During the Swing Era, it seemed that swinging women singers (the trade magazines called them “chirps”) were everywhere: Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, Helen Ward, Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, Connee Boswell, Ivie Anderson, Helen Humes, Teddy Grace, and two dozen others. Now, many years later, the ranks have thinned to a very precious few. Many of the more famous “jazz singers” veer unattractively into melodrama of one kind or another. I won’t sully this blog by listing their names, but they have little relation to the art as we know it.
What might jazz singing consist of — leaving aside the more colorful extremes exemplified by genuises such as Leo Watson and Betty Carter? How about a neat yet undefinable mix of these qualities: feeling (strong yet controlled), understanding of the lyrics and their emotional potential, innately swinging time, a sense of humor, clear delivery, an ability to improvise on the same level as the best instrumentalists . . .
Molly Ryan, whose new CD I am celebrating here, SONGBIRD IN THE MOONLIGHT, knows the jazz tradition but isn’t trapped inside it. She has a lovely pure voice, with an especially crystalline upper register, but she isn’t imprisoned by that either.
When I first heard Molly sing a few years ago, I thought she had good qualities in abundance: she swung, she was enthusiastic without overacting, she had fine time and clear diction, and she sang as if she knew what the words meant. Her second choruses didn’t simply repeat her first, and she sounded greatly like Helen Ward. Now, I’m not always in favor of what Barbara Lea called “Sounding Like” as an artistic goal, but Helen Ward was someone special, her vocal beauties not always recognized. She was passionately earnest without being histrionic, and she had a sweet little cry in her voice — hard to explain but instantly recognizable.
Molly’s CD shows that she has completely understood the lessons Ward taught on every record date. Even better, Molly sounds very much like herself. And what, you might ask, does that sound like? The flip answer would be, “Buy the CD and find out for yourself,” but my readers deserve better. Molly’s voice is sweet without being sticky, with a certain winsomeness. She isn’t venturing into the dark land of High Tragedy on this CD, except for her evocation of “All the Sad Young Men”. She swings easily and conveys feeling with great style. A gentle tenderness imbues every track. I particularly appreciated her warm approach to “I Was Lucky” and “Around the World,” although she drives “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” in fine style.
The Twenties tradition was that there usually was a gap between the soloist and the accompaniment, or the singer and the band — Bessie Smith sang majestically but her colleagues were sometimes leaden. Or we waited for Putney Dandridge to finish so that Chu Berry could play. Here, Molly exists easily and comfortably on the same high level as the fine jazz players around her: Dan Levinson on clarinet and tenor; Mark Shane on piano; Kevin Dorn on drums; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, on three of the eighteen tracks.
In Levinson’s graceful clarinet playing I hear a good deal of Mr. Goodman, but he isn’t merely copying the King’s pet phrases. He is mobile without being ornate, always to the point. His tenor playing, smooth and persuasive, reminds me of Eddie Miller (someone whose name you don’t hear often, which is a pity). And his homespun singing in “By Myself” is quietly charming. Kevin Dorn knows all there is to know about irresistibly swinging brushwork that urges the band forward without drmanding the spotlight. I’d like everyone to pay much closer attention to Mark Shane — his solos dance and glitter; his accompaniment lifts and enlivens. Shane’s four-bar introductions are wonderful compositions in themselves. And Jon-Erik is in splendid empathic form on “It’s Wonderful,” “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie,” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
This is a wonderfully-realized CD, with beautifully intimate recorded sound courtesy of Peter Karl, a rewardingly diversified repertoire, insightful and gracious liner notes . . . . I couldn’t ask for anything more except for a sequel in the immediate future. For more information about Molly, visit her website at www.mollyryan.com. To purchase this CD, email email@example.com., or visit www.loupgarous.com. Of course, both Molly and Dan will have copies at their gigs, which will afford you the double pleasure of hearing them live and taking home a jazz souvenir.