I know more than a few audiophiles who consider themselves as connoisseur of female vocals and often use them to demo systems at audio shows. With some audio shows coming up soon here on the east coast, I thought it a good time to give a partial list of some of my favorite female vocalists, ones that I have used to evaluate gear and for many an hour of pleasurable listening. Of course, I will be focusing on jazz singers as most of my listening is jazz. However, as much as I enjoy Diana Krall and Patricia Barber, which are heard all the time at audio shows, this will be a Krall and Barber free zone. It is my intention to focus on lesser known singers, ones that really should have larger audiences.
1. Tierney Sutton
Tierney Sutton is probably the best known of the ladies on this list. I was turned on to Tierney Sutton by the late, great Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter, Stan Hochman, many years ago at a jazz show in Philadelphia. I am sure glad I was. Ms. Sutton came on the scene with her first recording which was on the Challenge label In 1998. After the release of that album, she had a series of very well received recordings on the Telarc label, both for their content as well as their sonics. Of all of her Telarc releases, my favorite features a live performance with her and her band at Birdland in NYC in March, 2005, namely I’m With The Band. I have been fortunate enough to see her and her band (Ray Brinker on drums, Christian Jacobs on piano and Kevin Axt and Trey Henry on bass) several times and this recording captures these great performers perfectly with great sound as one would expect from Telarc. It should be noted that this is a real band, hence instead of the recording being listed as Tierney Sutton and her band, it is listed as The Tierney Sutton Band. This band has been playing together for years and they are really tight and move from arrangement to arrangement with aplomb, from tender ballads to scatting and uptempo numbers, always original and creative. Her latest release, Screenplay, finds her and the band in top form, albeit in the studio. I just love their treatment of If I Only Had a Brain. Check it out. Great stuff.
2. Stacey Kent
Stacey Kent is one of those jazz artists who found her mojo in Europe. Despite being born and raised in New Jersey, Stacey is not all that well known in the US although she does have a loyal following. Stacey eventually traveled to London to study and perform. It is there she met her husband Jim Tomlinson who is also her sax and flute player and band leader. I was turned on to her in London at Ronnie Scotts. I was gobsmacked at how great she was as a vocalist and how great a sax player her husband was. Listening to him was like listening to Ben Webster. He played with that flare and breathiness that made Ben Webster a giant of the old guard, imho.
Stacey favors Brazilian jazz and sings in English, French and Portuguese. I have downloaded quite a few of her recordings. They are all excellent musically as well as sonically. However, Dreamer In Concert is my favorite of her downloads as it captures what I hear when I see her live. The realism of her vocals is stunning. If you are going to give this artist a try, I would start with this recording.
If you enjoy what you hear on Dreamer, please also check out Tangerine. This recording features her husband Jim Tomlinson on tenor sax and flute and the great Brazilian guitarist and one of the founding fathers of Bossa Nova, Roberto Menescal, on guitar. The album features tracks from the Great American Songbook that, with one exception, are the personal favorites of Mr. Menescal. This is a beautiful recording. Check her out, you won't be sorry.
3. Kay Starr
Kay Starr was born on a Reservation in Oklahoma in 1922 and lived to the ripe old age of 94, passing away in 2016. Kay Starr’s heyday as a vocalist was in the 1950’s and 60's and she was known primarily as a pop singer. As she was not on the scene all that long, many music lovers today have not heard of her which is a real shame because she was simply sensational. While she tended to record jazz and pop standards, she also put out blues and country albums as well. In fact, Billie Holiday has been quoted as stating that Kay Starr was the only white woman who could sing the blues. While this is hyperbole to be sure, there is no doubt that Kay Starr deserves to be heard by a much wider audience. While she made numerous recordings, I Cry By Night is my favorite, and in particular, the 2012 remaster which is available on Qobuz and I believe, Tidal. On this album, she is backed by the likes of Ben Webster, Gerald Wiggins, Al Hendrickson, Joe Comfort and Lee Young. While I too often shudder when I see the term remaster, this is a fine sounding album, with Kay front and center, piano to the left, bass just to right of center and drums and horns to the right. Plenty of depth and space too. Fans of female vocals should give Kay Starr and this recording in particular, a listen, I am sure you will be glad you did.
4. Claire Martin
Claire Martin is probably the first lady of English Jazz and has a rich deep vocal style. All of her recordings are on the Linn label. My favorite of her recordings is Embraceable You, which, to my knowledge, is the only recording she has made in the US. For this release, she sure picked some great musicians to accompany her. This set features the great Kenny Barron on piano, Peter Washington on bass, Kenny Washington on drums and Steve Wilson on sax and flute. Recorded at Avatar Studios, the sound on this release is excellent and the performances superb. I could listen to the Barron and Martin duet on Embraceable You all day long. If you haven't heard of Claire Martin, by all means, check out this recording.
5. Karrin Allyson
Like Tierney Sutton, Karrin Allison was a bit of an audiophile staple back in the Naughties as the British are fond of saying. While I am very fond of those recordings on the Concord label, my favorite of her catalogue is Many A New Day: Karrin Allison Sings Rogers and Hammerstein which was released in 2015 on the Motema Music label. This set features both Kenny Barron on piano and John Patitucci on bass backing up Ms. Allison. Of all of her recordings, I find this one to be the most satisfying perhaps because it features the music of Rogers and Hammerstein which I find to be a perfect fit with her vocal skills. Turn out the lights with the beverage of your choice and enjoy this recording.
6. Catherine Russell
Catherine Russell is what I guess could be called a retro vocalist as her solo recordings harken back to the music of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. She sure comes from strong musical stock, as her father was a big band leader as well as the musical director for Louis Armstrong in the 1940’s. Her mother was also a well known jazz bassist and a vocalist. Before she began her solo recording career in 2006, Ms. Russell was probably best known as a backup singer for David Bowie, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne and even Madonna. Quite a list and I bet she has some great stories to tell! While she has several recordings that I enjoy, including 2014’s Bring It Back and 2016’s Harlem On My Mind, I really love her current 2019 release, Alone Together. While this release is mastered a tad hot, it features great tunes, superb vocals and fine backing from her regular band. Give it a listen. I know you will enjoy it.
7. Michelle Lordi
I am quite sure that there are few readers here at Audiophile Style who are familiar with the music of Michelle Lordi. I think that will change with the release of her new recording, Break Up With The Sound. Michelle is a jazz singer well known in the Philadelphia area jazz community and yes, a personal friend. Break Up With The Sound is an apt title for this album, as it is a clear break from her prior recordings and live performances. While there are elements of jazz in this recording, this is not a jazz record. If I had to put a label on the album, I would have to label it as Americana. It is a true cross over recording for Michelle and a whole new direction for her musically and possibly for her career. The music is a true mix but is strongly rooted in country. Tracks such as the Lebowsky/Newman penned Wayward Wind which has been covered by artists as diverse as Shirley Bassie, Patsy Cline, Sam Cooke and Neil Young and my personal favorite, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome. There is a cover of The Stones’ No Expectations, Cole Porter’s True Love, as well as several originals including Poor Bird, Before and Double-Crossed which was written with guitarist Tim Motzer. The musicianship is superb, featuring Philadelphia based musicians Matthew Parrish on bass, the aforementioned Tim Motzer on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. Also included on 4 tracks is Donny McCaslin on saxophone who is probably best known for his work and that of his band on David Bowie’s last studio recording, Blackstar, as well as being a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. One of the standout tracks is the aforementioned I’m So Lonesome as well as Wayward Wind. Another standout for me is Lover Man, which contains a standard jazz vocal over a syncopated drum beat and bass line with some Coltranesq sax work and etherial guitar work. This recording is some of Michelle’s best vocal work, presenting a real sense of vulnerability and even pathos. Do yourself a favor and check out this recording. There is something here to appeal to everyone, from jazz fans like yours truly to fans of country, Americana and Rock. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the sound quality which is excellent. That was not a surprise to me as the bassist, producer and arranger, Matthew Parrish, is an audiophile as well as a fine musician. Well done all around.