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Female jazz singers?
September 5, 2011 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn more about female jazz singers, but I like melancholy, pared-down music better than high-energy big band music. Can you recommend some songs to me?

I've been curious about women jazz singers for a while, but coming across Nina Simone's cover of Ballad of Hollis Brown tipped my curiosity over the edge. Can you point me to more songs like that? I know that there's got to be some other raw, melancholy music out there, but every time I try to go looking for it, I get overwhelmed by a wave of doo-wopping back-up singers.

Is it really dumb to go looking for jazz singers who aren't perfectly smooth? 'Cause I think at the bottom of it, that's what I'm really looking for.

Music that I already like that might be relevant: I'm fond of blues singers like Son House, Leadbelly, Cat-Iron, and Blind Willie Johnson. I like instrumental jazz musicians like Charles Mingus, Theolonius Monk, and the later work of Miles Davis. I like Nina Simone's, Arethea Franklin's, and Ella Fitzgerald's voices, but they all have such large bodie of work that I don't even know where to start. Recommendations for songs not by those three women are welcome too though. Thanks for your help.
posted by colfax to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 


Dinah Washington?
posted by hermitosis at 12:52 PM on September 5, 2011


Nina's "Backlash Blues." Also, required viewing.
posted by hermitosis at 12:54 PM on September 5, 2011


Possibly obvious, but: Billie Holiday.
posted by sugarbomb at 12:54 PM on September 5, 2011


The essential Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday.

Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby performed by Anita O'Day is so god damn smooth.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:14 PM on September 5, 2011


Yeah, never mind those other singers, Billie Holiday FTW.

There is no flavor of sad that she can't do better than anyone else. She also does happy better than anyone else. Just get the Complete BH boxes on Columbia, Decca and Verve and call it a day.

Raw and sad:
Strange Fruit
Torchy and sad:
Some Other Spring
Gloomy Sunday
Swinging and sad:
I'll Never Be the Same
You Let Me Down
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:19 PM on September 5, 2011


While Bessie Smith is mostly considered a blues singer, she was a big influence on many of the singers already mentioned.
posted by Lorin at 1:21 PM on September 5, 2011


Holly Cole? Don't know if she's considered "jazz"
posted by cranberrymonger at 1:25 PM on September 5, 2011


Classic female blues singers are okay too. I don't know enough about the genre to know what the difference is yet.
posted by colfax at 1:34 PM on September 5, 2011


She also does happy better than anyone else. I just said that, but I just realized that I personally like a little sad in my happy -- if you like your happy neat, you probably would be better off with Ella.

Happy (with a little sad)
Says My Heart
I Wished on the Moon
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:40 PM on September 5, 2011


Bessie Smith Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:43 PM on September 5, 2011


Does it need to be old-style and in English? If you are ok with contemporary and non-English music that owes everything to classic artists like Nina Simone, check out artists like Marissa Monte and Roberta Sa.

Also, for what it's worth, Pandora can be a pretty good way to find your way from one song you know you like to music new to you. Keep hitting the thumbs-down for music that isn't what you are looking for, and take note of the artists you enjoy more.
posted by Forktine at 1:47 PM on September 5, 2011


As far as Nina Simone goes, this album is my current favourite. It doesn't have her version of Hollis Brown but does have several other Dylan covers and a sublime version of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne.
posted by Lorin at 1:51 PM on September 5, 2011


I bet you'd like Astrud Gilberto.

My favorite: Agua de beber
Everyone else's favorite: The Girl from Ipanema
But mostly she does this muted melancholy thing: How Insensitive
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:58 PM on September 5, 2011


Carmen McRae - Trouble Is A Man, The Right to Love, It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feelings, Inside a Silent Tear

Cassandra Wilson - Just Another Parade

Anita O'Day - When Sunny Gets Blue

Diane "Deedles" Schur - Funny, But I Still Love You

Dianne Reeves - You Go to My Head

Peggy Lee - Fever

Tania Maria - Don't Go (a Brazilian singer, now living in New York, whose work is in both Portugese and English)

Patti Cathcart Andress (also of Tuck & Patti) - Love Is The Key
posted by paulsc at 2:00 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love Nina Simone generally, but I think her albums after moving to RCA were pretty hit-and-miss. For me, you can look at her discography and not go wrong with any of the albums from Colpix or Phillips, and I really like the live 2xCD Tomato Collection. If you like 'Strange Fruit', I think Nina's version beats out all others. A lot of her Colpix and Phillips albums are available 2-to-a-CD for quite cheap new.
posted by K.P. at 2:01 PM on September 5, 2011


Currently working? Stacey Kent, Lorraine Feather, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit ... Feather's a little more upbeat but I adore her original material too much to leave her out.

"Is it really dumb to go looking for jazz singers who aren't perfectly smooth? 'Cause I think at the bottom of it, that's what I'm really looking for."

You'll find lots. There's a beautiful diversity of voices in jazz.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:04 PM on September 5, 2011


Susannah McCorkle. Her version of The Waters of March (Aguas del Marco) is really great.
posted by Daily Alice at 3:55 PM on September 5, 2011


You might want to give Canadian Holly Cole and her trio a spin.
posted by thatdawnperson at 4:00 PM on September 5, 2011


Anita O'Day isn't as well known as some of the other singers mentioned in this thread. Too bad for us all..

She was spectacular. She was amazing. I sortof love her, desperately, she was beautiful and she had in spades that whole broke-wing bird thing that in a woman just rips my guts out, and she sang like an goddess. And she lived not just as an artist, much of her life was Art; on any stage, she was absolutely Art. As long as I'm alive she'll be loved; my suspicion is that as long as there are recordings available to the human ear she will be loved.

Check out Traveling Light, 1962, in Tokyo. Seems to me that she just inhabits that song, owns it, and having learned all I can about her life, I know for a fact that she lived it. Her legendary performance at The Newport Jazz Fest in 1957 -- she was smiled out on junk, as she was most performances, watch her in that blissed narcosis perform; Sweet Georgia Brown and Tea For Two, maybe not her songs but if they weren't her songs she sure got her fingerprints all over them.

She saw her voice as not just a voice but rather as an instrument and she played it as one, not that she didn't sing and sing with emotion and spirit and class but also that she'd then use her voice in ways that others just cannot. Check her out in the first part of this video more than holding her own with these four sax players (sorry, terrible video quality but sound is good), check her out in this 1962 recording of Tea For Two, with her three piece band.

She wasn't the only person who saw her voice as an instrument; check out this nicely put together piece from the documentary about her life, The Life Of A Jazz Singer. Netflix has both the documentary and an additional disc of complementary items.


I guess I'd recomend you start with the documentary and then hit the many songs and articles about her online. (Lots of stuff on O'Day on NPR. I just *love* O'Day being interviewed by Terry Gross, in the late 80s; Anita pretty much owned Gross, who was certainly not yet as seasoned as she is now, O'Day wasn't mean or anything, just very, very present -- fun!)

If you like what you find, she's also written a book about it all, one hell of a read.
(Probably someday I need to put together a FPP about her, though I expect that flapjax or dubitable would do it better than I.)
posted by dancestoblue at 7:04 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


12:20 in this video for five minutes, a discussion about the biopic documentary of O'Day
posted by dancestoblue at 7:19 PM on September 5, 2011


Here to second Stacey Kent and Diana Krall. Especially Diana Krall.
posted by davejay at 1:51 AM on September 6, 2011


omg...astrud giberto! my favorite: her cover of beginnings is pure heaven...listen to the whole thing...once the horns start kicking, it's totally off the hook...

nina simone's (swinging 1960's) version of 'mood indigo' is one of my favorites...all i can find on youtube is this remix...

also mae barnes
posted by sexyrobot at 1:53 AM on September 6, 2011


oh...and this ella fitzgerald version of into each life some rain must fall also has a truly crazy horn section...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:59 AM on September 6, 2011


On the more modern tip, I cannot recommend Karrin Allyson strongly enough. Her "Ballads" album is, IMO, perfect from beginning to end and perfectly hits the mood you're aiming for.
posted by jbickers at 4:15 AM on September 6, 2011


The music's very smooth and often upbeat, but Astrud Gilberto had a wonderfully melancholy voice, to my mind. Stuff like "Corcavado" and "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "Manha de Carnaval."
posted by ifjuly at 4:37 AM on September 6, 2011


Oh you lovely people! Thank you so much for the recommendations. You've just made my day.
posted by colfax at 2:06 PM on September 6, 2011


Over the weekend I got to discover an amazing Billie Holiday song, Don't Explain, courtesy of Wesla Whitfield, whose music I like a lot.
posted by kristi at 6:05 PM on September 6, 2011


You should grab Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday. It's her best album. (It's probably one of the best Jazz albums period.)
posted by chunking express at 11:26 AM on September 9, 2011


Here's the thing about Billie Holiday. Roughly speaking:
In the 30s she sang with big swing bands, often not-great moon-June songs, and she had a voice like a bell.
In the 40s she got more creative freedom, so often terrific songs, but she herself liked treacly strings and bathos.
In the 50s, she sang mostly standards, mostly in the small-combo jazz idiom everyone loves, and her voice was full of gravel and broken glass. Lady in Satin goes here.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:10 PM on September 9, 2011


... her voice was full of gravel and broken glass ...

And soul.
posted by chunking express at 1:57 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Nina Simone Story: a 3-part podcast
posted by K.P. at 5:09 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


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