Anything goes

Jazz - Richard Cook welcomes a crop of hot young singers who are stealing the show

For what seemed like decades, jazz singers had to play out their performing lives in a curious kind of ghetto. Caught in a limbo between art music and popular song, they rarely pleased everybody. The core jazz audience respected Billie and Ella, but they tended to be distractions before the main event of Miles or Bird. The pop audience knew Ella, and sort of recognised Billie as a shadowy mistress of torch-singing pain, but they didn't understand the backings or the scat or why these people felt the need to improvise around the melody line. A singer such as Mel Torme spent his whole life being cooler than the crowd, but now he's mostly remembered as the guy who wrote "The Christmas Song".

Mel liked to call his audience "a vast minority". Perhaps it's still that way: but something peculiar has overtaken the jazz singer's lot. All of a sudden, vocalists are outselling their instrumentalist peers many times over, and the jazz singers - if that's what they are - have become hot property. It started in earnest with the success of Diana Krall, Canada's husky export, whose knowingly slow and teasingly ambiguous delivery of a standard ballad ("When I Look in Your Eyes") became a global sensation a few years ago. That set up singers everywhere: every label wanted its own Krall, and even gracious old-timers such as Tony Bennett had their careers refurbished. Lately, the younger end of the spectrum is where it's at. The astonishing momentum behind Norah Jones has eclipsed even Krall's market-place performance, and has encouraged the likes of Universal's young signing Jamie Cullum. But Jones's impact really has nothing to do with jazz singing: her debut is softly appealing, the record of a singer-songwriter.

The dilemma for the jazz vocalist is what to do with his or her material. The songbooks of Gershwin and Porter may be immortal in their way, but they have been peddled by so many generations of singers that reinventing them is beyond the grasp of all but the most extraordinary talents. In the wake of Stacey Kent, the expat American singer based in London, a slew of youngish singers have been trying to turn the clock back to a time before rock's bad manners spoilt the Eden of good and true songwriting. The result has been a seemingly endless parade of pleasantly innocuous records on which the music is conducted with precision, and the results are a coolly agreeable and frankly forgettable hour or so of music. Why would you listen to that when you could put on Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown (Verve/ Polygram) instead?

It has also marginalised singers such as Kurt Elling, a daredevil musician whose live performances are unforgettable yet whose records have made little impact beyond a small coterie of fans. His new album, Man in the Air, is typically audacious. Elling relies on tunes that will be familiar only to modern jazz ears - Herbie Hancock's "Secret of I", Grover Washington's "Winelight", John Coltrane's "Resolution" - then writes new and surpassingly thoughtful lyrics for them, and sings them in a voice that goes from a dusky baritone to a lean, winsome tenor. He lives out the cliches about jazz singers making their voices sound like instruments, yet caresses words, relishing the cadences in each line and taking a conversational tone that releases an unexpected tenderness into his interpretations. Some of Elling's records have been a deliberately tough listen, perhaps, but this grown-up, intelligent and passionate record deserves a wider hearing than it is likely to get.

But not all of the female singers are taking the line of least resistance. Rene Marie's Live At Jazz Standard is so sensational that one aches to hear her in person. When she submits to convention and tackles a whiskery tune such as "Where or When", she manages to pull it off by referring only occasionally to the original melody, mapping out new ground that still doesn't feel like mere virtuoso indulgence. She writes some of her own tunes and creates unlikely but intriguing juxtapositions, such as mixing up Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" with the melody of Ravel's Bolero. But the great thing about the record is the pure pleasure in music-making she conveys: it's too often forgotten that much of the greatest jazz singing is joyous and free-flying.

Another new-season surprise is Lea DeLaria, an American stand-up comedian who has now made two exciting, funny records for Warner Jazz. Double Standards sets her in front of a crack New York band, with the likes of Christian McBride and Seamus Blake behind her, and pitches one surprise after another: the material is all out of the college-rock songbook, which means songwriting contributions from the likes of Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden, Blondie and Los Lobos. DeLaria takes it all seriously, and makes it all swing. No postmodern irony, just a wry suggestion that we might ask Cole Porter to step aside for a moment and let some younger guys throw down some songs. About time.

Kurt Elling's Man in the Air is released by Blue Note; Rene Marie's Live At Jazz Standard is available through Maxjazz; Lea DeLaria's Double Standards is out on Warner Jazz