New jazz singers are global


Once upon a time, the iconic jazz singer was an African-American woman, serenading a smoky room. Think of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Today, a talented crop of young, cosmopolitan singers is creating a new breed of jazz singers: the Globalized Singer. They come from multicultural backgrounds, live all over the world, and breathe new energy into traditional American sound. Take today’s rising star, Sophie Milman, 26. Born in Russia, she fled with her family to Israel at the age of 7, then moved to Canada at the age of 16. Today, it is sold out at the Blue Note jazz club in Tokyo. Its roots and reach are global. In appearance and language, it could not be further from the pioneers who had come more than half a century ago.

Yet Milman and others like her are redefining jazz by drawing inspiration from the American songbook. In his book Jazz SingersScott Yanow argues that among 21st century jazz singers, only “a few manage to reinvent standards in new ways,” which is exactly what this new class does so well. Milman, who is fluent in French, English, Russian and Hebrew, sings Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” in a clear, valiant viola that descends to the bottom and effortlessly reaches the top. Elisabeth Kontomanou, who is Greek and Guinean, is keen to know the African-American roots of the music she plays. “Jazz is an innovation, but with all the culture and understanding of what has already been done,” she says. “If you don’t watch that, you get tasteless, odorless, colorless music.” On his latest CD, Stir up the blues, she follows her own rules by revisiting less famous songs of jazz icons, like “Tell Me More and More (and Then Some) by Billie Holiday”.

Language did not prove to be a barrier for these women; all sing in English. Virginie Teychené comes from the south of France but learned English with her father, who used to show the American Marines the French way of life. “French doesn’t lend itself to jazz,” she says. “Words can often fall flat, as it is difficult to sing in French in rhythm.” Teychené, who was named “new revelation” at the French jazz festival in Juan-les-Pins last year, covers songs like “Take the A Train” in her pure, low voice. Born and raised in Turin, Italian singer Roberta Gambarini recorded Swedish folk songs early in her career, but has recently turned to the romantic era of American jazz. His new record, So in love, revolves around sweet renditions of tunes like “That Old Black Magic,” a song Sarah Vaughan made famous in the 1940s. “Most of the good songs that let you improvise are largely Great American Songbook, ”she said.

That’s not to say these singers don’t push the boundaries. Esperanza Spalding, born to a Welsh-Hispanic-Native American mother and black father and raised in the United States, sings in English, Spanish and Portuguese. When recording the 1930s standard “Body and Soul”, she renamed it “Cuerpo y Alma” and achieved a fiery Spanish interpretation. “You are always creating something new, even when you use vocabulary from the past,” she says.

Ultimately, this return to the roots of jazz is a matter of authenticity and accessibility. “I like when people come to see me at the end of a concert, surprised that it is in fact jazz and that they can enjoy it without really knowing the culture”, confides Teychené. Yet if asked where the winding road to stardom begins, these singers give a traditional answer. “If you live in the heart of China and want to be a jazz musician, you still have to go to New York or New Orleans and play jazz,” says Kontomanou. Then you move to another country and share it with the world.


Comments are closed.