Phenomenal Women

Phenomenal Women


I heard an awful joke once, the details I have thankfully since forgotten. The punch line basically indicated that the only woman you would ever see as part of a jazz outfit would be a singer. While it may have been true that the only way women could be recognized in the jazz world was through their vocal prowess and that this strong tradition of female vocalists continues today, this joke upset me because it seemed to suggest that women (and therefore singers) were not technically proficient enough to act as a composers, instrumentalists, or bandleaders. Today, while obstacles still remain for women in jazz, many sections of the wall have been torn down, allowing for a freer exchange of ideas. Thirteen new recordings this month exhibit the presence of women in the jazz of the 21st century, a genre that is shedding its passé machismo and growing into a more pure expression of the human spirit.

Sing for Your Supper

While at one point in time, women were forced to sing songs chosen by the (male) bandleader, today’s female vocalists are taking charge of their own musical destinies by forming their own ensembles, realizing their own recording projects, and performing their own compositions. A founding member of the renowned vocal jazz group The Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel‘s most recent solo project is a collection of jazzed up pop tunes of the ’50s and ’60s (the Brill Building era)—a personal voyage into the musical environment of her youth. Siegel’s early jazz influences included Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, so you can be assured that her versions of “Mr. Sandman” and “I Want You to Be My Baby” are anything but traditional. Other women who have envisioned their own recording projects include Diane Hubka, whose concept for You Inspire Me was to collect seven of the world’s greatest guitarists to accompany her on the album’s various tracks; Helen Schneider, who belts out American classics on her newest CD Cool Heat; and alto Catherine Dupuis who embraces her theatricality on her latest recording Moments. While these women were heading up their own projects, Susanne Abbuehl and Judi Silvano were recording their own compositions. Abbuehl’s transcendent ambient jazz juxtaposed with Silvano’s upbeat, theatrical tunes exhibits the diversity of sound and style that have been introduced by women to the jazz world.

Playing the Game

Many women who are involved in jazz today come to it as players, which was almost unheard of fifty years ago. Keyboardist and composer Roberta Piket is joined by her completely plugged-in band Alternating Current on the album of her compositions, humorously titled I’m Back In Therapy and It’s All Your Fault. Her funky style of jazz features unusual voicings flecked with hints of the modernist classical tradition. Meanwhile, pianist Jessica Williams is joined by bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis on her recording This Side Up, a collection of deeply emotional tunes inspired by Williams’ unique synesthetic perception of music. Equally as organic in creation, hollow-body guitarist Kim Reith‘s compositions in combination with her trio’s interpretations yield a sparse, post-bop musical landscape.

While the aforementioned women were leading their own ensembles, other women have been participating in the shift toward cooperative, leaderless recording endeavors such as saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett, who with a team of musicians (all male, I might note…), created Spirituals & Dedications, traveled to the undiscovered worlds of collective consciousness using traditional spirituals as a point of departure. Confronting free jazz, New York/Japan-based pianist Satoko Fujii and her partner Natsuki Tamura create six musical sketches exploring the forms and meanings of Cirrus and Cumulonimbus among others on the aptly named Clouds. Meanwhile, the Lynne Arriale Trio (named for the pianist and leader of the group) puts a new instrumental spin on classic tunes like “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “The Nearness of You.”

The Triple Threat

A talented songwriter, guitarist, and singer, Cassandra Wilson integrates American blues, folk, pop, jazz with Brazilian and African music into one spiritual journey on her newest album Belly of the Sun, which was recorded in an abandoned train station in her home state of Mississippi. Her soulful voice and powerful lyrics are soulfully expressive as they advocate for progressive societal change. Wilson, a renaissance woman of the jazz world, reminds us that women have been an integral part of the development of jazz. Women, otherized for so long by musical machismo, have finally taken responsibility for themselves and opened up doors that were once invisible not only to them, but to the men who were not exposed to their creative ability. They have found ways to have their ideas heard within already established circles while never ceasing to forge new pathways as postmodernism rips open the expectations of art.

Jazz has always prided itself as the great American music, and with the women in the United States possessing more rights and social freedoms than in most other countries it seems only natural that they be more visible in the jazz world. Thanks to the women that have dedicated themselves to this music, jazz continues to be a relevant musical form instead of simply an artifact of a time gone by.

Also, check out 35 new recordings NOT by female jazzers, some of which are not even jazz:

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