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    EARS NEW YORK: TWO SINGERS

    Written by Jeff Levenson

    Two singers with new releases. One jazz, the other jazzy.....


    MADELEINE PEYROUX
    The Blue Room
    Decca

    When Madeleine Peyroux emerged in 1996, she declared herself a spiritual heir to Billie Holiday and Edit Piaf. Her sound was largely derivative, inviting that age-old debate regarding homage versus imitation. Was she an original voice synthesizing her influences, or a highly evolved mimic?

    Time has provided some clues. Peyroux's recordings have revealed a worldly vocalist whose models and repertoire span genres. It is an artistic point-of-view that cares little for categorization - she's as likely to curtsy with Leonard Cohen as she is Patsy Cline.  But such egalitarianism doesn't guarantee a winning record.

    "The Blue Room," her seventh and latest release, finds her bellying up to Ray Charles, referencing "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," his pathfinding album from 1962. She covers five tunes from that album, yet adds material associated with stalwart pop-Western loyalists - The Everly Brothers, Glen Campbell, Randy Newman and Buddy Holly, among them. The results are wildly uneven.

    Peyroux's vocals are languid and sweet, yet they flaunt a detached air that neutralizes rather than exploits her songs' possibilities and potential. She is content to recite her narratives rather than feel them. The effect is desultory. What redeems the record, however, are the dreamy string arrangements of Vince Mendoza. In a telling gesture of selective focus, I found myself focusing on his work more than hers.

    Still, if there's one memorable track on "The Blue Room" it's "You Don't Know Me," imbued with a poignancy and ache that separates it from the album's 10 other tracks. Peyroux sings as if she means it, which is a good thing. It should keep us wanting. Here's hoping her next project enables us to learn more.

    CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT
    Womanchild
    Mack Avenue

    When Cecile McLorin Salvant won the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in 2010, she was heralded as a throwback to jazz's illustrious past, to its lineage of iconic singers - Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, Carmen McRae.

    Interestingly, few of that year's competitors chose those Mt Rushmore figures as models. It seemed a new generation of female jazz singers had stepped into the spotlight, seeking inspiration from  the likes of non-traditionalists, Cassandra Wilson, Tierney Sutton, Kate McGarry and Gretchen Parlato. We were witnessing a generational shift in the nexus of influence.

    Though McLorin was outnumbered by those whose styles were decidedly more modern (and less dependent on the early American jazz tradition), she cut through to the judges and earned top honors. In the three years since, she has come to embody the essence of a deeply rooted classicist. "Womanchild," her debut record, affirms the wisdom of these inaugural impressions.

    McLorin sings with an unimpeachable authority. She is focused and composed, a self-assured interpreter who lends dramatic panache to her reads. "Womanchild" does not hold back. The opening track, Bessie Smith's "St Louis Gal," serves as a calling card - a blues legacy number commandingly rendered with sass. McLorin is in the house. A mix of originals and standards follow, including the spiritual ballad, "John Henry," imaginatively rearranged; Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," almost unrecognizable with her rhythmic refractions; and McLorin's own "Dark Blue," a valedictory wave to Abbey Lincoln.

    If "Womanchild" contains one fault, it is small, typical of an overreaching newcomer ready to step out - McLorin strives hard to showcase all that she has. But it's a niggling criticism, really. Her talent is wide, un-contained at this stage of the game, yet well suited for the shoes she's eager to fill.


    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

     



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