The last year in Washington has been a boon for listeners who enjoy the color, agility and nuances of jazz singing. The Corcoran's Great Songwriters series has been responsible for much of this bounty, bringing to town artists like such as Mark Murphy and Dave Frishberg, who perform here infrequently. Local clubs have done their part, and the growing number of jazz vocal albums issued recently suggests wide support. Among the more noteworthy are:
* "The Janet Lawson Quintet" (Inner City IC 1116). A Baltimorean, Lawson already has been nominated for a Grammy for this, her quintet's debut album. By all rights, she should win the award as well.
This is a wonderfully buoyant and colorful collection, sung by a soprano with a 3 1/2-octave range, a firm grasp of rhythm and an unflagging sense of adventure. The songs, some by Fats Waller, Blossom Dearie, Thelonious Monk and Bob Dorough, occasionally push her voice to the limit but seldom beyond. The arrangements, challenging as they are, sparkle with a bright, festive air and reveal considerable talent and imagination.
* Mark Murphy's "Bob for Kerouac" (Muse MR 5253). In his liner notes Murphy says "I never saw Bird Charlie Parker until I read Kerouac. I saw Bird through Jack's eyes and phenomenal memory -- and clearly." This, then, is Murphy's way of returning the favor -- an affectionate and largely successful musical evocation of the bop era interspersed with readings from Kerouac's novels "On the Road" and "The Subterraneans."
The material ranges from the brisk name-dropping changes of "Bebop Lives," which doesn't always suit Murphy's warm, gravelly voice, to the telling imagery of Joni Mitchell's "Goodby Pork Pie Hat," which does. For this sentimental journey, Murphy couldn't have chosen a better companion than alto saxophonist Richie Cole. He consistently captures what Kerouac once described as "that excitement of soft nights, San Francisco bop."
* "The Dave Frishberg Songbook" (Omnisound N-1040). Remember the line about the vocalist who was so good that he could get away with singing a page from the phone book? Well, Frishberg gets away with singing a lengthy roster of baseball players' names on "Van Lingle Mungo," one of many familiar, whimsical and wry songs gathered on this "best of" collection. True, Frishberg's occasional croaks could make a frog turn greener with envy, but who cares. It's a perfect voice for a songsmith who's forever playing with words, forever turning phrases inside out, forever commenting on social fashion and lunacy. Only those who are looking for something new from Frishberg will be disappointed.
* Ernestine Anderson's "Never Make Your Move Too Soon" (Concord CJ 147). When Anderson appears at Charlie's later this month, Washingtonians will get a chance to hear a woman who has held West Coast audiences under a spell for years. Hers is a rich, sultry voice that has its sassier moments; and when one hears "What a Difference a Day Made" on this album, the usual comparisons with Dinah Washington seem justified.
Blues and ballads are Anderson's specialty, and the more subdued the setting, the better. Bassist Ray Brown, pianist Monty Alexander and drummer Frank Gant provide soft, shimmering accompaniment, and Brown's arrangements, especially the standards "Old Folks" and "Poor Butterfly," are lovely. If Anderson keeps similar company when she visits Washington, her stay here should be a rare treat.
* Cedar Walton's "The Maestro," featuring Abbey Lincoln (Muse MR 5244). Although this is Walton's album, much of its success can be attributed to Abbey Lincoln's four performances, including the title track, Walton's poetic remembrance of Duke Ellington.
In many ways Lincoln turns stylistic liabilities into assets. Her range is narrow, her pitch uncertain and her phrasing can be inexact. But few jazz singers deliver a lyric as convincingly as she. She's developed a highly personal voice and a delivery free of affectation or pretense. On this album, at least, those qualities help establish a wonderful rapport with both her rhythm section and tenor saxophonist Bob Berg.
* Judy Willing (Lavenham LVH 8101). A native of the Eastern Shore, Willing possesses a clear and pleasant voice. On this, her first album, she joins Washington's Steve Novosel Trio in reprising an engaging collection of standards. As modest as these interpretations are, Willing sings with poise, affection and genuine warmth. Those qualities alone are enough to make even the least successful of her efforts easy on the ears.