This could be the start of something big.
-- Steve Allen
Stacey Kent, a 36-year-old jazz singer from New Jersey, and Sarah Lawrence College, and London, and often Paris, and sometimes Munich and Rome, works as hard as a big star. She performs as often as most people eat breakfast -- for 90 days in a row late last year, and for most nights thus far in 2004. She has filled six CDs with songs from the Great American Songbook -- songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and other indisputable stars from the golden era of American popular music. She sings them all with a distinctive, expressive, lilting, slightly girlish voice, beautifully timed and enunciated. She is accompanied and enriched by a gifted jazz quintet led by her husband.
The songs were originally written for Broadway shows and movies, mostly, but Kent performs them as jazz -- as jazz musicians have for more than 70 years. She records for a small British label, Candid, yet the CDs sell quite well -- the latest spent 22 weeks on Billboard's jazz chart, rising as high as No. 5. According to Candid, she has sold more than 350,000 CDs since her first was released in 1997; four of the six made the Billboard chart.
"The Boy Next Door," her latest and most successful, has "gone silver" in France, where a special edition, including two French songs sung impeccably in their native tongue, has sold 50,000 copies. It was voted jazz vocal record of the year by listeners of the leading jazz radio station in France, where Kent regularly gives sold-out concerts. She filled nearly every seat for two sets a night in the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York for a month last September. She sings for the first time at Carnegie Hall on May 5 as the opening act for a Michael Feinstein concert. And next weekend, on Saturday and Sunday nights, she will sing at Blues Alley in Georgetown.
Kent is beloved by jazz critics and audiences in Britain, France, Scandinavia, Portugal and Spain, and the United States.
One of her most ardent fans is Humphrey Littleton, 82, the elder statesman of British jazz and a popular BBC disc jockey. Of "The Boy Next Door," he said: "Everything about it -- the choice of songs, the musical interplay, the glorious voice -- leaves one searching for a more superlative word than 'greatest.' " Jonathan Schwartz, the most influential DJ playing jazz vocals and standards in New York (for WNYC radio and XM Satellite Radio), is another supporter. Schwartz calls Kent "a superb minimalist [who] brings to her performance onstage a cerebral sexuality."
She has an extraordinary impact on audiences and regularly receives over-the-top fan e-mail -- for example, this from a Francine Morin who heard her sing in New York: "I still have a lump in my throat from hearing you last night at the Algonquin. You made me cry. When I hear you, I hear God channeling through you. Like a baby or an orchid, your voice is a little miracle." Many of the fans who write are young people who have encountered the Great American Songbook for the first time through Kent.
Those who love Kent really adore her -- Kazuo Ishiguro, for example. The author of "The Remains of the Day" and other novels has called Kent "a singer to match the greats of the past. . . . A great jazz diva for our age."
Could she be that good? "We're proud of ourselves." she says. "We still get a kick out of signing on in the morning and reading the e-mail from somebody who feels like they've just discovered a secret, because they haven't been banged over the head 18 times yesterday while at the gym listening to us on MTV. They've discovered us, and said, 'I walked into a store to buy a tie yesterday, and they were playing your record' -- this is some guy in France -- 'and I had to ask who you were, and I went out and bought your record.' Word of mouth has been so valuable to us."
But I don't mind it.
That's how I want to be,
As long as you'll agree,
To stay old-fashioned with me.
-- Johnny Mercer
Stacey Kent is trying to build a bridge from today's popular culture back to the period from the 1920s to the early '50s, when the songs on the radio had tunes that stuck in the head and the lyrics were actually poetry -- with nary a sexually explicit reference. With her husband, Jim Tomlinson, a tenor saxophonist in the Stan Getz tradition, Kent is trying to build this bridge with old-fashioned virtues: devotion to craft, hard work, respect for songs they consider high art, and respect for audiences who often hear the songs for the first time when they see Tomlinson and Kent perform.
It's an unusual story, but when it comes out of their mouths in seven hours of interviews (in Los Angeles in February, when they were appearing in the Cinegrill nightclub at the Roosevelt Hotel), it makes perfectly good sense.
Kent grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York with three siblings and two intellectual parents who "pretty much hated each other" and divorced when she was a teenager. Parental tension colored her childhood, but by her own account she also had a lot of fun. What did she remember best?
"Watching the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals over and over again, singing to Carole King every afternoon in harmony, and watching Hitchcock movies and hearing things that I knew meant this was an ominous scene, and so they would play these diminished chords -- I didn't really know what they were called, but I would go and work them out on the piano." Stories were important, some of them told by a beloved Russian-born grandfather whose pre-American name had been Kantorovich. He changed it to Kent. "He spoke to me in Russian and French, and recited poetry, and taught me about Pushkin, and taught me songs. I was the kid in the family with a big pair of ears, and I responded well and would recite these things and just mimic them back at him. . . . Music was an enormous part of my childhood, but only on the side, as a hobby. My parents encouraged it. It was obvious that I had good ears and that I was talented. I was always asked to sing by my friends in school and by my family -- again, not in a big performance sort of way, but 'Can you sing us a song? Tell us a story?' " At Newark Academy, a private school in Livingston, N.J., she studied Latin, French, German and Italian. At the urging of her French teacher, she applied only to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., just outside New York City. She studied comparative literature and continued language studies there and at Middlebury College's famous summer language courses every summer.
Tensions between her parents helped persuade her to go off to Europe after graduation from Sarah Lawrence. She chose Munich, to work on her German and be alone for a while with Dostoevski and Kafka. "I ran away. . . . I was running away from a very close-knit but tough family environment." In Munich she got a job serving exotic beers and occasionally singing at a pub called Gisela's.
She decided to visit Sarah Lawrence friends who were studying at Oxford. That led to an encounter with an Oxford graduate named Jim Tomlinson, whose mother ran a rooming house in the north of England. He'd just finished getting a degree in politics, philosophy and economics but decided to pursue his first love, jazz. They ended up together as students at the Guildhall School of Music in London -- Kent auditioned on a lark and was admitted. Soon they had their love to keep them warm.
It's still working more than a dozen years later. Watching them together, onstage or eating salads at Joey's Cafe, an "organic diner" on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, is to observe love in action: The devoted glances, the grins and giggles, the polite attentiveness each shows the other. Kent dedicated her second album, released in early 1999, to "my husband, who caught me in 'The Tender Trap,' " the song that gave the album its name.
By the time they made their first album, "Close Your Eyes," in 1997, they had settled into the style they have stuck to since, using the same principal musicians and the same approach to the great old songs. They never butcher a song, or redo it so radically that it isn't instantly recognizable. But they perform every one as a piece of modern jazz, not as a museum piece.
"We didn't feel old-fashioned at all," Kent says. "I think one of the things we felt, and we discussed incessantly, was how contemporary we felt. We felt like we were part of the modern world. . . . We were not on any kind of a nostalgia trip."
Tomlinson compares them to Nigel Kennedy, the young British violinist who has made a big career playing classical music with modern panache. "When Nigel Kennedy plays Bach on the violin, he doesn't think he's on some sort of 17th-century kick. . . . It's a current expression.
"The past is capable of speaking to the present," he adds, and she nods her head vigorously:
"We're living proof of that. Because we go out to play to a fairly young audience a lot of the time who don't know the material, who ask us over and over again if we've written it, which we think is very funny, and we explain to them that we haven't -- "
"But also it's flattering," he interjects, "because it means that you've taken a song [from the past] and made it live, and it comes across as something that you've created, which in a sense it was."
Take some skins, jazz begins,
Take a bass, steady pace,
Take a box, one that rocks,
Take a blue horn New Orleans-born.
Take a stick with a lick,
Take a bone, Dixie-grown,
Take a spot, cool and hot,
Now you has jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz.
-- Cole Porter
The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen and the other geniuses who created the Great American Songbook did not write their songs as jazz numbers, but they quickly became just that. John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, explained to writer Gene Lees why this happened: "Jazz developed while the great popular music was being turned out. It was a golden age for songs. They had a classic quality in length and shape and form and flexibility of harmony. The jazz musicians were drawn to this music."
Lees added: "Every jazz musician was expected to know these songs; they were the lingua franca of the art form." Any serious players could start a jam session by agreeing on "My Funny Valentine" (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart) as their text.
This is where Kent and Tomlinson and their key sidemen (pianist Dave Newton, guitarist Colin Oxley and bassist Dave Chamberlain) are coming from. They perform the great songs the way Lewis and the MJQ might, with discipline. "We keep the frame very tight," Kent explains.
"It's kind of like choosing a frame for a picture," adds Tomlinson, 37, a smallish, gentle man whose observations often provoke a second or third thought. "Some big pictures with big things happening can tolerate a heavy frame, but you'd never put a huge, gaudy frame around a small watercolor." Tomlinson and Kent tend to turn the great American songs into tightly framed small watercolors.
Jazz and singing were brought under the same roof by Louis Armstrong, the original and the definitive jazz singer. The two go well together when there is inspiration, but also discipline.
"A lot of jazz musicians don't recognize that playing with singers is a different ballgame entirely from playing instrumental jazz," Tomlinson says. "As soon as you put a lyric to something, then there's a requirement, almost . . . to tell the same story that the singer is playing. So that when I take a solo on a ballad, whatever it may be, Stacey having sung it, I'm not approaching it from the point of view of: Okay, here's a chord sequence and my chance to do my thing. I am playing "Bewitched" in the same way that Stacey has just sung it. It's a collaborative effort. It's kind of like a relay race. The baton is passed. Everyone is telling the same story collaboratively."
Kent picks up this baton: "Sometimes Jim will . . . play an obbligato line around me, and behind me, and it will be exactly what I was just saying. . . . I'll think, 'I was just about to say that.' Except he's saying it on an instrument that's idiomatic to him, and I'm singing the lyric. But it's not 'Let's get rid of the song to get to the jazz.' The whole thing is intertwined and intermeshed."
And also improvised. Every set they play is improvised on the spot, with Kent making the decisions about what song is next. Only by sitting through repeated Kent-Tomlinson performances can you fully appreciate the improvisation. Their songs, including the 75 they've recorded, can come out in radically different ways on different nights, in different venues. They'll change the tempo, drop or add the introductory verse, change the orchestration. Once the band is in a groove, its members are all capable of playing an entirely new version of a song they've done hundreds of times. So in Los Angeles they gave the crowd in the Cinegrill a version of the Gershwins' "Shall We Dance" utterly unlike the one on their 2000 CD, "Let Yourself Go," with an entirely new musical twist. And the dialogue between voice and saxophone can be particularly poignant. It's an old one in jazz; Lester Young and Billie Holiday conducted it famously, as did John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and many others. On songs like "It Never Entered My Mind" (on the 2002 CD, "In Love Again"), Kent and Tomlinson can weaken the knees of even the most resolute cynics with musical lamentations that both deliver in soulful vibrato.
I love your funny face,
Your sunny, funny face;
For you're a cutie,
With more than beauty.
You've got a lot
-- Ira Gershwin
A new generation of female singers is reaching big audiences with different singing styles but a common attribute. Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Norah Jones are all new stars and drop-dead lovely to look at. No one in the music business thinks this is a coincidence.
Stacey Kent is not that kind of looker, but she is indeed cute, and she does have a funny face: long nose, big ears, a wide brow and a large head. Her hair is cut short and doesn't add much to this odd package. Nevertheless she is a blue-eyed pretty woman with fine, pale skin, and she has a lovely figure. Jonathan Schwartz's quip that she exudes a cerebral sexuality onstage seems dead-on.
But it's the personal-T-N-T that is really striking and that audiences respond to. It began to emerge when Kent was a young schoolgirl. "I still have these vivid memories of lunch breaks, close girlfriends asking me to sing, sometimes whisper in their ears . . . very quiet, very confidential." Ishiguro, the great novelist, has written that Kent has "an unusual power to hold your attention and control your emotions from the first note. . . . Stacey's singing never lets us forget that these songs are about people. Her protagonists come to life so fully in her voice you sometimes have to remind yourself the CD has no visuals." At a recent concert in Sweden, Kent reported by e-mail this month, she could see that "every single couple in the long front row -- and they were of all ages -- had their hands clasped around one another. What can I say, I love singing to all those clasped hands."
The Gershwins explained this more than 75 years ago:
If the human race is
Full of happy faces --
It's because they all love
That wondrous thing they call love.
-- Ira Gershwin
Which is, of course, the subject of nearly every song in the Great American Songbook. Some are sad, some are joyful, some -- like love itself -- are just complicated. Kent thrives on them all.
She is naturally so cheerful that the sad songs sometimes seem out of place in her performances. But after hours of conversation, prompted by a critique from an aficionado of the old songs who wondered if her life had been too easy to allow her to sing the great ballads convincingly, Kent lets slip an interesting biographical fact. She has three times been in comas brought on by a rare virus called brainstem encephalitis. Each time, baffled doctors were not certain they could bring her back. The last coma was in 1999, and Tomlinson nursed her through it. On doctors' advice, he brought records to her hospital room. When she awoke he was playing Mildred Bailey, one of the great jazz singers of the '30s. "There's just so much emotion in that voice," Kent says. "It's a cry -- even when she's singing a happy song."
Doctors now say that proper treatment will prevent any recurrence. Kent is not so confident. She feels the earlier episodes slightly diminished her verbal acuity, and she can't help but wonder if there could be another incident.
But this has no effect on her enthusiasm, or on their appetite for life and work. They gave concerts nearly every night from Labor Day through New Year's last year. They fit in two ski holidays this winter in Aspen, where they hope eventually to have a second home (London is the first). Touring with a band is expensive, but they've even made some money, something few jazz musicians are able to do. "We're pushing six figures in dollars, between us," for 2003, according to Tomlinson.
After years of managing themselves with the help of agents in many different countries, they have signed on with Ted Kurland, a big-time manager based in Boston. Kurland manages Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, among others.
Kurland says she can make it big. "She's never had a manager, she's never had an international booking agent, she's never had any of the powerful elements that often are utilized to push an artist. [Yet] she's found an audience and built up a following on the basis of what is the most honest criteria. . . . People really, really like her. They like going to her performances. When they hear her record on the radio, they want to go out and buy it."
Kent and Tomlinson have the idea that a new generation can be won over to the great old songs. In other words, a generation of listeners whose ears have been bent by grunge, heavy metal, hip-hop and other genres that Hoagy Carmichael got along without very well is now supposed to be bewitched by songs that their grandparents, or great-grandparents, danced to. How likely is that?
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
-- Ira Gershwin