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By Josef Woodard
Around the globe, women are singing the international language of jazz.
A stubborn myth, or at least a half-truth, has it that jazz vocalizing is an almost categorically American art form. In fact, jazz singing is an international and ever-evolving language involving a broad constellation of dialects. Even beyond the self-evident foundation of Africa as jazz’s musical seedbed, influences have filtered into the music from Brazil, points in the Caribbean, French chanson, European classical and folk traditions and beyond.
By instinct and by force of artistic nature, vocalists from beyond U.S. borders have found their own points of expressive entry. A handful of recent releases illustrates the global trend.
On her luminous new ECM release A Time To Remember, refined Swiss-Albanian vocalist Elina Duni expands on the empathetic power she showed on her previous album, Lost Ships. Once again she’s joined by her primary ally, British guitarist and songwriting partner Rob Luft, as well as flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel and pianist and drummer Fred Thomas. Extending outward in terms of genre, culture and instrumental textures, Duni offers links to her Albanian roots on the folkloric “Hape Derën,” evocative originals such as “Évasion” and “Sunderland,” and a fresh and pensive take on “First Song” by Charlie Haden with lyrics by Abbey Lincoln. She also delves into a couple of standards — the Sondheim jewel “Send in the Clowns” and the tender closer “I’ll Be Seeing You” — her deft, dark and subtle style imparting a personal signature to those well-trodden tunes.
Although Gretchen Parlato is American-born and -raised, her musical journey over the past two decades has demonstrated an abiding curiosity and flexibility in her musical worldview, and she’s more than comfortable in Brazilian jazz idioms. The singer is deep in her element on Lean In (Edition), a glowingly fine collaboration with Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke.
Parlato and Loueke first met at UCLA’s Thelonious Monk Institute in 2001, with periodic interactions since then. But Lean In, created during the pandemic and recorded in Luxembourg and Los Angeles, is their first dedicated pairing, with help from drummer-percussionist Mark Guiliana and bassist Burniss Travis (as on the improvisational interludes of “Okagbé,” “Mi Wa Sé” and “Dou Wé”). Without landing squarely on specific geo-musical turf, West African and Brazilian musical echoes trickle through the seductive tracks, including the percolating, gently syncopated opener “Akwê,” the musing title song and Loueke’s buoyant “Nonvignon.” From pop corners, the pair reinvents the 1984 Klymaxx hit “I Miss You” and the Foo Fighters’ “Walking After You.” Loueke captivates with his tasteful guitar work and mouth percussion prowess — and he keeps his sometimes discoloring FX/synth timbres to a minimum — while Parlato applies a personalizing magic to everything her voice touches.
An inspired, left-of-conventional merger, Madeleine & Salomon pairs innovative French vocalist-flutist-actress Clotilde Rullaud — middle name, Madeleine — and Jewish/North African pianist-composer Alexandre Saada — middle name, Salomon. Tapping musical sources from Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere, and willfully spanning cultural, political and religious terrain, the pair brings an adventurous pan-Mediterranean approach to the voice-piano fabric of Eastern Spring (Tzig’Art). The album title alludes to the hopeful revolutionary spirit of the “Arab Spring,” embodied here in musical terms with its focus on freedom and protest songs, sometimes leaning into the realm of art pop and musical theater, with jazz elastics in the mix.
An abiding sense of cultural mission and musical concord anoints the inspired and bracing “Ibero-American” journey of Catalan singer Magalí Sare and bassist Manel Fortià, whose new project reTornar (Microscopi) also features percussionist David Dominguez. They bring potency and originality to European and American tradition via the tangos “Tornar” and “Cambalache,” the Portuguese “Barco Negro,” the Spanish tune “La Leyenda del Tiempo” and the Brazilian “Modinha.” Radically transformed, an odd-metered “Guantanamera” takes quick-change rhythmic turns in Cuban guajira cadences. The closer to this fascinating song set, “La Meva Àvia” (My Grandmother), leaves listeners in a tender, lullabied state, with Sare’s “small percussions” and lulling voice echoing in their ears.
The soulful symbiosis between luminous Argentinian singer Roxana Amed and versatile New York-based pianist Frank Carlberg is at the heart of the moving new album Los Trabajos y las Noches (Sony Music Latin). Melancholic and improvisational, it’s a poetic encounter on multiple levels. A vital third party here is legendary Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), whose texts first graced the 2013 Amed/Carlberg project La Sombra de su Sombra. From the ruminative spoken-word and musical performance of the title track to the plaintive grace of “Antes” and the gently bustling “Crepúsculo” (with one of several fine solos here by saxophonist Adam Kolker), the album lures listeners into a distinctive and sensitive realm where words, musical gestures and organic culture-bridging leave a deep and lingering impression.