Suede, Rebecca Parris and Jazz Divas
A couple of Saturdays ago, I met up with Rebecca Parris, Boston’s Lady of Jazz, and her protégé Louise Van Aarsen at Sculler’s because we were dying to see jazz/pop singer Suede in concert! I was there when Suede sat in on a rendition of Summertime with Louise Van Aarsen at Ryles Club last month, and I fell in love! Not only did Suede impress me with her wit and stage presence but also with the range of notes that floated mellifluously from her kisser.
I wonder why jazz singers feel they can make it without chops? Sure, Ol’ Billie Holliday accomplished much with the use of her limited vocal range–watch her sing Strange Fruit on YouTube and see if your goose doesn’t get bumpy–but she was an exception. Having dabbled in oratorio and musicals, I’ve come to cherish sweet warbling–the Julie Andrewser the better. So when it comes to jazz I look for a combination of beautiful voice and emotional connection to the lyrics. In Suede, I believe, I have found the perfect combo.
Unfortunately, this time around Suede was recovering from laryngitis. She didn’t want to disappoint her fans by cancelling, so with dedication like old Carol Channing, who never missed a stage performance, she decided the show must go on–so on it went! We need not have worried, though. Her humor and charisma brought us along like toy boats on the crest of an ocean wave. I came away from her show liking her even more. A woman in the elevator to the cars summarized it best when she told her bespectacled, balding companion, “That Suede’s a living doll!”
I can’t wait till her next performance so that I can hear the melodious highs and lows for which she is famous!
I’ve often contemplated the issue of vocal technique because I come from a family of singers. At family get-togethers we’ve always sung old French-Canadian folk songs. My Uncle has a handsome baritone for which he received many accolades. Others in the family sang, too, but for one reason or another, they weren’t valued as highly. Witnessing their disappointment is one of the reasons that I ponder the whole issue. What makes a good singer?
My mother, Cheryl Squiers, sings American standards and Broadway songs locally in Portland, Maine, and she tells me often that what matters to her in singing is the story. I’m a storyteller, she says. Rebecca Parris agrees. She has mentioned on numerous occasions that singers don’t connect with the lyrics. “Honey,” she confides, “They’re like dead fish! Well, I mean, they’re moving but so do flounders flopping on a pier!”
A singer performed here at Thelonious Monkfish a few weeks ago whose rich voice caressed the lyrics, bringing them to life! Afterwards, we sat and blah blah blahed about music for awhile. She told me she felt that singers are weird with each other. “They’re not supportive,” she said. “They feel the need to claim territory for their egos.”
“Oh, you mean like a tomcat of the mind?” I asked.
A few minutes later, I mentioned that Roberta Gambarini makes great use of her range. She swoops up to high notes without strain. This singer snapped, “Ugh! I hate Roberta Gambarini!” I was taken aback because Roberta Gambarini is one of my favorite singers. And I was shocked by the irony of a singer complaining that other singers aren’t supportive, then within minutes lambastes one herself. Huh? I guess she proved her own hypothesis.
Harmonicist Berklee Professor Thaddeus Hogarth, who entertains the sushi-munching and noodle-slurping crowds here at least one Sunday a month, told me that this tendency to bash others is peculiar to singers. Jazz instrumentalists don’t do this, he maintains. There is some talk about tone, but most instrumentalists respect what others can do and have high regard for the process of learning.
I like Rebecca Parris’s approach to teaching. She is a mother to all of her students, and with them and her husband pianist Paul McWilliams, she has created a chain-link family wherein each member loves and supports the others. They take pains to celebrate the unique expression that each singer brings to song. When one of them sings publicly, the rest show up!
I think I am giving up my hunt for the perfect jazz singer who combines the gritty storytelling of blues with the bel canto voice of classical music. That search for the perfect singer is just me perpetuating the unfair parenting of my grandparents where only one child could be the singer, one child could be writer, one child could be the athlete. No, enough is enough. I will be like Rebecca Parris. I will celebrate each singer for the unique gift she brings to the stage. Good singing is an act of giving, not taking. The audience feels the difference.