March 2004

Cheryl Bentyne - Talk of the Town
Telarc 83583
Released: 2003

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Barb Jungr - Waterloo Sunset
Linn AKD 222
Released: 2004

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality **
Overall Enjoyment ***

by John Crossett

As the recording industry continues to struggle with its problems, jazz is withering on the vine. We’re seeing fewer and fewer new major-label instrumental jazz releases that aren’t by an established "name" artist. However, the news is not all gloom and doom. One section of the jazz market that is at least ambulatory, if not completely healthy, is the jazz vocal -- especially female singers. Audiophile/borderline mainstream recording labels Telarc and Linn seem to have recognized that fact, and, in response, have released these two excellent examples of modern jazz female vocals by former Manhattan Transfer singer Cheryl Bentyne and up-and-comer Barb Jungr.

Bentyne’s Talk of the Town is reminiscent of older, more conventional female jazz vocal albums, relying as it does on songs taken, for the most part, from the great American songbook. Bentyne sings such hoary classics as "You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to," "The Very Thought of You," "Everything Happens to Me," and "It Might As Well Be Spring." This reliance allows the listener to concentrate strictly on Bentyne’s solo vocal abilities -- until now we’ve only heard her in a quartet setting.

Backed up by such high-caliber musicians as pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Lewis Nash, percussionist Don Alias, tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, and flugelhornist Chuck Mangione, Bentyne stamps her own, very personal interpretations on every song she sings here. Her vocal stylings cover a variety of jazz styles, including scat and group arrangements that recall her work with Manhattan Transfer. Her singing is often sultry and exciting, exuding a confidence that flows from her vast vocal experience. That strength radiates from each selection on Talk of the Town.

The Art Farmer/Annie Ross tune "Farmers Market" gives Ms. Bentyne the chance to strut her stuff. From the opening scatting, which recalls Ella Fitzgerald, through the vocal inflections that follow, Cheryl Bentyne just dances through this decidedly different type of song. She’s not tied to the beat as set down by Nash and Patitucci, but plays with it in a way that demonstrates her skills.

But, to me, it’s her version of Thelonious Monk’s "Little Butterfly" that captures what is best about Cheryl Bentyne as a jazz singer. The version I know best is Carmen McRea’s, from her classic album Carmen Sings Monk. But Bentyne, by slowing down the tempo a bit and singing it more as a ballad, presents it as a tribute to Monk’s patroness, Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter. The words and phrases Bentyne chooses to stretch out add a very personal touch to this wonderful song.

The sound of the CD is up to Telarc’s usual high standards. Instrumental tones and separation are spot on, the width and depth of the soundstaging are very good -- all in all, another very well done job by the good folks at Telarc.

Linn seems more willing to expand the normal confines of jazz singing by allowing Barb Jungr more creative freedom in the songs she covers. She chooses her songs from a more recent songbook and runs a catholic course that takes in everything from the Everly Brothers' "Cathy’s Clown" to Leon Russell’s "This Masquerade" and Bob Dylan’s "Like A Rolling Stone." She also chooses strong material that is not as commonly known, such as Richard Thompson’s "The Great Valerio." Ms. Jungr’s talent and jazz sensibilities free her from the constraints of merely covering the tunes. For example, she chooses to sing the title tune as a ballad and brings out even more of Ray Davies’ bittersweet affection for the things around him.

In her re-working of "This Masquerade, " Ms. Jungr alters her vocal inflections, playing with and off the beat. Her arrangement moves this song to a new, jazzier level. I’ve heard and loved this song for years, and I found Jungr’s new viewpoint gave me respect both for Leon Russell’s songwriting ability and for Ms. Jungr’s talent as an interpreter.

On "Like A Rolling Stone" Ms. Jungr sings the song not as an accusation, as Dylan did, but more as a commiseration between friends. She strips it bare of the angst of the original and replaces it with a feeling of pity. And the change works. It won’t replace Dylan’s version, but it does offer a pleasant, alternative approach to this very familiar tune.

Ms. Jungr had a hand in writing three of the selections on Waterloo Sunset: "Do You Play Guitar," "Written Down in the Dark Again," and "Lipstick Lament." All flow from diverse directions into the jazz-singer mainstream, but each has something unique that will keep your attention focused a bit more intently than might otherwise be the case with unknown material by an unfamiliar singer.

The backing Barb Jungr receives on Waterloo Sunset is from some of the cream of Britain’s musical talent -- listeners outside the UK should avoid passing this one by due to lack of "name" recognition. Players such as guitarist Matt Backer, drummer Nic France, bassist Geoff Gascoyne, pianist Adrian York, and, on "The Great Valerio," violinist Stuart Hall are all wonderfully musical and perfect for Ms. Jungr to play off of.

What disappoints is that all this fine musicianship is undermined by the sound, specifically an unrelenting brightness that takes away much of the enjoyment of this disc. After only a few minutes, just as I began to settle in and dig into Barb Jungr’s work, that brightness began to grate and make listening a chore. Turning down the volume helped -- I was then able to hear what Ms. Jungr had to say, which is quite a lot. But the brightness is almost overwhelming as one approaches realistic listening levels. Aside from the this, the tonal balances were very good, the sense of musicians performing in real space was fine, and there was even some thought given to the soundstage (which has never been one of Linn’s top priorities). But that brightness may be too much for some.

Cheryl Bentyne’s Talk of the Town and Barb Jungr’s Waterloo Sunset offer different takes on jazz singing while adhering to its sense of improvisation. Each would make a fine addition to any collection of jazz vocal recordings. Both Ms. Bentyne and Ms. Jungr uphold the promise of jazz singing’s ability to stride confidently into the 21st century. I wish these fine efforts had been released on hi-rez audio, but maybe that is just something more to look forward to.