More Than Meets the Ear in Katz’ “Jailhouse Doc”

Jailhouse 1

ODDSONG: JAILHOUSE DOC WITH HOLES IN HER SOCKS / SHERRAH-DAVIES, HOBBS, BROOKS, KATZ, SCARFF: Prayer. KATZ: Jailhouse Doc with Holes in Her Socks; Tell Time; Lemmings; Like a Wind; Squirrel; Gerbils; Gone Now; Red Blue. PIAZZOLLA, arr. SHERRAH-DAVIES: Libertango / OddSong: Rebecca Shrimpton, vocal; Jim Hobbs, Rick Stone, a-sax; Phil Scarff, t-sax/s-sax/sopranino sax; Melanie Howell Brooks, bar-sax; Helen Sherrah-Davies, violin; Vessela Stoyanova, marimba/vib. / KATZ: Ye Watchers And / JCA Winds and Strings: Shrimpton, Scarff, Brooks (bs-cl), Sherrah-Davies; Hiro Honshoku, fl; Bill Lowe, tuba / The Red Blues/Red Blue / JCA Orchestra: Shrimpton, Honshuku, Hobbs, Scarff, Brooks, Lowe; Alec Spiegelman, Oliver Lake, a-sax; Gary Bonham, Bill Fanning, Mike Peipman, tpt; Jim Mosher, Fr-hn; David Harris, Bob Pilkington, tbn; Carmen Staaf, pn; Norm Zocher, gt; Winnie Dahlgren, vibes; Alex Smith, bs; Pablo Bencid, dm; Ricardo Monzon, perc. / JCA Records 1601

In my exhaustive treatise on the long-standing interaction between classical music and jazz, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I made what I felt was a strong case that the best hope for both types of music was a complete fusion in which classical form is absorbed into jazz ensembles of varying sizes and instrumentation, and also that improvisation should be worked into “classical” symphonies, concertos, and chamber works. It has been gratifying to me to see and hear so many modern-day groups—completely unaware of my book—treading down this path of their own volition. Such a jazz composer is Darrell Katz, whose newest group, OddSong, has taken this aesthetic to an entirely new level with his unusual ensemble of four saxes (anchored, as in so many of Sy Oliver’s scores, by a booming baritone saxophone), violin, marimba/vibes and a vocalist. And it is specifically in the addition of a voice as an instrument that makes this project the most unusual.

As I pointed out in my book, the use of a vocalist as a jazz instrument is perhaps the most unusual and difficult of all to incorporate into a jazz-classical hybrid for the very reason that classical and jazz singing are founded, for the most part, on very different techniques and rules. The classical vocalist trains his or her voice “like an instrument,” but like a classical instrument; it is required to project over a full orchestra and chorus, have an even, locked-in sound covering its full range (generally two octaves, give or take), and have a rich tone with good coloration. Almost none of this is sought or required in jazz singing, as a rule. With the exception of some of the earliest female jazz singers (Gertrude Saunders, who could project into a vaudeville theater like a trumpet; Mamie Smith, whose powerful voice carried easily over a noisy early jazz band of trumpet, trombone, clarinet and tenor sax; Ethel Waters, who could also project into theaters, sometimes without a microphone; and Connee Boswell, a protégé of Mamie Smith’s records), most jazz singing relied on swinging phrasing and the ability to scat, which was certainly imitative of an instrument (Cliff Edwards and Louis Armstrong were the pioneers of this style) but too “different” in sound to really fit into a jazz ensemble. It was Duke Ellington who worked the hardest to weave a “legitimate” soprano voice into his jazz compositions, starting with the Adelaide Hall experiment of 1927 and Kay Davis in the mid-to-late 1940s before discovering the greatest virtuosic-instrumental female jazz singer of all, Alice Babs, in the 1960s (see my tribute to Babs here). Yet the majority of those female jazz singers who most successfully used their voices truly as instruments did not have well-trained or conventionally soprano-like voices, i.e., Anita O’Day, Jackie Cain, Sheila Jordan and Betty Carter. Thus we almost always start from a position of compromise when incorporating the human voice into a jazz ensemble on a regular basis, as Charlie Ventura did with Cain and Ellington did in the 1960s and ‘70s with Babs.

I have spent so much time detailing this issue because Katz’ solution to this problem takes a somewhat new route. Singer Rebecca Shrimpton has a soprano voice that combines the intimacy of a jazz singer with the purity of tone one normally associates with trained sopranos. The voice is certainly not powerful enough to carry over an orchestra, as Babs’ was, but although she sings lightly her tone has a fullness to it that is rare among jazz vocalists. Moreover, she doesn’t scat with it in the same way O’Day did, but rather skims over the top line in a way that interacts with the violin and soprano sax or carries the melody when the texture is geared more towards alto, tenor and baritone saxes as in the opener, Prayer. In the title track she doesn’t sing at all, but it didn’t matter because Katz found a way to create contrapuntal lines with the instruments at his disposal, weaving them around a jazz-soul music sort of rhythm that reminded me of some of the World Saxophone Quartet’s work, particularly in the section around 4:30 where the violin and marimba drop out and only the saxes are heard, playing “outside” lines against one another.

But the majority of this album, being a tribute to Katz’ late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis, thus half of the songs have lyrics using her poetry (Like a Wind uses a poem by Sherwood Anderson), thus Shrimpton is often called upon to both use her voice like an instrument and make the lyrics come across clearly. This she does superbly; I didn’t even need to read the lyrics (provided in the booklet) to understand what she was singing. That’s how good her diction is. In such a dual role, then, Shrimpton works as both instrument and narrator—but not always as an improviser. This is especially important in a piece like Lemmings, in which she speaks the words over a sequence of a cappella sax solos and duets, then scats staccato notes (probably improvised) in other sections. It’s a fine line that she walks, but in the end her voice is as well-integrated into the whole of the album as any singer in my experience.

Shrimpton also manages to “keep her cool” even when everyone else is playing “hot.” Possibly by design? Some of the lines in Lemmings are so tongue-twisting that it put me in mind of William Walton’s Façade, that rarest and most enjoyable of jazz-based classical works with a narrator (or narrators…many recordings use two voices). As the album went on, in fact, I became more and more impressed with Shrimpton’s varying skills; in Like a Wind, for instance, she takes on the role of band vocalist, singing the lyrics to written lines in an ensemble where the high violin line is anchored by the baritone sax, with the marimba and other reeds filling in sparsely. At times, she lowers her range to show that she can fit in as a somewhat lower “voice” as well. In this track she also shows how close her voice can come to that of a “legitimate” singer.

If I’ve spent so much time on Shrimpton’s contributions it is only because they are so compelling without purposely trying to dominate the ensemble—a rare gift. The saxophones, violin and marimba/vibes players are all excellent, but without Shrimpton’s contribution the music’s often abstract feeling would be the dominating mood. She binds the music together with her voice. I also heard, in many spots, an almost Eastern or Sephardic influence in some of Katz’ writing, sometimes overt but more often subtle, part of the undertow of these pieces. This is even true, for me, in the plaintive introduction to Astor Piazzola’s Libertango in a new arrangement by Sherrah-Davies. Here the writer of the text is not identified, although Shrimpton clearly uses words here and there to preface her high-lying wordless vocal. Yet even in the instrumental sections, I can’t ever recall having enjoyed Libertango as much as in this performance.

I also found it fascinating the way Katz alternates tunes with a definite beat (such as Gerbils) with abstract compositions. that have irregular or hard-to-track pulses with astringent harmony and shards of music played by the reeds that substitute for a melody—particularly in Squirrel. This, to my ears, almost had the effect of a 1950s “Word Jazz” session featuring the Chico Hamilton Quintet and speaker Ken Nordine…Tatarunis’ poem, here, has a definite Nordine-like feel to it. In these out-of-tempo pieces, the group almost seems to move through the music intuitively. Gone Now is unusual in that it combines the out-of-tempo feel in the introduction with a regular pulse in the main body of the work, albeit with stop-time breaks (I thought that most modern jazz musicians had completely forgotten how to play like this!). Tatarunis’ poetry is at its best when it is whimsical and surreal, and these are the poems that inspire some of the most inventive music. I found it very interesting, however, to note that the intro to Red Blue picks up where Gone Now leaves off—an interesting touch! In classical terms, you might say that this is the “cabaletta” to the preceding aria—except that the wild central section of this piece represents some really far-out jazz such as John Zorn’s Cackle Boil.

One of the more interesting things about the improvisations on this CD is that they are all very good, fitting within the context of each piece and in relation to each other, without usually dominating the music in terms of definite personalities. This, too, is more of a classical trait than a jazz one, the subjugation of even a strong musical personality to the piece as a whole. What is particularly unusual about these pieces are that they are not scored conventionally. Darrell Katz was gracious enough to send me the “score” to Lemmings, and when I opened it I was startled to learn that nothing was really scored in terms of notation except for the rhythm to which Shrimpton was to sing the words “all jumped off the Tappan Zee.” Otherwise, there are no notes to play, just instructions for the various band members. Take a look:



The good thing about a score like this is that Katz can obviously depend on the specific musicians in his band to play notes in a manner and style that add up to a composition. The danger is that no other group of musicians would probably be able to duplicate or even come close to doing what this group does unless they listen to the record. The question thus arises, Is this a “real composition”? For Katz and OddSong it is, because it works; but for any other musicians, it is just a general description of how the music might go, not a set piece that can be duplicated.

Following the 10 pieces by OddSong, we get a very strange, “outside” piece by the JCA Winds and Strings. Nothing on the CD booklet or in the promotional material indicates that this is a live performance, but the soundspace is considerably different from the preceding tracks: a lot of natural reverb that somewhat blunts Shrimpton’s voice and the instrumental timbres. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating piece, quite abstract and fascinating.

The album concludes with a 15-minute performance of The Red Blues/Red Blue (definitely “live” with applause at the end) by the JCA Orchestra featuring Oliver Lake. Curiously, the first half of this is a tune that sounds more conventional in construction than almost anything else on the album, almost a 1940s jazz ballad by Jimmy van Heusen. One of Katz’ possible influences? Hard to tell, but there’s also a definite Gil Evans feel to the arrangement—though, I would posit, Gil Evans of the 1940s when he wrote for Claude Thornhill. This ends with the arrival of Lake as soloist, squealing and screaming above the roiling ensemble in his best WSQ style. This sort of jazz is fine in moderation, but within the context of the composition I felt that Lake ignored the carefully structured setting and just blew his brains out. Sorry, just my opinion. Happily, it ends by the 5:20 mark, returning to a fascinating sort of canon for brass and reeds before moving into new themes and their perorations. The a capella section which begins softly at 6:30 includes Lake interacting with the other reeds, and again he is playing wild, outside jazz, but this time it fits much better in context; he seems to be listening to what the others are saying. This is followed by a superb flute solo by Hiro Honshuku which leads into a quite busy (scored) section with quite complex counterpoint before the brasses lead us back to the principal melody. Eventually, we return to the lovely ‘40s-type melody and Shrimpton’s singing. Somehow, it all fits together like a suite.

This is, without question, one of the most fascinating jazz albums of 2016, possibly one of the finest albums I’ve heard regardless of genre, and I strongly urge everyone to acquire it.

 — © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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