Video Reviews, July 1996
by Robin Tolleson
Various Artists: Saying It With Jazz (Merrill, 58 min.)
Here is another look behind the stage lights, this one at the
Joe Williams speaks highly of Madeline Eastman—she’s featured in
by Chuck Berg
Carmen McRae/Lorez Alexandria/
all the stars in the jazz firmament, singers are the least understood.
Joan Merrill gets to the essence of "saying it with jazz." Sloane, for example,
in assessing McRae's indelible appeal points out that "she never lets you go.
She tells us how to cope with pain, and with loss." And with good times.
As Merrill’s camera shifts effortlessly between performances and interviews,
the divas demonstrate and theorize about the importance of the word. All
agree that lyrics are the means for conveying the specifics of life’s experiences.
It’s a point that comes to poignant life as we actually hear them sing.
Embellished with insights by host Al Young, singers Shirley Horn and Joe
Williams, radio announcer Bob Parlocha, producers Carl Jefferson and Orrin
Keepnews, and booker Sonny Buxton, Merrill presents a telling overview.
At the end, when Alexandria says she only feels totally alive when she’s
singing, you believe her, and her sisters in song.
| Jazz Now
by Robert Tate
Saying It With Jazz
Video, 58 minutes
Whether you aspire to be a Jazz singer, want to find out about Jazz singing,
or just appreciate good examples of the genre, this video will have something for you. Merrill has interviewed five vocalists and gathered their insights into
some first-rate footage. Discussions are mixed with songs, avoiding any lecture-hall feel. Most of the singers get a full number without interruption, and then another song is interspersed with observations about Jazz singing. On a couple of segments the sound quality is less than ideal. A nice touch is the use of subtitles to identify accompanying musicians and venues.
Overwhelmingly the most important thing, say all the singers, is the lyrics and how they are used to communicate emotion. How this accords with scat singing, which many of these vocalists do and which has become a veritable rage since the video was made, is not touched on.
Carole Sloane, who came up in the 1950s, remembers hearing good white
vocalists on the radio stations of the day, singers like Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney, but when she discovered Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, and other black singers, it was like a new world opened for her, and she knew she had to sing that way. Since then, she says, she's been eliminating extraneous things that don't need to be in the song, like pulling away the leaves of an artichoke to get to the heart of the music.
Etta Jones describes herself as a flat-footed singer because she tries to
communicate with the listener through the words alone, with no waving of
arms or other dramatic touches. Lorez Alexandria points out that you have
to make listeners feel or else it doesn't matter how complicated or hip you make
the song sound.
Madeline Eastman talks about the tradeoff between art and business, getting your music out there yourself through self-produced CDs when major record
labels aren't waiting to snap you up. Joe Williams testifies to Madeline's talent,
and several music industry figures discuss the business issues she raises.
The late Carl Jefferson, founder of Concord Records, and producer Orrin
Keepnews talk about the importance of recording for a vocalist, while KJAZ
disc jockey Bob Parlocha deals with the airplay a recording gets once it's been
The video opens and closes with performances by the late Carmen McRae,
"the grand dame of Jazz vocalists," as narrator Al Young calls her. Her work
is stunning, and Merrill's respectful treatment makes it shine. But for me the
real magic comes from Rebecca Parris, who walks right off the video into the
living room and tears me up with her absolutely gorgeous rendition of Billy
Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Rebecca has a personality and stage presence
stronger than any I've seen since Dizzy.
An excellent inside look at Jazz singing, showing what vocalists are trying
to do and how they do it.