I wrote this in the first year of my website’s existence, in early 2013. I thought that, with Natalie Cole no longer with us, this would be a good time to repost it.
It always annoys the Hell out of me when I hear music snobs going on about how there is ‘no point’ listening to modern singers performed classic standards because “They’ll never be as good as Frank/Ella/Billie/Tony/whoever else’. Not only does this kind of thinking miss the entire point of interpretational singing (which is to put your own unique spin on the song), it gives short shrift to the many wonderful performers who perform standards and showtunes in the modern era. Maybe they’re not Frank Sinatra, Ella Fiztgerald, or Billie Holiday, but neither were Bobby Darin, Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, jr., and you never see anyone suggesting that they were artistically worthless as a result. And so, as a tribute to those talented people who have kept the torch of interpretational singing alive for those in the modern, singer-songwriter-dominated era, I give you…
THE TOP THIRTEEN GREATEST INTERPRETATIONAL SINGERS OF THE MODERN ERA
Of all the mainstream musicians to dabble in the Great American Songbook in their later career, Rod Stewart is one of the most successful and one of the best. Having alternately worked as a Blue-Eyed-Soul-influenced Soft Rocker and as one of the better acts in the much-maligned genre of disco, Stewart, who reportedly always had a strong personal fondness for the classic standards, had the inspired idea to record an album of himself performing them. This proved to be a sensation, leading to four more such albums in the succeeding years. Part of the reason Stewart is so successful at the genre is that his very unusual vocal sound (my father once compared it to a male version of Billie Holliday) adds a certain freshness to these admittedly overexposed classics, and makes his performances appealingly distinctive and unique. However, another reason is that he is wise enough not to tamper with the intended sound of the songs…he uses the same traditional kinds of arrangements you would expect from Sinatra or Tony Bennett, and allows his odd vocals to provide freshness of sound on their own. Stewart narrowly booted Barry Manilow off this list for a similar endeavor, which surprised me somewhat since Manilow seems like a much more obvious choice to perform the Great American Songbook based on his earlier career. But that is, itself, exactly why Stewart did the job better…Manilow is a terrific singing performer, but he performs the songs as they’ve always been performed, and is ultimately just not as interesting in his interpretations as Stewart is. There are those of Stewart’s rock-era fans who mock him for singing standards, accusing him of having ‘gone soft’ and not being ‘cool’ anymore, but such stupid people are deserving of nothing save contempt and pity.
Harry Connick, Jr.
I almost left Connick off the list simply for composing the score of Thou Shalt Not, but the facts remains that however dreary a songwriter he may be, as a singer and pianist he is above reproach. With an abundance of star charisma and a vocal sound and cool-as-cream persona reminiscent of Sinatra or Bobby Darin, Connick has undeniably earned the widespread acclaim he receives. His main weakness is his lack of emotional power—he may swing almost as well as Sinatra, but he’ll never break your heart like Ole’ Blue Eyes could. Of his lauded Broadway performance in The Pajama Game, I will say that he gave a magnetizing star performance and sang incomparably, but he never approached the level of John Raitt in the original cast because he wasn’t playing the character—he was doing a nightclub act on stage. Still, his lack of songwriting ability and inadequacy as a musical ‘actor’ notwithstanding, he has unquestionably earned his place on this list with his consistently fine singing and the work he has done to keep true jazz in the mainstream public’s field of vision.
Crawford, best known for his legendary performance in Phantom of the Opera, is loved by literally millions for his hypnotically ravishing sigh of a voice.The only reason he’s relatively low on the list is that his career as a popular vocalist (as distinct from his actual musical-theater career) suffered from a certain problem that was not really his fault. The record executives had apparently pigeonholed Crawford as an Easy-Listening singer, and his studio albums feature the kind of soupy, overwrought orchestrations and arrangements common to Easy Listening music at the time. But Nineties Easy Listening singers, whether good (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion), or bad (Michael Bolton), all have a certain thing in common—they were nearly all oversingers. In contrast, Crawford’s trademark style consists of singing almost in a whisper, and his vocals tended to get overwhelmed by the overbearing accompaniments. Still, the fact remains that there’s pretty much nothing you can do to make Michael Crawford sound bad, and despite these handicaps, his career as a pure vocalist is well worth checking out.
Mandy Patinken has long been admired for his gorgeous tenor voice and immense talent as an actor, but his career as a pure vocalist has always been given undeservedly short shrift. Admittedly, this is partly because his solo albums are much more of an acquired taste than his Broadway cast albums like Evita and Sunday In the Park With George. In the majority of his musical-theater performances, his trademark weirdness is somewhat under control. But in his solo albums, he really lets loose with his Mandy-ness. These albums consist largely of a mix of extremely slow, drawn-out legato singing and wildly over-the-top shouting. So they’re not for everyone, but speaking for myself, I adore them, and I’m not the only one. But even so, love him or hate him, Patinkin is one of the most interesting and distinctive singers in the genre, and no-one can accuse him of being a warmed-over Sinatra-clone or a personality-less belt voice like a lot of the younger singers in this genre.
Of all the names on this list, no-one has ever caused such a sensation with their interpretational singing as this one. Norah Jones is actually the daughter of a famed Indian Classical composer, but she has admirably refused to trade on the reputation of her father, going so far as to change her name to disassociate herself from him and establish her career on her own merits. And those merits she undeniably possessed—her beautiful smoky voice and riveting performance style featuring an odd mix of jazz, soul and country influences made her a sensation. She would actually have been much higher on the list if she had not made the unfortunate decision to reinvent herself as a singer-songwriter after her second album. Now, Jones’ first two albums contained a handful of original songs, and she does have her moments as a songwriter…the title track of her first album, “Come Away With Me”, certainly proves that…but she is not consistent enough at it to found her entire career on it, and both her quality and popularity took a nosedive after she for the most part abandoned interpretational singing. She still dabbles in it on occasion (e.g. her guest appearance on Willie Nelson’s tribute to Ray Charles, Here We Go Again), but her last three solo albums have consisted entirely of increasingly uneven originals, which is a real shame. Still, there’s no arguing with a voice like this, and her first two albums still stand as highlights of the interpretive singing genre.
Ann Hampton Callaway
This stunning stylist with her amazingly rangy and flexible contralto is quite possibly the finest jazz-cabaret chanteuse on the New York scene today. She even managed to do a successful Ella Fitzgerald tribute album, something most would not have dared and probably no-one else could have pulled off—imitating those vocal stylings while not actually being Ella Fitzgerald is a pretty impressive feat. Also, unlike some of her peers on this list, she actually has a fair measure of songwriting talent, as attested to by items like the delectable “The I’m-Too-White-To-Sing-the-Blues Blues”. She even wrote the theme song to “The Nanny”, always the sitcom of choice among us Broadway types. She even became the only other songwriter ever to collaborate with Cole Porter on a song (albeit posthumously—she set one of his unfinished lyrics to music, but it still says a lot that Porter’s rightsholders let her do it). She is also the sister of Broadway veteran Liz Callaway, having appeared with her in an award-winning cabaret-musical piece called Sibling Revelry, and I have to say, that’s one talented family.
Country music legend Willie Nelson’s Stardust is what originally sparked the trend of musicians from other fields dabbling in the Great American Songbook, and no-one riding that trend has ever done it better. With his thin tenor, Nelson hardly seems like one of the great vocalists, but he somehow manages to perfectly justify everything he sings in spite of his limited voice. The jazzy songs are tossed off with the perfect casual panache, while the heartfelt ballads are delivered with simple, heartrending honesty. Most people, if they have heard his work in the standards-singing field at all, known it only from Stardust, but he did two more efforts in the field shortly thereafter, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and his collaboration with Leon Russell, One For the Road. He set the style aside after that for many years, only to return to it in his most recent works, American Classic, Two Men With the Blues, and the Ray Charles tribute album Here We Go Again (the latter two being collaborations with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis). It seems clear his work in the genre is far from over, and I for one look forward to see what he does with it next.
Tuck and Patti
The only plurality of any kind to make the list, this husband-and-wife team have certainly earned their place here. Tuck Andress is probably the best jazz guitarist since the days of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. They don’t call him “One Man Band” Andress for nothing—he really can make his solo guitar sound like a whole jazz combo, and a superb one at that. He is married to Patti Cathcart, a jazz singer with a gorgeous contralto voice and a rare gift for vocal improvisation, and between them they represent one of the finest teams in all of modern jazz. Among their most memorable performances are an iconic version of “As Time Goes By”, an impressive acoustic tribute to the great Jimi Hendrix with a medley of “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing”, and a version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” that frankly blows the original out of the water, defining the song as their own forevermore. Also of note is Andress’ acclaimed solo album Reckless Precision, which, without the benefit of vocals, features unforgettable arrangements of “Over the Rainbow” and Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror”. The genre known as ‘Smooth Jazz’ has many detractors because its public face has always been represented by such vacuous Easy Listening acts as Kenny G, but many musicians classified as Smooth Jazz are far more interesting than that sort of thing, and this distinguished partnership is one of the prime examples.
Natalie Cole spent the first portion of her career as a b-list imitator of Aretha Franklin, but she had something that Rod Stewart and Willie Nelson did not…a legacy for the Great American Songbook from the day she was born. The daughter of Nat “King” Cole, one of the true vocal Gods of the classic jazz era, it was probably only a matter of time until Natalie found her direction in her father’s field. She first came to prominence with the legendary album Unforgettable, which features her singing a duet on the title track with the prerecorded vocals of her late father (this, and the subsequent duets Natalie has done in the same vein, are, by the way, the only time this technique has ever worked). Miss Cole has a wonderful voice, a superb sense of rhythm and a real gift for musical interpretation, but the best thing about her is her boundless energy: she never phones anything in. If you give her the theme to a Care Bears movie, she will sing it as though it were “Come Rain or Come Shine”. When she recorded her fourth album of standards, Still Unforgettable, she had a potentially life-threatening illness, yet she throws herself into the tracks so that you’d never know anything was wrong. Miss Cole is one of the treasure of today’s music, and has proven herself fully worthy of her father’s legacy—and I can offer no higher praise than that.
With a cool, almost detached vocal style reminiscent of Dionne Warwick, Diana Krall is one of the most distinctive performers in modern jazz. Originally a piano prodigy who came to prominence when she was discovered by living legend Tony Bennett, Krall is the most talented and substantial of the young standards-singing sensations of the past twenty years, outstripping Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr. and even Norah Jones. Her “Peel Me a Grape” is one of the sexiest musical performances of all time; her “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” brings the undertone of sadness the song always possessed to the surface; her “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is even more haunting than Nat “King” Cole’s original. She still plays piano, too, accompanying herself with great skill and even providing the instrumentation for several acclaimed standards albums by other artists, such as Barbra Streisand’s Love Is the Answer or Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom. Admittedly, her marriage to new-wave giant Elvis Costello has led her to dabble briefly with the art of the singer-songwriter, and to be perfectly frank she displays, like Norah Jones and Harry Connick, Jr., far less aptitude for it than she does for her chosen field of standards singing. Also true is that over of the course of her career Krall has tended more and more toward the field of Easy Listening in her arrangements, and her two latest albums, the bossa nova-based Quiet Nights and the collection of obscure Vaudeville tunes Glad Rag Doll, may incline a little excessively in that direction. Still, at her peak (which was hardly a brief one) she was a true Jazz Goddess, and she has left behind a legacy of treasured recordings, particularly those from 1995’s Only Trust Your Heart to 2001’s The Look of Love, that should be required listening for any true lover of the Great American Songbook.
Audra McDonald is the closest thing modern Broadway has to a Barbara Cook. Gorgeous, world-class soprano voice? Check. Acting ability to rival the greatest non-musical actresses? Check. Successful career as a vocalist in addition to her fame as a Broadway star? Check, check, check. McDonald’s Broadway career began with a luminous Carrie in the lauded Nineties revival of Carousel, and has gone on to feature such monumental highlights as her plangent Sarah in Ragtime, her wistfully down-to-earth Lizzie Curry in the revival of 110 In the Shade, and her recent triumph in the flawed but impressive Porgy and Bessrevival. Meanwhile, her recording career has consisted of a mix of performing stunning renditions of classic standards (with a particular fondness displayed for the works of Harold Arlen) and tirelessly promoting the music of the Post-Sondheim avant-garde generation of Broadway composers (Guettel, Lachiusa, Brown, Gordon, etc.). All of her work, whether as a musical actress or a recording artist, maintains a consistent standard of high quality, and when you catch her at her best, it is among the most magnificent work done in either field in the past twenty years.
Originally the personal protégé of legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin himself, Feinstein set himself up as guardian of the Great American songbook in a world that seemed to have no room for it anymore. His only weakness is a certain trouble with ‘hard’ Swing—he’s simply too innately gentle for some of the more forceful form of jazz, and one of his few weak albums was a somewhat ill-advised attempt at a Sinatra tribute. But as long as he sticks to lighter Swing, his infectious and optimistic spirit is an absolute delight, and between that and his haunting way with a romantic ballad, I’d be hard-pressed to name a better singers of standards in his entire generation. Equally impressive is his prolificacy…he has released literally dozen of albums, and for every relative clinker like the Sinatra tribute or his out-of-voice collaboration with George Shearing, Hopeless Romantics, there are any number of truly classic efforts. He has shown a particular affinity for the Gershwins, understandable given her personal connection to Ira, and has released three superb albums featuring their works, but he has also made greatly loved and admired albums based on the work of Irving Berlin (the breathtaking Remember), Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, Burton Lane, Hugh Martin, Livingston and Evans, and even Sixties pop-song composer Jimmy Webb. He has also collaborated with such musical legends as Barbara Cook, Liza Minelli, Rosemary Clooney, and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. He has made albums of Hollywood classics (The MGM Album), Broadway showtunes (the double-disc set Romance on Film, Romance on Broadway and many of his ‘Songbook’ albums), and children’s songs (his enchanting album for the young and young-at-heart, Pure Imagination). As I’ve said, no standards singer who has come to prominence in the modern era can compete with Feinstein for class, for prolificacy, or for consistency, and if you’re not already familiar with his work, his is the perfect place to start in exploring what has been done with the art of the jazz standard in the last forty years.
And here we come to the Number One name on the list, a woman considered by a wide consensus of those informed on the subject to be the greatest living interpreter of the Great American Songbook. In her youth, Cook was one of the greatest stars of the Golden Age of Broadway, an incomparable soprano vocalist and superb actress who created such roles as Marian in The Music Man and Cunegonde inCandide, and who quite honestly ranked with such legends as Mary Martin and Ethel Merman while actually outclassing them in talent. In the Seventies, she gradually abandoned Broadway, her last role on the Street being in the beloved cult flop The Grass Harp, only to reinvent herself as a popular vocalist singing the same classic repertoire that had defined her musical-theater roles. Now, at eighty-five years of age, she still has a far better voice than most people ever display at any point in their lives, and any luster she may have lost as a vocalist, she more than makes up for with her skills as a stylist and musical actress. She shows no sign of interest in retirement, either…she has managed to release an album virtually every year since 2000, displaying a dedication and prolificacy that even Michael Feinstein would be hard pressed to equal. True living legends on the level of Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald are a rare commodity in this field nowadays, and Cook, along with Tony Bennett and perhaps Barbra Streisand, is virtually the only one still active, so I recommend we treasure her and all the artists on this list as they deserve, because they’re not going to be around forever, and when they pass, an entire era is surely going to pass along with them.