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Sound Check

What makes a singer a jazz singer is hard to define. But one thing is sure: it definitely goes beyond just performing standards. The ability to sing jazz also involves stepping away from the formulaic confines of most of today's pop and R&B music.

According to the late, great Carmen McRae, improvisation is the essence of the jazz singer. She felt that vocalists, just like jazz musicians, needed to be able to feel the music, to convey a wide emotional range that brings a song's lyrics to life.

Whether men or women are better suited to jazz singing might be a question of taste, but it's no secret that women have had a much greater impact on the vocal side of the music than the instrumental. The female perspective, with its ability to look inward and openly examine affairs of the heart, and its awesome power to nurture the soul and inner spirit, accepts improvisation as a welcome friend.

One of the best examples of that was McRae herself, who turned a live performance into a Billie Holiday lovefest on For Lady Day (Vol. 1). A feisty and incredibly outspoken soul, McRae was always known for making any composition her own; For Lady Day, a posthumous release of a concert recorded on New Year's Eve 1983 at New York's Blue Note, is a grand example of that. McRae perfectly projected a sadness that borders on obsession on "Don't Explain." On her cover of "Good Morning Heartache," she redefined the emotional impact of accepting pain in a relationship. And her characteristic naughtiness spices up the bluesy Holiday-penned "Fine and Mellow."

McRae passed away last fall at age 64, leaving behind a legacy of original interpretations that For Lady Day gracefully extends. A second set of songs from that same Blue Note date will be released in October. (PPP)

Abbey Lincoln is also 64, but she, thankfully, is still around. Her latest, A Turtle's Dream, may at first seem like a strange title for a jazz record, but given Lincoln's stature among jazz musicians and fans, the symbolism couldn't be more appropriate.

Like a turtle, Lincoln has weathered the tests of time over a 40-year career. Her scratchy, wonderfully lived-in contralto -- full of passion, defiance and indifference -- still has the power to captivate. And with every tune on A Turtle's Dream (nine of the 11 tracks of which are her own compositions) Lincoln slyly imparts the wisdom learned from a difficult life. Her songwriting continually brings to light the plainspoken importance of culture and the maintenance of one's spirit (even after abusive relationships).

A Turtle's Dream is Lincoln's fifth album on the venerable Verve label -- her first was 1990's seminal The World Is Falling Down -- and on it she continues the use of her philosophic, often bittersweet, inner voice to tell her life's story. (The tenth of 12 children, Lincoln grew up poor in Michigan.) Each track on A Turtle's Dream is a gem in which Lincoln charges forward with the authority of a griot, respected by all around her in the village of jazz performers. There's a lot of talk about the sea on the disc, about the healing power of water serving as a calming influence to counter life's turbulence. A collection of mostly downtempo numbers, the CD is a revelation of the inner spirit. Perhaps most telling is a passage from "Being Me," the closing track: "It wasn't always easy learning to be me / Sometimes my head and heart would disagree / Times I walked away, other times I'd stay / To see the drama of my life, the play." (*****)

If innovative interpretation is indeed the yardstick by which jazz singers are measured, Rachelle Ferrell is near the top of her class. Her second American release, First Instrument -- available until now only as an import -- is a classic study in reinventing jazz standards. In addition to being a talented composer, lyricist, arranger and musician, Ferrell is an incredibly gifted vocalist. For her, the human voice is the first instrument. She literally wraps hers around each composition, making full use of her six-and-a-half-octave vocal range. She's adept with any tempo thrown in her direction, showing a particular finesse on ballads. On First Instrument, the Cy Coleman chestnut "With Every Breath I Take" and the Rodgers and Hart standard "My Funny Valentine" are definite standouts.

Ferrell adds two originals to First Instrument's nine exquisitely chosen standards. "Don't Waste Your Time" is a stinging indictment of an infatuated stranger that includes some top-drawer scatting, while the gorgeous "Extensions," on which she accompanies herself on piano, offers a stunning, intensely spiritual hope for true familial love.

An essential element in First Instrument's strong aural impact is Ferrell's hard-swinging trio: Eddie Green on piano, Tyrone Brown on stick bass and Doug Nally on drums. Trumpeter Terrence Blanchard makes a notable appearance on "With Every Breath I Take," as do saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Stanley Clarke on the live "Autumn Leaves." (*****)

Scat singing, smooth vocalizing and Afro-Caribbean chanting -- all windows to the spirit -- have become signatures for Dianne Reeves, a vocalist who moves effortlessly between the idioms of jazz and pop. Her rich, full contralto has also tackled the music of the American theater. While her new album, Quiet After the Storm, has a strong jazz presence, it maintains a stronger pop feel.

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