Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jazzfest Berlin 2015 © Berliner Festspiele / Camille Blake

The female voice in jazz has undergone an essential transformation over the years. It has become more versatile, diverse and abundantly individual. And this goes for the lyrics, too. It is hard to imagine a female singer interpreting the values and stories of songs like “Tea For Two” with any conviction or fervor in the year 2017. And yet, the more or less familiar songs from the “Great American Songbook” are still re-recorded and re-released in countless versions.

This is how the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch, winner of the ECHO Jazz-Award 2017, describes her approach to old standards: “Only Billie Holiday herself can sing her songs with this kind of power, and in her time. When I do the same today, it is within a totally different context. I just wouldn’t believe myself. If you go for imitation, you put yourself in direct comparison with Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald. Those recordings are just so powerful. There is really nothing to add. Nina Simone managed to find a new language for these songs, and what she sings always sounds like Nina Simone, regardless of whether she’s singing a Beatles song, “Strange Fruit” or one of her own compositions. It always sounds like her. She is a very important role model in this respect, because she managed to take that next step. So I felt that it should be possible for me, 30 or 40 years later, to find something that really concerns me.”

And it is exactly this search for their own identity, for their own individual power of expression that distinguishes the strong contemporary female singers and their voices from their less convincing counterparts. I still remember the young singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who performed at Jazzfest Berlin only two years ago. On her new live album, recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard, she expertly combines her own lyrics with standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” or “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”. Of course, this is a young singer still finding her way, but many critics as well as a growing number of fans already see her as a worthy successor of the great ladies of jazz – Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. This assessment would most likely be very different if McLorin Salvant had not contributed her own lyrics to her repertory.

Billie Holiday and Mister, New York 1946 © Wikimedia Commons / William P. Gottlieb

“Another thing that has changes is women’s role in society. The gender roles and stereotypes. I look for songs that will let me tell my story. And, of course there are topics that people have just been dealing with for centuries”, says Lucia Cadotsch. These changes have made it possible for an openly lesbian jazz musician like the drummer, composer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington to make recordings that feature only women. Her 2015 project, “The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul”, is an excellent point case in point: She invited almost a dozen female singers into the studio and tailored the perfect sound for each one of them – from Natalie Cole to Nancy Wilson, from Valerie Simpson to Lizz Wright.

The strength and variability of the female voice in jazz has also increased because today there are substantially more women who both sing and play one or more instruments than there were fifty or sixty years ago. This made it possible for artists like Esperanza Spalding or Becca Stevens to establish themselves. A similar approach to the great standards as practised by Lucia Cadotsch on her celebrated album “Speak Low” is taken by the Norwegian singer Solveig Slettahjell, who will perform at Jazzfest Berlin this year, together with the NDR Bigband conducted by Geir Lysne. With her Slow Motion Orchestra (later called Slow Motion Quintet), her extremely concentrated, intimate and almost sparse arrangements allow her to circumvent the much-trodden paths of the Great American Songbook, and her severely reduced tempi create an identity thoroughly her own.


Heroes Are Gang Leaders © Diane Allford

And of course, the aspect of social criticism should not be underestimated. While Bessie Smith addressed topics like segregation in her recordings and concerts in the 1920s, which was by no means met with support from all sides, it has become remarkably normal for music to focus on social justice. At the Winter Jazzfest 2017, which took place in New York early this year, there was a panel discussion on the role of creative musicians when it comes to commenting on or protesting political events, and Terri Lyne Carrington was one of the featured panellists. Never before have issues like social justice, women’s and gender rights, refugee policy, mass incarceration or environmental topics been reflected in contemporary music, and especially in jazz, as intensely as they are today. More than ever, female singers are called upon to take a stand and to express where we are today – politically, socially, historically and spiritually. According to Terry Lyne Carrington, her project “Social Science” deals with the current situation in music and society, with the band’s members creating and interpreting music that addresses freedom, racism and multiculturalism.

In a way, this approach is mirrored in projects like Jane Monheit’s last album “The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald”. Monheit and her producer Nicholas Paynton tried to pair Fitzgerald’s singing style – her breezy, easygoing, almost cheerful swing – with elements from outside the genre. For example, they added a touch of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and George Gershwin’s “I Was Doing Alright” was complemented by “Now You Know” by Amy Winehouse – giving the song an added dramatic dimension and an unexpected twist after more than 70 years. And Monheit gives another impulse: “I think it is just as beautiful to hear a young person sing a love song as it is if you hear someone who has been through countless love affairs sing it. Both outlooks are perfectly valid because no matter how old you are, it’s the oldest you’ve ever been – and you think you know everything.”

Last year, singer Mônica Vasconcelos from São Paulo released her album “The São Paulo Tapes”, featuring songs written by Brazil’s most important song poets. This album is her way of dealing with her country’s military regime between 1964 and 1985. And by featuring Heroes Are Gang Leaders, this year’s Jazzfest-programme demonstrates another genre-crossing approach to jazz: Based on the free style of 1970s loft jazz, this collective brew poetry jazz and hip-hop sounds, avant-garde and rap into a storm of spoken word. Crystal Good, Janice Lowe and Margaret Morris make significant contributions and prove that Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln and Amirtha Kidambi (who took up the Bhajan singing tradition and will also perform at Jazzfest Berlin) hold a significant place in music in the year 2017.


Ella Fitzgerald © Wikimedia Commons / Carl Van Vechten

Translation by Elena Krüskemper

The concert with Amirtha Kidambi & Elder Ones will take place Wed 01 Nov 2017, 20:00 at Lido, with Mônica Vasconcelos on Thu 02 Nov 2017, 23:00 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele / Seitenbühne; the Trondheim Voices could be heared Sun 05 Nov 2017, 15:00 at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche