It’s an obvious question for a reviewer to ask, but it’s worth asking afresh in the face of the volumes of jazz product. The onrush of hackneyed, pro forma execution and delivery can, to be sure, lead to fatigue so profound that nothing is so appealing as getting out your collection of Xenakis or Iggy Pop records and cranking them loud, or heading to the nearest soundproofed desensitization tank (although I’m not sure they have those, any more).
Because so much jazz is so conventionalized, the most basic, obvious question can be worth asking each time a new crop of albums comes in.
When you take renewed stock of what you like about the singers and albums you like best, of course there is plenty of room for personal taste, or lack of taste, or blind spots of taste. But all those are, to some degree, inevitable. And, regardless, there are qualities worth looking for even in varieties of music that don’t instantly appeal – like, say, the singing of jazz standards, which by this point makes at least this listener a little anxious.
How often, after all, do mainstream jazz vocalists convey the emotional content and impact of lyrics that often do not do much of the work, themselves? Often, it seems, standards are assumed to be conveying much that, on reflection, they are not. Conventions are left to do the work. Similarly, conventionality seems often to underpin jazz vocalists popularity. Fine. If a reviewer’s pleasure does not derive from the same-old same old, dished up for the billionth time, the reviewer should perhaps pause before copping attitude.
Still, it’s a pleasure to speak highly of jazz-vocal albums that do breathe life into the conventions, and it’s equally a temptation to say little about those that do not.
In the former category is Rochelle House. Her album, Dreams of Love (House Records), has so many qualities that the vast majority of vocal albums distinctly do not. Her singing is not flashy.
It is unadorned – at least, by the more overused jazz gestures – at the same time as it is shot through with qualities that support the sad tales she tells, tales where even love is a temporary illusion.
Or, as in the song with which she begins – Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de beber,” love imagined and desired is love not attainable. In Norman Gimbel’s version of Vinícius de Moraes’s lyrics: “Your love is rain, my heart the flower; I need your love, or I will die.”
Well, one feels that when House sings that, she will.
From there she proceeds to “Round Midnight,” with Bernie Hanighen’s telling of a foresaken lover registering the fragility of attachment – loss, longing… – around midnight, as the hour of the wolf nears.
The lyrics leave much unsaid, and House’s voice conveys that. It is drenched in knowing, disappointed hope. She has mastered the dying fall. And much else about the singing on the disc is of a high order of emotional engagement and communication.
The band is ideal for her delivery, and for setting its context. Marc Seales’ piano is so sympathetic to the tenderness in House’s heart that it seems fairly to weep along with her. Dave Captein, on bass, and Gary Hobbs, on drums, similarly are keenly aware of how best to complement House’s sometimes agonizing, beautifully fragile mood.
On Freddie Hubbard’s “Helianthella,” with House’s own lyrics, Seales, Captein, and Hobbs are locked in and soar with House’s sadness and soul. It’s a pearl. “If I lose my way, I will lift my face to the sun each day.”
House is present for her music, not as an accompaniment or conveyance of formulas and conventions, but as a spirit who inheres and vivifi es forms and expectations.
And the marvel of it all is that House manages all this with a voice that might be judged limited by jazz-vocal afi cionados – isn’t that so often the way with the most expressive of singers, anyway? She makes a real boon of her voice’s reed-like fragility.