Sunday, December 2, 2012

A tired tune walked into a bar...

There’s a musicians’ joke that goes something like this: “How many jazz singers does it take to sing ‘My Funny Valentine’ [or ‘Summertime’ or ‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66’ or ‘All of Me’]?”

Answer: “Apparently all of them.”     


Only it’s no joke. Too many singers, and wannabees, go right to the tiredest of tunes in the Great American Songbook. It’s not that these are bad songs. Far from it. But the new purveyors show NO imagination. And most times they’re doing the great tunes an injustice.

They fail to seek out and freshen other excellent songs that they can identify with, illuminate and present to ears who might like to hear something different. Something that may have bypassed the listeners’ own radar screens, or something they loved but haven’t heard in a while. A singer's failure to do that is lazy - and insulting to his/her audience.

Very recent example: When a singer I’d never heard before was heading toward the stage at a jam session last week, I thought to myself, “I’ll bet she’s going to sing and/or screech her way through ‘Summertime.’” She did both.

Sarah Vaughan
Many of the greatest singers and instrumentalists in jazz have performed and recorded this Gershwin tune from Porgy & Bess in superb fashion. But isn’t it time to give it a rest? Why anybody today would think that they can reveal new facets in such a tune or improve on the late Sarah Vaughan confounds me.

And I know I’m not alone here. Another singer/player in the room was in full agreement, whispering: “If I never sing ‘Summertime’ again, it will be too soon.”

The same concerns here apply to the plethora of chick singer jazz recordings that have come out in recent years. Look through a dozen of them and you’ll see that virtually every one is covering the same material. My eyes jump to a singer who is presenting something new, original or long forgotten.

Come on people, enough with the laziness and the tired tunes. Find something you can truly freshen. Find something that hasn’t been sung ad nauseam – and that you didn’t sing the week before.


Surprise me one of these nights.


  1. "My eyes jump to a singer who is presenting something new, original or long forgotten." Ken: For comparison's sake, I'm curious, so I wonder if you would identify any of the current crop whom you do like. I am decidedly unimpressed by many of them.
    -Carol Sloane

  2. I'm also decidedly unimpressed by most, Carol.

    A few in recent years who have piqued my interest for their approach, voices and/or material: (in no particular order) Gregory Porter, Whitney James, Alison Wedding, Barbara King, Lisa Lindsley, Louise Van Aarsen, Birdie Leigh, Dana Lauren, Lisa Engelken, Kat Edmonson, and Canada's Ori Dagan and Sophie Berkal-Sorbit.

    There may be a few more whose names escape me at the moment. Most of these are relatively new to the scene, or have only popped into the spotlight in the last couple of years.

  3. I've never heard of any of these singers. Do they have recordings? Do they project a knowledge of the history of the art form and its practioners? Are they all from Canada? :) How did you discover them? I'd like to read your reviews.

  4. The Great American Songbook, created mostly between the World Wars, is a vast ocean full of treasures. I too grow weary of singers and instrumentalists who insist on "Green Dolphin Street," "There Will Never Be Another You," "All of Me," "The Girl From Ipanema" and other well-worn chestnuts for a "jam session" or (!) record date. Many calling the shots are blissfully ignorant of the less-played glories of Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Hoagy et. al., while others have no choice but to go along with the least common denominator of what everyone on the bandstand knows.

    Here is my suggestion to aspiring singers and instrumentalists: learing these great tunes takes as much time and effort as learning to play and sing. Seek out and learn from others who share your interest, and arrange to attend jam sessions together. Gently suggest to the session "air traffic controller" to let you up together. The delight you feel at discovering new gems will be shared by the audience.

    There are many places to look. I suggest you start with, a purveyor of classic tunes since 1989, widely heard nationwide on public radio and online. Come on and join the party.