Elena Mindru

So this summer while I was in Montreux I had the good fortune to catch the second day of the semifinals in the Sure Jazz Voice Competition, and by the final round it was clear the panel of judges had their work cut out for them.  I’ve been hoping to find the performances online for a while now, and just discovered them today.  For me, this young lady was the most creative and enchanting, and I honestly thought she deserved to win.  This video can’t capture the fullness of her stage presence, but the sound quality is good.  She just has so much fun with the music, and with her musicians, and with the audience.

After the performances, I was surprised to learn this was the talent that captured the judges’ vote for winner.  Her sound just seems thinner to me during the first song, though she gets better as she goes along, and I would even occasionally question her intonation, but apparently Quincy Jones, head of the panel of judges, didn’t have the same impression.  I admit she does have a Diana Krall sort of quality, and clearly that kind of sound has proved artistically and commercially successful.  And she gets points for subtlety and choice of classic arrangements.  Still, I can’t tell you what I wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall during that decision-making process.

I think this just goes to show opinion and personal preference do count in music, especially at this stage of the game where all artists are fantastically gifted.  Here I really don’t think it was a question of deciding who was more talented, but who adhered most closely to the judges’ idea of a great jazz artist.  And granted, a panel at Montreux would know.  But I just don’t agree with their decision.  And why?  It’s hard to say.  I just wasn’t taken with Sarah Lancman the way I was with Elena Mindru.  The latter just had “it” for me, and she did win the audience’s vote for favorite finalist.  She took risks, and I admire that a lot.  It’s completely possible, however, that the judges thought she was less strong vocally in spite of her great presence and chose Sarah instead for that reason.  Or it could be that Elena’s artistic choices are less in line with the heart of the jazz tradition and that’s why she didn’t “win”.

I’ll never be completely sure.

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The End of Jazz

Today’s topic is also the title of a recently published article in The Atlantic.

Now I saw the title and just had to read the article to find out why the author thought this wonderful, vibrant musical genre is dead.  Basically, I discovered the unfortunate Atlantic has become the vehicle for Benjamin Schwarz’s claim that jazz has dried up because its source of musical material, the popular standards written in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, has ceased to provide new inspiration.  What Mr. Schwarz doesn’t seem to realize is that not only do those songs still manage to find new life in the hands of young artists, but also that jazz has evolved past the songbooks and branched out in many directions.  In fact, I would argue what he really means is that the type of jazz personified by the songbook era, including swing, big band and early bop, is no longer the heart of the current jazz scene.  But the nature of jazz is to constantly morph and change, and it wouldn’t—and couldn’t—be what it is if it stayed locked into one strain of thought.  In declaring the end of songbook jazz’s golden age, Mr. Schwarz has thus presented us with a piece of information that is embarrassingly late.  The bop and “classic” jazz era ended in the ‘60’s, and the early ‘70’s heralded the crash landing of fusion jazz, just one strain that has carried the genre from there.

For a nicely biting and highly informative rebuttal, see the following, published in the Washington City Paper.  This article also makes the important point that even though the claim that jazz is over is unfounded, the perception of jazz as such is harmful to the life and enjoyment of the art form.

One thing I did like about “The End of Jazz,” however, was the mention of some lovely recordings I hadn’t yet heard.  It’s probably evident by now that I like comparison studies, so I present my dear readers with another, this time on Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life”:

Try Coltrane first.  Meditative, mournful and thought-provoking.  Emphasis on the “bitter” in bittersweet.

I especially like Stan Getz’s take.  A little more tongue-in-cheek, I think.

Carmen McRae is not a vocalist I would have sought out for this song, but her version is just wonderful.

This was not included in the Atlantic lineup, but is an unexpected and fabulous recent discovery.

And I can’t resist adding this last little jewel courtesy of the critical Mr. Schwarz.