|By Terry Perkins
This is the first in a series of articles examining a variety of interesting educational efforts exploring the meaning and impact of jazz standards on American culture, jazz history, and contemporary music.
An ideal place to begin is National Public Radio-specifically, the show, Jazz Profiles. Hosted by famed vocalist Nancy Wilson, this weekly, one-hour program uses a documentary style approach to examine the lives and musical contributions of jazz legends ranging from Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, and Duke Ellington to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins.
Jazz Profiles also occasionally focuses on specific topics. For example, subjects such as women in jazz, the jazz violin, and the jazz history of cities such as Chicago and Washington D.C. have all been included in the Jazz Profiles lineup. Sure to be of special interest to JazzStandards.com readers is the program, “The Standards,” which features singer Michael Feinstein, violinist Regina Carter, pianist Max Morath, lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and others discussing the topic of standard songs and their relationship to jazz.
An overview of the program-including nine taped excerpts from the original broadcast-can be accessed by going to the Jazz Profiles website (click here), going to the bottom of the page and clicking on “The Standards.” Interspersed among copy providing a running commentary on topics such as an overview of where standards came from in the past and where new ones are originating today, the essential qualities of a standard song, and the lasting power of the classic tunes from the great American songbook, you’ll hear interesting commentary on those topics by the guests listed above.
Those looking for the in-depth, detailed information and background on specific standard tunes, songwriters and performers provided on the JazzStandards.com site won’t find it in this particular Jazz Profiles program. In fact many of the jazz musicians featured on other Jazz Profiles shows don’t fit into the more focused approach of JazzStandards.com. Artists profiled on both sites to date include Armstrong, Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Errol Garner, Paul Desmond, Sarah Vaughan, Jon Hendricks, and Al Hibbler.
But what you will find on Jazz Profiles “The Standards” is a fine introduction to the symbiotic relationship between the standard song and jazz musicians and a look at how that has evolved over the years. Add the thought-provoking comments of Feinstein, Morath and the others, and it’s like sitting in on a free-flowing, intimate conversation among some very talented and opinionated musical professionals.
And that relaxed but highly entertaining and informative approach is one of the secrets behind the success of Jazz Profiles--that and the impressive work of Wilson as the host. Wilson has proven to be an ideal choice for Jazz Profiles. Over the course of a five-plus decade career, she has established herself as one of the most popular vocalists in American music. Wilson first came to national prominence after noted sax player Cannonball Adderley let her sit in on a club date in Columbus, Ohio. She soon came to New York at Adderley’s urging, where she signed a contract with Capitol records, leading to a string of critically acclaimed recordings such as Broadway My Way and Hollywood My Way.
Although jazz is her forte, Wilson prefers to call herself a “song stylist” rather than a jazz or pop singer, and that title certainly fits her wide-ranging approach to the songs she has chosen to perform and record. Wilson’s most recent recording, R.S.V.P.: Rare Songs, Very Personal, on the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild label, won a Grammy. But more importantly, the recording serves as a fine example of Wilson’s eclectic approach to the concept of jazz standards.
Recently, Wilson took time out from her busy schedule to comment on the concept behind R.S.V.P., the criteria she uses to pick standards to record, and how she sees the concept of the standard changing. Wilson began by talking about the songs she chose to record for R.S.V.P.
“Because all of my albums have themes that run through them,” she explains, “there were a handful of songs that were always near and dear to me but that I was never able to record as they didn’t flow with whichever project I was working on at the time. So after 50 years of being in this business, I finally decided it was time to record some of my personal favorites. R.S.V.P. is a compilation of the songs that I was just always fond of.”
Interestingly, the songs on R.S.V.P. include quite a few tunes that belong to the great American songbook such as Irving Berlin’s “How About Me” and Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” But Wilson also covers O.C. Smith’s 1968 pop hit “Little Green Apples” as well as the Marvin Gaye song “Why Did I Choose You.” According to Wilson, her criteria for choosing a song to perform or record are both personal and related to her need to put her own stamp on a song.
“First, the song has to tell a story; the lyrics must speak to me,” she explains. “If I can’t feel it, I won’t sing it. Secondly, I try to pick songs that I feel the audience will want to hear done in a new way. So many artists cover the standards but don’t introduce anything new or unique to them. I try to make the standards my own by putting my soul into them.”
Wilson also sees new standards emerging, but she doesn’t see any particular trends in terms of those tunes coming from particular sources. But she does have some favorite contemporary songwriters.
“A lot of songs used to come from Broadway shows, but with the exception of a few Sondheim songs, most music from most of today’s shows can’t stand alone,” comments Wilson. “I don’t think that there is a ‘trend’ in particular that defines a standard. If a songwriter makes beautiful and powerful tunes, singers will want to sing them and audiences will demand they be sung. As for the ‘new’ standards songwriters I like, Patti Austin and Billy Joel are the first two who come to mind. Their lyrics are always filled with passion and sincerity and that is so important to me.”
You can expect to hear more of those “new” standards on Wilson’s next MCG recording project, which is well under way. Although she didn’t want to give away too much about the upcoming recording, Wilson did give us a sneak peek at the project
“In a way, this new album is also like R.S.V.P.,” states Wilson. “I am doing songs that I have always adored as well as some new tunes sure to become new favorites. It has more of a set theme than R.S.V.P. did though; these are all songs of love and loss. But don’t be fooled, this won’t be a sad, melodramatic recording. Some of these songs swing just as much as ever! I don’t want to give too much away, but you can expect to hear Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath, Bob Mintzer, Tom Scott, and John Clayton. It’s going to be special!”