She's Got It All
The Village Voice, Gary Giddins
January 1, 1980
Jazz singing, a specialized dimension of jazz for which my passion is generally unsatisfied, has brought me numberless hours of sheer masochism: the white girls who think Annie Ross is the quintessence of hip, the black girls who think Aretha Franklin's melisma will indemnify any expression of soul; the women of both races who perform in period costumes because jazz singing for them is a show of nostalgia, a kind of Dixieland of the larynx. (The men/boys of the decade are hardly worthy of mention.) Jazz singing stopped regenerating itself about 20 years ago, and it's not hard to see why.
The great jazz singers of the pervious 40 years were stylistically wedded to their eras as the instrumentalists who improvised alongside them. Billie Holiday and Lester Young spoke the same language; so did Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker. In the '60s, jazz jettisoned Tin Pan Alley and didn't offer much encouragement to singers; in order to keep up, they had to yodel or bellow or chant about peace and love. No wonder most talented young singers joined Aretha's church.
The results in the '70s were dismaying. In the theatres and cabarets, young singers interpreted Ellington and Waller, Ethel Waters and Eubie Blake as though their songs has been conceived for the liturgy. The authentic, winnowed tribe of jazz singers experienced a renaissance-with veteran Betty Carter emerging as the baby of the group-but produced no distinguished offspring, only Manhattan Transfers and soulful lounge lizards. Twice in the past decade, I thought I heard an exception. First, there was Dee Dee Bridgewater, who demonstrated with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and on several diverse recording projects that she could sing anything, but who opted for disco. Then there was Bobby McFerrin, whom I've by no means given up on, though his debut album collapsed under the overweening desire to please everybody. Dwight Macdonald used to complain that his every knock was a boost; but for me, every boost brings a sellout. So it's with some trepidation that I call your attention to an authentic young jazz singer named Carmen Lundy. Nevertheless: She's got it all.
I heard Lundy about five years ago at Jazzmania Society, shortly after she arrived here from Florida, and I left in the middle of her set. When I encountered her again several weeks ago, I was knocked out not only by the vitality as a singer and the variety of her repertoire, but by her startling authority as a performer. I went back to hear five or six sets-at Greene Street, Seventh Avenue south, and Swing Plaza- and I wasn't the only one; at twenty-eight, Lundy has picked up a cult on the New York circuit.
She's studied long and hard, and the most significant indication of how much she's accomplished is that she obviates the most troublesome question associated with jazz singing in the '80s: how do you make it musically relevant and immediate? You don't have to ask that question watching her. From the moment she walks on stage, shimmying and smiling, she's in complete control of her material. There's a trace of Vaughan here and of Carter there (especially in her movements), but those influences have been assimilated. Lundy is a contemporary, a rocker (post-Aretha and post-Stevie Wonder), but in the sophistication with which she launched tempos, the harmonic inventiveness with which she improvises, and the unselfconscious brightness with which she projects her voice, free of excessive melisma and undistorted by glottal thrusts, she is thoroughly and enchantingly a jazz singer.
What's more, she has a terrific trio. Her Teddy Wilson is Harry Whitaker, who used to accompany Roberta Flack;he paces Lundy with spare, percussive chords, occasionally weaving them into contrapuntal phrases without getting in her way. The drummer J.T. Lewis and the bassist Stanley Banks, who uses his foot to swivel a tambourine against a floor mike, provide a full and heady scrim, not unlike Betty Carter's trios. Lundy, long-limbed and rangy, stalks restlessly before them, choreographing every beat, and selling the songs not to the ether but-here's an old-fashioned esthetic-to the audience.