These 4 jazz-vocals albums moved marlbank most this year. All are outstanding
1/ KANDACE SPRINGS, THE WOMEN WHO RAISED ME, BLUE NOTE In a few brief years Kandace Springs has become the female singer to turn to for her fresh way with classic jazz material and this surpasses all that has gone before.
There is the quality and the sheer quantity. Opening with 'Devil May Care' featuring Christian McBride there is a frisson, a lifeforce and that continues through in the personality she brings throughout to her loosely constructed tribute to female singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Sade to Billie Holiday.
Guests include a heroine of hers, Norah Jones, on a well caught treatment of 'Angel Eyes' although you don't turn at least yet to Springs for a distillation of darkness, yet it's lightning in a bottle because whatever the song she will find a way to make it work even if against the odds.
David Sanborn is on 'I Put a Spell on You' begun by Kandace on piano leaning in to the 'Moonlight Sonata' and using it as a counter melody against the Screamin' Jay Hawkins melody before Sanborn comes in with a superb crash and burns the place down. While Kandace is not like Nina Simone as a singer at all, there is much less of a shout and a violence in her sound, but there is a lot of range and a lot of passion that speaks to the listener as if it is their song.
'Pearls' is beautiful, a world away from the designer lounge sound Sade cultivated. Among the guests it's encouraging that flautist Elena Pinderhughes gets some new profile here and yet 'Ex-Factor' isn't such a stop the traffic track, but she adds an extra dimension to 'Killing Me Softly' a big highlight too for the vocal treatment. Pinderhughes I think needs more of a Bobbi Humphrey-type production in the future to make her big statement when someone gives her a big deal if that in the end comes. Trumpeter Avishai Cohen makes some telling contributions, you won't have heard him on any record the way he comes over here. It is staggering how much content there is on the album with multiple points of entry. Chris Potter is used well on the samba 'Gentle Rain' and keeping 'Strange Fruit' to last for impact was a good idea, the most serious song after all that Kandace navigates fairly well in its chilling indictment of raw racism. With her slight country lilt and the sheer joy she summons up from within her she has become one of the new greats on this evidence. Best jazz-vocals record since Liquid Spirit.
2/ KURT ELLING FT. DANILO PÉREZ, SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES, EDITION It's been a long time since Kurt Elling or for that matter Danilo Pérez have made an album as accomplished as Secrets are the Best Stories. (In Elling's case 2009's Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman; in the case of Pérez Across the Crystal Sea from a year earlier.)
Supremely literary and poetic Elling has always had a faraway aura while Pérez cloaks the majesty of his playing in an often oblique magical realism that suits Elling's style. As a lyricist Elling does not go in for gimmicks, his method more a crafting of the metaphysical that will slowly invite you in to discover more as the many layers of the songs reveal themselves.
The album's cast of players includes Clark Sommers on double bass on a piece inspired by a Franz Wright poem shaped around a Jaco Pastorius piece, while alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón (more significantly), drummer Johnathan Blake and guitarist Chico Pinheiro also figure. But overwhelmingly the main musical direction is from piano leading to a conversation with voice. The ''Panamonkian'' style that Pérez himself has used as a shortcut in the past to describe his approach is more expansive than ever, his solo on 'Gratitude (for Robert Bly)' worth the price of the album alone. A great achievement, almost operatic at its most intense on 'Beloved (for Toni Morrison)' that every jazz fan should find the time to listen to and absorb.
3/ MARY COUGHLAN, LIFE STORIES, HAIL MARY RECORDS There's nothing fake or commodified about Mary Coughlan. She tells it like it is and this fine, honest, collection has a typically rough and ready blues and jazz soaked wrapping that suits her style well. The Galway-born singer has an intimate way about her and these home truths bypass the cabaret niceties of singers who like the idea of singing the blues or some such but really are only playacting. Even when strings amplify the effect on 'Family Life' there is nothing plastic about her approach. When jazz clubs return to normal you'd hope they'd be on the phone straight away to book Coughlan given the quality of the tracks here. Her sense of reality suits the present time more than most.
4/ IAN SHAW QUARTET, INTEGRITY, ABEAT The compelling version of 'People' from the Ian Shaw Italian quartet album Integrity was the clincher. Shaw's second album in 2020, following his earlier release What's New? with Iain Ballamy and Jamie Safir, Shaw finds himself in a different setting appearing with pianist Alessandro di Liberto, bassist Tommaso Scannapieco and drummer Enzo Zirilli. Tracks in addition to the Styne/Merrill classic 'People' are: 'Alone Again', 'Born to Be Blue, 'Day Dream', 'She's Leaving Home', 'I Wanted to Say,' 'Smile', 'Waiting for a Dream', 'My Foolish Heart' and 'Use Me.' Classic.