thanks to her recordings
with Gil Evans and Thad Jones.
THE JAZZ SINGERS also includes such bonus chapters as "198 Other
Jazz Singers of Today," "55 Others Who Have Also Sung Jazz"
(think Lionel Hampton and Herbie Hancock, for example), "30 Jazz
Vocal Groups" and "The Best of Jazz Singers on Film." There
is even a brief bibliography, "Other Books on Jazz Singers."
Most of the book's entries deal with such American jazz luminaries as
Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong,
to name but a few. Here is how Yanow begins his overview of the latter's
career: "Although it is not accurate to say that jazz singing began
with Louis Armstrong, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was
the most important jazz singer of all time. A master at 'telling a story'
in his trumpet solos, Armstrong did the same thing as a vocalist, altering
melody lines and lyrics to give them a catchier rhythm, using space dramatically
and often emulating his own trumpet playing. On 'Ding Dong Daddy' from
1930, Armstrong takes a superb vocal: after getting the words and melody
out of the way during a chorus, he claims 'I forgot the words' and then
scats a horn-like solo. The trumpet solo that follows, which borrows phrases
from his vocal as it builds and builds, can be thought of as a horn emulating
a vocal emulating a horn."
Though Yanow mostly praises the artists he writes about, he serves up
some critical remarks as well, as in the case of Diana Krall's later CDs.
While her style "has not changed much in the last decade, there have
been occasional departures," the author observes, "with string
orchestras being utilized on some of her recordings, and in special concerts.
After marrying pop/rock star Elvis Costello in late 2003, she recorded
the rather unfortunate The Girl in the Other Room, a set which contains
quite a few forgettable originals by Krall and/or Costello."
In an introduction, Yanow explains that he wanted, "in as many cases
as possible to include new comments from the vocalists about their lives
and careers. After drawing up an initial list of singers to include in
the book and dividing it into those who have passed away and those who
are around, it was a matter of tracking down as many of the latter as
possible and e-mailing them a copy of the questionaire. Over a period
of a year, and with the help of others, I was able to locate and gain
responses from approximately 300 of the 360 living singers."
Some submitted so much information it could have made for a separate book;
others stingily submitted little bits and pieces which were useless. One
singer referred Yanow to her manager, who claimed he was too busy to respond
because she was in the process of replenishing her wardrobe!