The New Jazz Singers
Bast, Andrew, Kirpalani, Anita, Newsweek International
Byline: Andrew Bast and Anita Kirpalani
Once upon a time, the emblematic jazz singer was an African-American woman, serenading a smoke-filled room. Think Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Today, a talented crop of cosmopolitan young singers are creating a new breed of jazz vocalist: the globalized chanteuse. They come from multicultural backgrounds, live all over the world, and are infusing the traditional American sound with new energy. Take today's rising star, 26-year-old Sophie Milman. Born in Russia, she fled with her family to Israel at the age of 7, then settled in Canada at 16. Now she sells out the Blue Note jazz club in Tokyo. Her roots and her reach are global. In looks and language, she couldn't be further from the pioneers who came more than a half century before.
Yet Milman and others like her are redefining jazz by drawing on the American songbook. In his book The Jazz Singers, Scott Yanow argues that among 21st-century jazz vocalists, only "a few manage to reinvent standards in new ways," which is exactly what this new class is doing so well. Milman--who's fluent in French, English, Russian, and Hebrew--sings Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" in a clear, valiant alto that booms down low and reaches effortlessly up high. Elisabeth Kontomanou, who is Greek and Guinean, insists on knowing the African-American roots of the music she plays. "Jazz is innovation, but with all the culture and the understanding of what has already been done," she says. "If you don't look at that, you get a tasteless, odorless, and colorless music." On her last CD, Brewin' the Blues, she follows her own rules by revisiting less famous songs by jazz icons, such as Billie Holiday's "Tell Me More and More (and Then Some)."
Language has proved no barrier to these women; all sing in English. Virginie Teychene comes from the south of France but learned English with her father, who used to show American Marines the French way of life. …