WHAT does it take to make a good jazz singer? It starts, obviously, with a voice, but here — in a country oversupplied with good voices — it rapidly becomes apparent that the voice alone is not enough. Beyond talent are taste and intelligence. The most interesting singers select or create the best material for their personality and vocal range.
They assemble musical collaborators who share the vision. They plan where to let a melodic line breathe without ornament and where to bend or stretch it in a wholly unexpected direction. They decide where to use the honeyed tones, and where the earthy ones. They space or emphasise the words to convey their chosen message.
The singer, then, needs to be both smart and in control. So it’s not surprising that many of South Africa’s most interesting vocalists — Tutu Puoane, Siya Makuzeni, Melanie Scholtz — have flowered outside the grasp of dictatorial labels and producers.
Now there’s another, with the appearance of London-born, Cape Town-raised, New York-schooled Nicky Schrire’s self-produced debut album, Freedom Flight (Circavision).
A Manhattan School of Music Master’s Programme graduate, Schrire has assembled 11 interesting songs: two of her own, and nine others from hands as varied as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright, Florence Welch and Carlo Mombelli.
"At the end of the day," says Schrire, "it’s all music and what’s important is that it makes you feel something."
Schrire has a warm voice, crystal diction and an assured, mature arranger’s ear. The songs are presented with understated, clean lines, often reharmonised to showcase texture and story rather than given a predictable "jazz" treatment crammed with by-the-numbers scatting. Her vocal excursions can take many forms, from the rich lyricism of Freedom Flight (introducing the Beatles’ Blackbird) to a cool, minimalist vocal loop on Mombelli’s Me, The Mango-Picker. All this is supported by an instrumental team that also prefers the light touch, Nick Paul’s piano, in particular, supports without crowding, and stretches out to display a musical imagination in harmony with Schrire’s but very much his own. He’s not alone: the whole group understands a good song needs space.
The simplicity is leavened by deft touches of humour, something jazz singers too often forget, in, for example, Wainwright’s Swimming Song, delivered sweetly deadpan. And Schrire’s attention to story transforms Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice. The original was a catchy tune carrying a set of weak male excuses for moving on: possibly the hippie 1960’s most overused set of musical exit lines.
Without rewording, Schrire remakes the lyric convincingly as a woman’s song of emotional growth. For that alone (but actually for much more) Freedom Flight deserves several gold stars and a regular place in your player.
On Thursday, Cape Town’s Mahogany Room presents Scholtz with I Remember Sarah, a concert of material associated with the late Sarah Vaughan, starting at 8pm. Scholtz reappears at the Artscape Theatre on Saturday, as both performer and musical director of The Eve — a Celebration of the Curve of Humanity. Scholtz has just won three awards at the Jazz@Juan Revelation: the jazz festival of the French resort of Juan les Pins.
Also on Saturday, London-based South African jazz singer Estelle Kokot appears at the Afrikan Freedom Station gallery on Thornton Road in Westdene (073-852-5149); on Sunday she moves to the Lucky Bean on Melville’s Seventh Street.
Kokot first impressed Johannesburg listeners at Kippie’s back in the 1980s with Phambili and the late Mike Makhalemele.
She has since established a place on the tough London scene, where she has played the Royal Festival Hall and been praised by Guardian jazz critic John Fordham.