The interplay between Xavier’s stage presence and the musical brilliance of her accompanists threw a spotlight on one of the paradoxes of jazz: its popular appeal and its artistic virtuosity in its improvising instrumentalists
In keeping with the reputation of jazz as a hot, fast-paced genre of music, at the very least exciting, one could end a concert devoted to it with an up tempo number. Or, given that the most-recorded tune in the history of jazz is ‘Body and Soul’, one could reserve that for the end. But at B Flat Bar last week, Marina Xavier, singer extraordinaire from Singapore, followed ‘Body and Soul’ with two other numbers and then ended her performance on ‘My Funny Valentine’, another favourite of jazz musicians but not quite as popular with them as ‘Body and Soul’, and certainly not a fast-paced number.
No matter. In a concert lasting about two hours, Xavier put over some 15 songs – not, as the bill for the evening described them, jazz standards, but rather pop standards that are part of the canon of jazz – while her accompanists played three more, two at the beginning and one after the intermission to allow her to make a dramatic entry each time.
Among her accompanists was the well-known Bangalore guitarist Gerard Machado, here in the company of Goa musicians Colin D’Cruz on electric bass, Joshua Costa on keyboards, and Lester Godinho on drums. And the quiet efficiency with which this foursome performed on their instruments, not a note out of place and the solo improvisations little short of brilliant, threw into high relief Xavier’s commanding stage presence presaged by her dramatic entry.
The resulting interplay between Xavier’s stage presence and the efficiency and musical brilliance of her accompanists threw a spotlight on one of the paradoxes of jazz: its popular appeal, especially that of its singers, and its artistic virtuosity especially as showcased in its improvising instrumentalists.
When Willis Conover, the DJ of the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour, described jazz as the only music that can be appreciated by the heart, the head, and the feet, he was alluding to the catchy rhythms that set the feet a-tapping, the emotional quality of the music, and the dazzling virtuosity of its solo improvisations. And in vocal jazz, it is primarily the singer’s call to pull at the heart-strings and keep the feet busy while the instrumentalists, apart from also doing all this, keep the head marvelling at their inventive impromptu solos.
That’s the way it has been in jazz, the “classical music of the twentieth century”, to once again quote Conover, since it broke away from pop music in the late 1920s, although there have been singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, not to mention Louis Armstrong (who was also the first instrumentalist to introduce solo improvisation into jazz), who have also improvised with their voices using what is called “scat singing”, mouthing nonsense syllables.
And while we have right here in Bangalore a couple of accomplished singers who occasionally use scat with great effect, most jazz vocalists even of world renown do not do so.
The 18 pieces rendered by the band on this occasion followed this pattern. Xavier’s sultry voice was both arresting and full of feeling. Most of the numbers were slower-paced, often being slightly sentimental songs, although to at least my surprise she took ‘Body and Soul’ at a faster clip than is customary. The solo improvisations were divided up equally between the four instrumentalists, often speeding up the pace by double-timing the notes. They generally opened up with an intro, either on keyboard (for the most part set to the sound of an acoustic piano but at least once each to accordion, electric organ, and electric piano) or bass, sometimes the whole ensemble, before Xavier waded in with the vocal.
Godinho, whose time-keeping was quiet as is the norm in mainstream jazz, introduced ‘Blue Bossa’, one of the purely instrumental pieces, with a drum solo. This was one of the fast-paced numbers, a well-known jazz standard in a Latin jazz rhythm. Another of the fast numbers was ‘Goody Goody’, a light-hearted piece that Ella Fitzgerald made famous. The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ was set in medium tempo, but as I already said all the others were on the slower side.
Heart-felt singing, accomplished instrumentals and innovative solo improvisations all round made for an evening of standard jazz rather than jazz standards. All of a high standard.