JAZZBONOTES RECOMMENDED RECORDING
Those of you who are regular readers of this website probably know that I am usually not a big fan of jazz singers. There is a certain minimum level of competence I demand. Just so you know what I’m talking about, here’s a rundown:
- Tone - This isn’t entirely fair, I know. Singers are born with the pipes they have, although some become raspier from smoking or cocaine use. You know what? I don’t care. Life isn’t fair. If you sound like a frog, you have no business picking up a mic in the first place. Play the saxophone instead.
- Soul and Taste - First and foremost, singers are interpreters of songs. If you can’t put over the lyrics of a song to save your life (I’m talking about you, Mel Torme), don’t waste our time.
- Pitch - If you can’t stay on key, try rap. It pays better.
- Understanding of jazz - If you can do all of the above, then it helps if you understand jazz and can improvise, like Betty Carter. But oddly enough, this is extra credit. It is possible to sing jazz well, even if you don’t really understand it.
Which brings us to Nicolas Bearde. He has a big, velvet tone, and a perfectly controlled vibrato, as beautiful as any R&B or gospel singer. He always stays on key. He has excellent interpretative skills.
Take, for example, his version of Girl From Ipanema. Bearde reimagines it as a soulful swing tune instead of a bossa nova. Ordinarily, I would expect this to be a disaster, but he pulls it off. When he’s singing, you get a picture in your head of Nicolas Bearde sitting on a beach at Ipanema, checking out a hot Brazilian girl, who totally ignores him. It’s practically cinematic. This is a rare gift in a singer.
On the other hand, Bearde can take a Philly Soul song like Gamble and Huff’s Lady Love and turn it into soulful jazz.
When Bearde takes on an actual jazz standard, like The Shadow Of Your Smile, he tweaks it, so instead of being a ballad, it has a gentle swing. He invests it with soul, but it’s still very much jazz.
Then Bearde takes on one of the most treacherous standards there is, Billy Holiday’s God Bless The Child. In the wrong hands, God Bless The Child can be terribly bland. Bearde aces it, investing it with feeling and heft. He makes you feel the lyrics, but he makes the tune his own. Pianist Glenn Pearson shines in his solo, which is drenched in the blues.
Bearde is one smooth dude.
Then there’s his band. Everyone once in a while, one of the band members will be featured, like drummer Jason Lewis, on the tag end of I Believe In You, or saxophonist Charles McNeal on Lady Love, but mostly they stay in the background, allowing Bearde to shine as a vocalist. This is as it should be. In that context, the band, balanced out by pianist Glenn Pearson and Nelson Braxton on bass, provides gorgeous and tasteful accompaniment. Charles McNeal’s solos on saxophone are soulful and intelligent, but never threaten to overwhelm Nicolas Bearde’s vocal stylings. Glenn Pearson sticks to fairly basic and tasteful comps. Nelson Braxton has a full tone on bass to match his boss and imparts a nice, modest rhythmic drive to the tunes, along with drummer Jason Lewis. These guys are an ego-less backing band — a singer’s dream.
My only criticism, and it’s a mild one, is that I could do without Bearde’s playing to the audience, inviting the audience’s participation on The Girl From Ipanema (”When she passes, each one she passes –” and he interrupts himself, saying “Fellahs?” and the males in the audience say “Ahhhh.”) It’s not really a fair criticism in a way because in the context of a concert, it’s a smart move, a way of connecting with the audience and getting them on your side. And Bearde pulls it off flawlessly, never allowing his pandering to the audience to get in the way of his performance. But still….
So, considering that this review reads like a rave, why am I only giving Live At Yoshi’s: A Salute To Lou three and a half stars? Well, I am evaluating this release as a jazz album for this audience, which is mostly interested in highly sophisticated post bop. Live At Yoshi’s: A Salute To Lou is about as mainstream as it gets. Nicolas Bearde is a delightful interpreter of songs, but he isn’t exactly pushing forward the art of jazz on this date.
So, in the context of this website, I can’t give Live At Yoshi’s: A Salute To Lou an Essential rating, but for what it is, Live At Yoshi’s: A Salute To Lou approaches perfection.