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The Jazz Singer | The Nation

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The Jazz Singer

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The genealogy of female jazz singers reaches back to Bessie Smith, who took blues out of juke joints and put it into vaudeville theaters. It snakes its way through the distinctly unbluesy Ella Fitzgerald, who otherwise followed Satchmo's lead and sang and improvised like a horn, and a bit later through Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, who bridged postwar jazz and r&b. Thence it runs into the present-day motley crew. Talent aside, all divas have had a mission, historically speaking: to personalize and make audible (if not sexy) the music's often esoteric art for folks who short out on sax and piano solos unless they're trapped in supermarkets or elevators.

About the Author

Gene Santoro
A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News...

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Enter Wilson, she of the smoky voice, languid phrasing, sharp chops and ear-opening aims. Working with astute producer Craig Street, she's fashioned two albums in recent years, Blue Light 'Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter (both on Blue Note), that blow apart the old jazz diva image--the one holding the microphone in front of a kickass big band or an intimate piano trio. Instead, they create a rural, bluesy atmosphere, a studio back porch of acoustic guitars and bass, gently persistent percussion and odd daubs of color, like a floating steel guitar or a skirling fiddle. The dense arrangements sway to allow improvised solos and ideas into radically revamped material ranging from Son House's raw country blues to The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville."

After all, this 40-something diva grew up on rock and blues, Joni Mitchell as well as Betty Carter. And like Miles Davis a generation ago, she's bent on redefining the interplay between contemporary pop and jazz. It's no accident she also produced her provocative new album, Traveling Miles.

With her back porch here accommodating guests like violin supremo Regina Carter, alto ace Steve Coleman and vibes hotshot Stefon Harris, as well as her usual atmospheric crew, Wilson has selected and revamped (sometimes radically) tunes from all over Davis's long and checkered history, including the evil postfusion days. There's no doubt this diva, whose gauzy, closed-eyes head shot fills the CD cover, can make Miles sexy in a whole new way for a whole new audience.

Traveling Miles opens with "Run the VooDoo Down," a funky, syncopated vamp laced with neopsychedelic touches and muscular bass, courtesy of ex-Davis sideman Dave Holland, that cycles around Wilson's never-exactly-repeated vocal incursions. "Seven Steps," a challenging set of musical hurdles, opens with Wilson's husky humming behind Carter's capering fiddle, then quotes Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" lick before breaking into a bop-style doubletime lope--and a spicy, spiky solo from Carter that underlines why she's got so many Gen-X-and-under fans. There's the reharmonized "Someday My Prince Will Come," complete with a yearning Carter solo. And don't forget Wayne Shorter's "ESP," written when he was in Davis's mid-sixties quintet, here retitled "Never Broken," given a Latin feel and characteristically filigreed with odd stringed things like mandocello and resophonic guitar, thus recalling how the sixties brought all kinds of odd ideas and instruments out of the American attic.

You get the drift. The results are fascinating and sure to be controversial. In fact, one of the first singles (for easy-listening, jazz-lite radio) is Wilson's deep-blue revision of Davis's version of Lauper's hit.

Amid an upsurge of Gen-X jazzers infusing hip-hop and trip-hop and other contemporary pop ideas into jazz, our current Prima Diva is claiming the mantle of one of its best-known instrumental stars, whose name is a byword because his parched, existential trumpet, so unmistakable, struck listeners with the impact of a human voice. Even Miles would have grinned.

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