Sheila Jordan at the Top o' the Senator (249 Victoria), Friday and Saturday (July 1 and 2) at 9:30 pm, Sunday (July 3), 8:30 pm. $tba.
Madeleine Peyroux at Nathan Phillips Square (100 Queen West), Saturday (July 2), 8 pm. $30.
Real Divas with Emilie-Claire Barlow and MELISSA STYLIANOU and more at Nathan Phillips Square Friday (July 1), 8 pm. $25.
Runcible Spoon at the Rex (194 Queen West), Friday (July 1), 6:30 pm. $tba.
real divas as part of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, Mainstage, Nathan Phillips Square, $25. www.torontojazz.com.
Is jazz singing dead? Considering the way Diana Krall rules and Norah Jones has been accepted into the fold, it almost looks that way.
Think of a dinner party: the music barely audible, champagne glasses clinking, little black dresses.
Any one of these images may be called to mind when you hear the words "vocal jazz," along with the idea that jazz lovers lately are more interested in easy listening than in cutting-edge creativity.
Sheila Jordan has been singing since the days of Charlie Parker, and studied with Charles Mingus. She doesn't seem concerned about lazy audiences.
"I haven't had that problem," she says. "They know I'm dead serious. I don't work for audiences that aren't into what I'm gonna do. I'd be wasting their time and wasting my time."
Jordan fears vocal jazz has become too competitive through courses offered at colleges. She says the form wasn't nearly as popular when she was starting out, and she'd hate to have to put up with the pressure faced by the younger generation of women performers.
"You get these girls and they're young, they're naive, they're talented, and their manager pushes them: 'You have to look this way.... '"
Still Jordan has faith in these younger women.
"With young people it depends on their attitude," she says. "For me, it's a matter of life or death. Some of these girls may start to find the life too hard and say, 'Forget this!' and give up. And I don't blame them. You're not going to get rich doing this."
She adds with true hope and wonder, "I've got some kids coming up who are going to be killers. Someone's gonna change everything around."
"I try not to get bogged down in what you call it," says local singer Emilie-Claire Barlow , who admits that definitions of what jazz is are blurring. "I want people to listen to my music. If the smooth jazz trend has opened people's ears and minds to more kinds of music, I think that's great."
Another local jazz singing sensation, Melissa Stylianou , agrees that there's a popular image of vocal jazz as just one thing. But she says that whether a singer is performing original material or interpreting standards, a lot of individual expression is involved, and a variety of styles ranging from popular crooning to bebop to new music works for voice.
"Learning and continuing to sing the standards is completely essential to the future of jazz," says Stylianou. "But it's important to bring your own voice to it. It's a risk that has to be taken."
That risk is paying off in the wealth of vocal talent at this year's Downtown Jazz Festival. The variety of singers over the course of the festival should convince anyone with ears that the world of jazz extends beyond Diana Krall.
Leah State (singing with Runcible Spoon) says she's happy about the new popularity of vocal jazz and enjoys its broad modern interpretation.
"The definition of jazz seems to be expanding to include the Norah Joneses, which isn't a bad thing," she says. "Then you have free improvisers, and some audiences wouldn't consider them jazz. Far from being a shrinking world, I think it is growing."
State agrees that communication is crucial. "I think people connect to voice", State says. "They want to hear stories. People crave voice. They crave stories. And they crave good music."
But is it possible to make this connection with an audience accustomed to consuming and disposing of its culture and that more and more seems to use this music as background noise?
Stylianou admits, "I know sometimes when I'm performing that what they want is an aural wash."
Popular songstress Madeleine Peyroux comments on this trend with an existential shrug. "There must be a need for that. It's not what I'm going for. But I can't tell somebody what they should or should not be doing."
The problem lies in a culture that's not open-minded, she says. "I hear people talk about how jazz is dead, and I find it frustrating."