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What the Hell is a Jazz Vocal Anyway?


About a year ago I needed, for reasons not worth delving into, to learn "People Will Say We're In Love." If you're going to study a song -- maybe play it 20 times over a couple of days until the lyrics and changes are second nature -- you better pick a version you like.  So I sampled a few dozen covers on iTunes and wound up picking a jazz singer -- previously unknown to me -- named Rachael Price. Rachael just swung it, and she had a low, throaty edge that I liked.

A year passes. I'm watching "Another Day / Another Time: Celebrating the Music of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'," which is basically a wonderful excuse to assemble a dazzling array of roots/Americana/rootsicana(?) performers, old and new. It was impossible for any one act to steal this show, but one of the "who's that?" moments came when an ensemble called Lake Street Dive took the stage for a song called "You Go Down Smooth." The lead singer was poised, charismatic and drop dead gorgeous. It took me about four hours to figure out that she was the same Rachael Price and that Lake Street Dive has a viral YouTube version of "I Want You Back."

It seems like LSD might break out big this year with their genre-straddling sound, and that raises the question: will Rachael Price be a jazz vocalist anymore?

It's a question we flirted with today on our show about new jazz releases. For example, Cecile McLorin Salvant is the toast of the jazz vocal world right now. And she sings, you know, jazz stuff:

Meanwhile, Gregory Porter is all the rage as a male jazz vocalist, although sometimes he sounds like a fusion of Gil Scott-Heron and a gospel artist. 

A few years back a jazz singer named Shannon Butcher covered modern rock tunes like "Mad World" by Tears for Fears and "Strange and Beautiful" by Aqualung, with entirely new Latinized beats, with good results. She also did "Wichita Lineman," but that Jimmy Webb tune is almost a jazz standard version by now, with another notable cover by Cassandra Wilson. The latter is a noted risk-taking omnivore, doing a jazz cover of "Last Train to Clarksville" way back before that kind of thing was fashionable. Kurt Elling recently covered "Pleasant Valley Sunday" in a kind of post-bop mode, so anything's possible, even with the Monkees. 

Some smart jazz artist will figure out that this would be a killer cover.  Maybe Cassandra Wilson and a bass.

Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer.
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