37. Wryly timeless

The Ass’ Song. Annie Ross, Loguerhythms, 1962

Advice to jazz singers: Find a decent poet who is interested in songwriting. Get them to do the words, and set the ones you like to music in a way that suits your interpretation.

This set showed how it’s done. Singers have been mostly absent from this list so far. That’s partly because I’m extremely picky about vocals. If a jazz sax player is merely excellent, fine. If a vocalist isn’t world class, I really don’t want to listen again. And pretty much the only worthwhile singers around when I got into the music were the obvious ones. Things are better now, but apart from Pepi Lemer hardly anyone new caught my ear in the ’70s, for instance.

Then there’s the issue of repertoire. Stuff from the American song book? I’ll go for Ella. Jazz standards? You’re competing with Sarah Vaughan. Contemporary songwriters? That’s quite the thing now, but seemed rare then. Present your own songs? The number of people with world class voices who can also write words and music remains vanishingly small.

Annie Ross, a smart person, figured this out in the 196os, and made this great record with the Tony Kinsey quintet (that’s Gordon Beck on piano), featuring songs tried out at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club. All before my time, but an elder sibling had the LP and the wry cynicism of the lyrics got my attention as a teenager. Christopher Logue – who left us only recently, before (amost) completing his magnum opus, War Music – was a fine poet, and also a clever storytelling songwriter. I still like pretty much every one of these (the original LP ends with Western Ladies, and is augmented on the reissue CD/this playlist with some Logue-read poems and a few other songs).

The words, as on The Ass’ Song, wear pretty well too. Easy to imagine Cecile McLorin Salvant singing this, I reckon. And Ross’s performance is just about flawless on every song: poised, pitch perfect, witty, raised eyebrow work in which every moment of the delivery seems judged to perfection. The arrangements by Stanley Myers are unobtrusively effective but the voice is the thing throughout. And what a voice it is.

A later poetry lover as well as a jazz obsessive, I waited a long time for another work in the same vein, but didn’t come across much. I would rate Christine Tobin’s marvellous recent CD of Paul Muldoon songs as a match for quality, and the music is very different, and more interesting. But most singers still flail around, rummaging through the old songbook, maybe bunging in a bit of Tom Waits or Dylan (which gives the advantage that neither of them can really sing), or – meh – some songs of their own. I’ll stick with this a bit longer, thanks.

Why the No 37? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.


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