A while back, a very popular web-based musicians’ collective sponsored a world-wide contest for countless categories of recorded music wherein anyone could enter their album for consideration. Entries were then evaluated and nominated into the various genres, categories and sub-categories and members were asked to be ‘peer judges’ in their area of (relative) expertise. I wanted to help out and I thought that, given my love of the ‘standards’ and my opportunity to perform with many, great Canadian West Coast musicians in the jazz vein lo, these past 30 years, I might be a good judge for the “Jazz Vocal” category.
I assumed the criteria would be the usual…the fidelity and dynamism of the production, the originality of arrangements and of course, the quality and the technical proficiency of the singer as storyteller. Imagine my dismay in learning that the only measure by which each song was to be judged, according to the ‘Just Plain Folks’ in charge of this particular rodeo, was my own personal reaction, specifically “what moves me.” In other words, would I listen to the album again? Fact is, I listen to precious little vocal jazz these days and when I do need that particular fix, I simply call on the gods…Billie, Ella, Sarah, or if I feel like tapping a living legend, I go for Betty. If I feel a hankerin’ for a track I don’t own, I happily surf over to YouTube and find it. I take stock of the task set out before me in this new light and frankly, I feel like I have once again gotten myself into something that I am ill-prepared to cope with and, yes, indeed, I am correct, Sir!
I see that there are 272 albums in this category, 3,453 songs. I just plain panic.
I know I will not have time to listen to each track on each album, even if I just play the first verse & chorus so I decide, anxiously and arbitrarily, to listen to the first track of each album as I scan the bio info then choose one more song from that artist’s album, ideally one that I am familiar with so that I can determine the originality of the interpretation as compared to the ‘original’ (or the version I am most familiar with, anyway). Two things happen immediately…I instantly dismiss anything that sounds lo-fi (including ‘live’ recordings which I despise for personal reasons) and also anything sung in a foreign language. I’m a complete ass for this particular discretion I know but may I remind you of the criteria? I do not own a single foreign language album and virtually never listen to a song if I cannot understand the lyric. You may well intuit from this factoid that I do not listen to instrumental music, even classical compositions, at all and it is you who are now correct, Sir. Why? Because I am a singer and a songwriter and at the tender age of 48, I no longer believe that I have time to listen to everything I come across and also be creative. Life is too short. Priorities must be chosen and therefore the only instrumental music I hear is playing on a movie soundtrack or in an elevator. Sad but true.
But this confession, bad as it is, is not the worst of it. Now I am determining that there are lots of albums that IMHO don’t belong in this category to begin with as they are too pop, too Broadway, too saloon and too smooth, respectively. Next, I have to admit my personal preference for female vocals (so shoot me) and my utter disdain for melodramatic interpretations. I can’t stomach the jazz hands or the ham bone enunciation. Same goes for the opposite end of the spectrum, those who take no chances whatsoever. I surprise myself by giving one artist the benefit of less than a full phrase as her diction irritates the hell out of me right off the top and I ‘complete’ her review without so much as the thought of scrolling down to read her bio. What is wrong with me, I wonder? When did I get so bitterly intolerant?
I decide to have a glass of wine to mellow out my self-loathing. It doesn’t work. Now I’m picking albums that I am intrigued by due primarily to their weirdness and I am listening in much the same way I would stare at a car accident. I pick an Italian singer whose accent while singing in English is uber fromage, to steal from 2 more languages, and yet mesmerizing as such. I pour more wine, convinced that the best vocal jazz tracks will jump out at me given my libational accompaniment. Wrong again! I can’t deny that my ‘musical taste’ has officially become an oxymoron and yet I slog on, a weary soldier covered in so much scat dust (of these here jazz wars).
I am now inundated with a series of latin flavored tracks which make me feel completely out of my element. Maybe we could have a Latin Jazz Vocal category just to help me out? And while we’re at it, let’s get a Cabaret category for those saucy songsters who likely kill in a live venue but who fail to come across on a recording. Also the Gypsy Swing bands seem prolific enough to host their own party. Their tight three part leads are thrilling in a way but they don’t allow for the expression that a solo vocal can bring so I pass on these entries. I feel terrible about it though, because I can see myself enthusiastically playing songs like these for brunch guests on a Saturday afternoon. Now I’m close to the criteria edge but I stumble forward, impatient with my growing lack of consistency. I pour myself another.
Things are getting truly out of hand as I begin to notice how certain songs persist. If I hear one more version of “It Might As Well Be Spring” I’m going to pinch myself hard, just for agreeing to be a Jazz Vocal peer judge in the first place. Is anyone able to enjoy this process? The next few albums have to compete with the increasing volume of my whining.
Now I come across an album by my dear friend Dee Daniels, who I can’t vote for because the rules clearly state that you must abstain from voting for albums you have a personal connection to. This particular album includes “The Thought Of You” a song we co-wrote and I am tempted to cheat and vote us in but I don’t. Evidently I am at the self-righteous point of my drunkenness and the timing is perfect for the sake of my mortal soul. Nonetheless, this turn of events bums me out and I move on, cursing under my breath, now swigging directly from the bottle.
I note that several artists are playing, singing, arranging and writing their entire album and I want to acknowledge these incredibly ambitious projects but as for the vocal performance, these tracks do not measure up to the vocalist who is focused on just performing the vocal. I am itching with ambivalence and very close to throwing in the towel yet again, recognizing the Sisyphussian nature of my task. I can only stand in awe and wonder and dream of being as multi-talented as these individuals are. I sigh heavily and demand yet another category…Original Jazz Genius perhaps.
I decide on a desperate and debaucherous whim to pick only albums wherein the vocal calibre is nothing short of expert since, on the merits of a mere listen, no one can tell if the vocalist is contributing anything else. I justify this knowing that I am always keen to play tracks that kick my own ass into rehearsing more and I back up this new approach by pointing out that I am only 127 albums in! Not even half way. I close my eyes just briefly and pass right out.
I am so hung over I am playing album # 128 on a volume scale of ‘2’ and even this amounts to an audio assault. I forge on. Some artists are writing clever and interesting lyrics but their vocals are not world class and so far, I’ve picked several albums that are. Trouble is I now have several picks that are compilation albums including different vocalists and I feel this is an unfair advantage. So (you know what’s coming) I demand yet another category! This brings us to approximately 67 sub-categories in the Vocal Jazz world I have created and even I know that’s Just Plain Crazy. I now have a keen sympathy for anyone attempting to classify music into genres and I can understand the challenges in creating categories to begin with. But enough with this “aha! Moment” and back to the Gordian knot at hand.
I have become aware of my preference for relatively recent releases because newer albums are, I reckon, better served by this promotional opportunity than earlier recordings. I know this is the most ludicrous notion I’ve had yet and I am sincerely depressed by my undeniable laziness. No, it’s not just because I’m hung over. I now see how there are literally thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of jazz singers currently recording, in a diverse array of styles, in the spirit of endless potential and most of them (read: us) are very good but, for any number of reasons one might care to mention, not yet great, not remotely in the same league as the jazz legends we know and love. This is a truly disheartening realization. I would kill for a cigarette right now and I don’t even smoke.
I have now given up completely in nominating single tracks due to my belief that I may not get through the albums let alone listen for the merits of each individual track. Sorry JPF…I know I’m letting you down here. Forgive me. I’m weak and worn out. In fact, I am reconsidering my own career now as I am so thoroughly humbled by the number of fine vocalists who also have serious chops on an external instrument, usually piano but also guitar and the odd trumpeter occasionally blows their own horn a la Chet Baker, as though I didn’t feel bad enough already. Damn you musical savants! No wonder I’m a hopeless and obscure indie artist.
To avoid drowning in my pool of self-pity, I decide to change categories when I submit my own album next year. But I digress. I’m on Vocal Jazz album 140, with a mere 131 albums left. I feel like I’ve heard every standard ever written and then some. Twice. I now hate Gershwin. Both of them.
I confess, to my utter shame, that I am now also, officially despising all things Jobim and I want to pull my eyebrows out at the very thought of anything remotely Latin. If I never hear timbales again it will be too soon. I have no choice but to admit that I am, in the words of Comic Book Guy, the ‘worst judge ever.’ The aforementioned Gypsy swing group, who shall remain nameless, have submitted 4 albums in this category so far, and this begs the question, could you not have provided me with a greatest hits collection rather than torture me with yet another full album?
112 albums to go and my personal hygiene is becoming an issue. My cat is looking at me with more than the usual disdain. I am down but not entirely out.
I am now at a 59% completion rate having made it past 160 albums, made up of 1,806 tracks, according to the nifty software provided for this judging process. I wish I had thought to keep track of the hours I’ve put in so far but I’m certain that if I had, I would quit instantly in recognition of my ‘life is too short’ philosophy and just apologize to the JPF. But now I am all caffeined up and ready to get this job done. This diatribe is approaching 2000 words and fast becoming something that only I will ever read and so I will sign off for now, with the promise of one last paragraph to sum it up, if I can just get through the last 110 albums. Wish me luck. I fully expect Jon Krakauer to write a more eloquent account of this misadventure once my bones have been discovered in some remote locale.
An Interesting Fact While We Wait
I am now rethinking my current album and wondering if maybe I shouldn’t wait a few more decades until I have my best work available. This perspective comforts and disturbs me. That’s about it as far as what I know for sure goes right now. It’s 11am and I am close to drowning in my pool of self-pity. I wiggle into my water wings and float on.
I have now completed my judging and I have to say I’d be reluctant to do it again even though I have heard a shwack of great music by some very talented people. I am strangely encouraged by my own delusions of grandeur to keep making original recordings but I am, admittedly, very unlikely to record a jazz standards album in the future. I am proud to be a musician and I wish I could have been more charitable in my choices as a peer judge but as far as I know, I only have one life and I am loathe to live it in critical comparisons. I think I’ll stick to writing and playing and recording and leave the reviewing to those who can do so without losing their everlovin’ minds in the process.
When last I heard from the good people sponsoring this contest, they were still looking for peer judges is 19 categories. I very calmly deleted their email and picked up my guitar instead. Just Plain Sayin’.