There are a lot of different kinds of jazz music. Be Bop. Smooth Jazz. Latin. Big Band. Whatever it is that Dave Brubek did. Some of it is great (I can listen to “Take Five” over and over again), but a lot of it seems to forget why people listen to music in the first place. It’s all about theatrical vocal runs, polymetric gymnastics, experiments in tonality, and other elements of an incredibly academic approach to music. All of these tools can wonderful and exciting and interesting, and a lot of people enjoy them, but like modern art, it’s just not for me. Color me a philistine, but I like my poetry to rhyme, my art to be pretty, and my music to speak to me of some kind of truth (even if that truth is simply “this is fun!”).
I’ve got about a million exceptions for this, of course (Kafka, Phillip Glass, Cezanne, and more – John Cage’s “In the Name of the Holocaust” is incredibly powerful), but I find that experimental art is most successful when the experimental techniques work in service of the content’s mission, rather than supplanting or replacing it.
And that’s something that jazz is really good at, if you just let it do its thing.
No one makes this point better than musician Carsie Blanton, who is not only a brilliant singer and songwriter, but has written beautifully about story-telling, writing, and music. In her Kickstarter for her newest album Not Old, Not New, a project called Jazz is for Everybody, she says:
For about a million years, I’ve been obsessed with the recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, and early Chet Baker. What all of these recordings have in common is that they are heavily song-focused. The emphasis is on the lyrics and melodies, and the players are subtle, sensitive and restrained. The tracks are short and to-the-point. The vocalists (who are among my all-time favorites) sing simply and straightforwardly, sticking close to the melody. They sing with plenty of emotion, but they are restrained, so they come across as honest, rather than theatrical.
In essence, this incredibly successful (and deservedly so) Kickstarter campaign tapped into a desire for performance that reveals some internal truth of great songs. It’s a collection of mostly covers of amazing mid-20th center jazz pop songs. Carsie’s performance style is so perfectly suited for marrying the story of a song with its method of delivery. Her voice is sweet, gritty, cute, thoughtful, coy, and just a little bit like a wink in musical form – somewhere between Betty Boop and Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles, and yet something all her own. She sings as if she speaks directly to you, showing you the song while also adding something a little magical to its message.
Great story telling often comes down to delivery, and Carsie Blanton definitely delivers on these covers.
You can buy the album Not Old, Not New, as well as her other amazing albums, here. And since Carsie is also the person who taught me how to Lindy Hop, I’ll leave you with this video of one of her original songs.