We expect to find great musicians in New York and L.A., because, after all, that's where they can find work. In other cities, you often find musicians there because they like it. New Orleans, of course, has entire families of musicians, with the Marsalises and the Nevilles merely the best known. It is also often true that you can point to at least one musician not known outside the area, but who should be. If you were fortunate enough to hit Van's in Cleveland during the 30s, you would find a fantastic pianist from Toledo, Ohio, named Art Tatum. New Orleans provides the riches of the elegant Philip Manuel and Tony Dagradi, the Armstrong-heir trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the consummate Germaine Bazzle, and the force of nature Leah Chase.
There's a big club scene in Austin with many great performers, essentially local: the r&b pianist Marcia Ball, the surreal bluegrass band Austin Lounge Lizards, Band-influenced Tommy Elskes and Stephen Luther Doster, and jazz singer Mady Kaye.
Some wonder why a discourse on pop singing belongs in a forum on classical music. I won't revive that hoary chestnut of how "jazz is America's classical music," since it must be qualified so much I'm not sure it's really true. Certainly, composers like Ellington, Monk, Taylor, Parker, Mulligan, and Mingus blur distinctions, but their very excellence argues rarity. On the other hand, the great pop and jazz singers usually have much to teach their classical confreres, particularly in matters of line, phrasing, and drama. Just listen to any number of major vocal "stars," including the ones born in English-speaking countries, bleed the interest out of any song they attempt to sing in English. Further, songs - pop and classical - bear more of a family look than large-scale compositions. Ned Rorem articulated my artistic credo when he wrote that what made Beatles songs great were the same things that made Schubert and Mahler songs great. To quote Jim Svejda, "The major qualitative difference between the songs of Franz Schubert and those of George Gershwin is that, by and large, Gershwin worked with better texts." With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about Mady Kaye.
Kaye's voice rests on a solid foundation of classic bel canto technique. I have no idea where or what she studied, but she'd be a great Schubert or Fauré singer. The line comes out fully supported and without noticeable effort. She can put a line through one color change after another without a pop, wheeze, or break in the tone. In ballads, her phrases run like a long white glove up the arm of a tall woman. The voice itself sounds like liquid silver, and she is always excitingly in tune. She declaims her text like a reader of fine poetry, and she continues to improve. I listened to an early tape, in which most of her virtues were already apparent. However, she did not always find the right tone, sometimes guilty of overselling. Humor could become too perky, the tragic step into the maudlin. Well, most of us continue to grow up, including, rather quickly, Kaye. Her work of the past ten years or so (since I've been listening) is emotionally spot-on. As a jazz singer, she seems influenced most by cool and bop, Jon Hendricks and Mel Tormé among the mix. At the least, it takes brains for an artist to remind anyone of these singers. Her musical intelligence is formidable.
I've heard her on several occasions in person, and her ability to reinvent standards has astonished me every time. I remember particularly a "Skylark" changed from Moon River-yearning to a light, elegant waltz. On this album, there's an "Autumn Leaves" (sung in the original French, as well as with Johnny Mercer's familiar English lyrics) which, after a brief tip of the hat to Piaf in the verse, takes off with the crispness of a fresh petit gateau. She clears away all the cocktail-piano runs from the piece.
In ballads, she tends toward and shines in what I would call "sax songs" - that is, songs that owe their basic musical viewpoint to such soloists as Young, Hawkins, and Hodges. In this category, you find Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," Strayhorn's "Lush Life," and Duke's "Autumn in New York." All feature a kind of asymmetry of phrase and avoidance of the standard "balanced" melodic patterns. Phrase gets added on to phrase without obvious relation or apparent closure, and the line feels like it constantly threatens to tip over. Yet all eventually "right themselves." On this album, Kaye sings two. Wolf and Landesman's "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" I believe one of the best songs since 1950, neither soothing syrup nor rock- or folk-based. It shares the sound of classic Ellington. A singer like Sarah Vaughan would try to overwhelm you with an abundance of surprising ornament, turning the song into a saxophone solo with, incidentally, words. In contrast, Kaye etches out a solo fairly close to the melodic bone. The variations come mainly from timbre and rhythmic changes. The rhythmic changes never stray too far from conversation. It's like hearing a good actor come up with various line readings. When she does ornament, she concerns herself with getting the most punch from the most concentrated means. Two extra notes can change the world. Kaye's own "January Always Makes Me Blue" sounds a bit too close to the other. Even the titles (and refrains) are metrically identical. That they're on the same album only exaggerates the resemblance. It would have been better to cut one of them.
Charlie Parker's music attracts Kaye. She has put words to at least two of his solos. On this CD, she tackles the fiendishly difficult "Au Privave" at breakneck tempo. It's like watching an elaborate needlepoint pattern realizing itself in the time it takes to draw a breath. Awesome, witty precision.
Not the least of the CD's pleasures is Kaye's almost perfect sense of repertoire. Excepting "Autumn Leaves" there's not one particularly well-known song here, and yet almost all are winners, as if anything is needed to convince one of the depth of the American popular song. Heavens! These are the discards? I must admit I hate the ersatz -Bacharach exercise "Like a Lover" and that lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman ought to be legally denied pencil and paper, but this is the only clunker in a very generous program. It would be odd if Kaye didn't write songs, given her completeness as a musician. Her songs set out for melodic and harmonic adventure. Lyrically, she's at her best as a wit. In ballads, she can occasionally hit a purple patch, but that's only because she's trying for something she hasn't heard before. My favorite Kaye songs on this album include the hilarious "Take It Home Someplace Else" and "So Hot" and the pensive "Autumn Song."
Kaye has always surrounded herself with fine musicians. In fact, she needs them, and, thankfully, she gets them. They like to work with her. Her backup on the CD is tight, the arrangements highlight the songs, rather than themselves. Her pianists, Jeff Hellmer and Rich Harney, are especially fine. Hellmer's solos, despite a slight tendency to drag (fortunately, there's a strong rhythm section), display the same virtues of elegant concision as Kaye's singing.
No distributor handles this amazing CD, so you won't find it in stores. I can't recommend it strongly enough to anyone interested in popular song and singing. I've included ordering information in the heading of this review. Write to the address. Visit the Web site. Call the number.
Distributed by Mady Kaye, 4906 West Park Drive, Austin, TX
78731 (800) 286-2848
Web Site: http://www.madykaye.com
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz