Singin' and Swingin'
Sing, Swing, Sing!
With Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osborne, Gerald Albright, Christian McBride Big Band featuring Melissa Walker, and 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition winner Cyrille Aimée
Saturday, Nov. 9, 8pm
By Will Friedwald
"One of the main things we're trying to show in this concert is the idea that the big band swing tradition always included singers," says NJPAC Jazz Advisor Christian McBride, and he should know.
Although only 41 years old, the bassist, bandleader, composer and producer has worked with many veterans of the swing era, studied that tradition carefully (along with every other era of jazz history), and, most importantly, has the practical knowledge of working with his own full-scale big band. Having arranged for it, composed for it, conducted it, shepherded it on the road, played bass for it and even sung with it (something he doesn't admit to freely), McBride now has a doctoral degree in Big Band-ism.
And he's right about the role of singers in big band jazz. The image that subsequent generations have of the bands is a guy in a tuxedo waving a stick at 16 other guys who are similarly in-tux-icated. Singers, it is all too often over-simplistically assumed, somehow put the swing bands out of business. As with many things, the reality is much more layered and complex; vocalists were a key component of the band experience for almost as long as there were bands. Looking back, it's hard to imagine Chick Webb and his Orchestra without Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey without Frank Sinatra, Earl Hines without Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington without Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries without Al Hibbler, Count Basie without Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes or Joe Williams. Singers were always an essential part of the experience.
McBride also knows much of what there is to know about singers from his own personal experience: His wife is the celebrated jazz vocalist and educator Melissa Walker. In discussing this concert, McBride admits, "There's a whole lot of singers that night ... Dianne, Al, Jeffrey, Melissa and Cyrille." By whom he means Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau and Jeffrey Osborne, three singers who have crossed so many stylistic boundaries over the course of their rich careers that the only term that can be used to describe them is "eternally contemporary." Cyrille Aimée is the brilliant, 28-year-old, cutting-edge jazz vocalist from Fountainbleau (in France, not Florida) who aced the inaugural Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition last year, and Melissa is, of course, Mrs. McBride.
"The odd man out is Gerald," says McBride, meaning Gerald Albright, who has been universally successful as an alto saxophonist, but not a singer. However, McBride adds, "He's perfectly welcome to grab a vocal mic if he wants to!"
Accommodating so many singers won't be particularly easy, but Christian has it all figured out. "The concert is in two halves, and each of those will open with my big band playing 15 minutes up front, and then Melissa will come out and sing one song with the band." He adds, "I'm writing big-band charts for everybody – all the artists on the show. Dianne requested that I write one, and so has Jeffrey. And I'll be doing a voice-bass duet with Cyrille.
"There's one other aspect to the evening," McBride adds, "one that we didn't plan on when we first came up with the idea for this concert." Originally, the concert was set to include George Duke. After the keyboardist and producer died suddenly in August, the idea took shape for the show to also serve as a tribute to Duke's long and storied career. "By a total coincidence, virtually everybody we had booked from the show, originally including George himself, worked with George at one time or another, usually on one of the more important projects of their career."
McBride notes that although few of these artists would necessarily be the automatic choice for anyone planning a concert of traditional, 4/4 big band swing, all of the performers selected – though all known for other things –have the big band tradition in their musical DNA. "Wait till you hear what they sound like with our big band swinging back there behind them! All of these people have histories with this kind of music, it's in their early background, they just decided to go on a different professional route. You listen to some of Al's early recordings, particularly with George Duke live at the Half Note, things like that. And Dianne could possibly be the most versatile vocalist on the planet. George Duke produced Jeffrey on his most recent CD, which was a jazz CD that I played on. To me, Gerald Albright has have been sadly pigeonholed as being exclusively a smooth jazz guy, but he is one of the most dangerously talented saxophonists in the world; he can hold his own with anyone playing the swing rhythms."
He then adds, "So I can't wait to do that with them that night." My feet are starting to tap just thinking about it.
Will Friedwald is the author of eight books on music and popular culture, including the award-winning A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Sinatra: The Song Is You, Stardust Melodies, Tony Bennett: The Good Life and Jazz Singing. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received eight Grammy nominations and appears frequently on television and other documentaries.
Oct. 11, 2013