DUNÉR: Two-Time Losers. The Singer From Hell. Dizcharmed. The Multiple Useful. Once Upon a Summertime. I’ve Got Something to Say. Bop ‘Til You Drop. Strictly Business. Let’s Go Commercial / Sophie Dunér, voc/pno / self-produced CD available at http://www.sophieduner.com
A former friend of mine, trumpeter Jack Walrath, once bristled when I told him that the Boswell Sisters were really the first great jazz vocal group in history. “What does it mean to be a ‘jazz’ singer?” he bristled. “All most of them do is swing the tune, maybe scat a chorus or two. They’re not improvisers like instrumental musicians.”
But he never listened to the Boswells because of his prejudice. In their time and place, they certainly did improvise, sometimes in quite a wild fashion, constantly changing the harmonies and rhythms of the tunes they sang. And so did Louis Armstrong, Dave Lambert, Anita O’Day, Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy. But you’d have to put all of them together and add a touch of Charles Mingus (one of Dunér’s idols), John Coltrane, Arthur Blythe and Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose music she has also sung) to get even a remote idea of what Sophie sounds like. She composes her own tunes, both lyrics and music, in addition to singing music by Monk, Mingus and Stockhausen. Her vocal delivery is forceful, with a high register that sounds like Arthur Blythe, a low range that booms out like Armstrong’s, and a style that practically ridicules those female jazz singers who do a lounge act in a come-hither voice, dolling themselves up to look like calendar girls. Dunér blows that entire image up as if it were attacked by a hand grenade. Quite simply, there is no one else like her in the entire world; she is one of a kind, an artist who broke her own mold and lives to be a performer on the edge.
Those of us who are familiar with her work will recognize a few of the songs on this CD as part of her regular repertoire, such as Dizcharmed, The Singer From Hell and Bop ‘Til You Drop, but most of the others were new to me. Since this CD is performed by Sophie alone, accompanying herself on the piano, one gets an idea of how she woodsheds in preparation for a gig. Perhaps, if she were American, she would get the raves and the attention that she deserves. I’ve long complained that the American jazz press is terribly inbred when it comes to promoting American artists almost exclusively. I’ve never seen Jazz Times, Down Beat, All About Jazz or Jazz Lives put a single CD by a European jazz artist, not even such bona-fide geniuses as Thomas Fonnasbæk, Silke Eberhard, Ivo Perelman, Aki Takase or Dunér, on their list of top jazz CDs for the year.
Maybe it’s time for them to actually listen to an artist of Dunér’s abilities.
Two-Time Losers is a great introduction to Dunér’s style: the chopped, Thelonious Monk-like chords at the beginning, the swooping vocal. the irregular meter, even a bit of scat—it’s all there. This version of The Singer From Hell opens with falling piano arpeggios in the right hand before going back and forth between a sort of pop-song-style beat and jazz rhythm, again fracturing the meter. Dunér’s music occupies a strange space in between swing and bop, which may seem a bit retro in this day and age, but there’s nothing retro about her vocal performances. No one has ever sounded remotely like Sophie.
The Multiple Useful is one of the most rhythmically complex songs on the album, and here she had the inspired idea to multiple-track her voice on a half-chorus here and there. Once Upon a Summertime is about as close as Dunér will ever get to a ballad, but it’s still in her unique style.
As I listened to the complete album, I got the feeling that Dunér was trying to be, if not more commercial, a little more mainstream, showcasing those songs that are more accessible to a general jazz audience. Well, if that’s what it takes for people to wake up and recognize how unique she is, I’m all for it. But perhaps I only feel that way because I’m so used to her going even further out on a limb, although the title track (Strictly Business, on which she also multi-tracks herself) is about as non-commercial as you can get.
The only defect on this CD is that the order of the songs are not listed on the inlay, and in the booklet Dizcharmed and The Singer From Hell are in reverse order and Once Upon a Summertime isn’t even listed. It’s also a sadly short disc, less than 40 minutes long, but considering how intense it is to listen to Dunér, perhaps this is a good thing. Nonetheless, it’s great to actually have another commercial CD from her, and I hope that some of my American jazz-reviewing colleagues will sit up and take notice of her.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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