Voice choices

Stacey Kent and Julie Hardy find two different ways to make singing swing
By JON GARELICK  |  November 19, 2007

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VOCAL HORN: For Hardy, “interpretation” is as much in the writing as the singing.

WFNX's Jazz Brunch Top Five, week of November 18
1. Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters [Verve]
2. Josh Roseman, New Constellations [Accurate]
3. Various Artists, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino [Vanguard][
4. Various Artists, The Harlem Experiment [Ropeadope]
5. Zack Brock, Live at the Jazz Factory [Secret Fort]
Julie Hardy and Stacey Kent come at jazz singing from opposite ends of the spectrum. Kent, 39, could almost be considered a singing actress, someone for whom the lyrics come first. In the albums she’s created with her husband, the saxophonist and composer Jim Tomlinson (he’s also her producer), everything is geared to direct your attention to the words coming out of her mouth. Hardy, 30, is a jazz musician and composer whose instrument happens to be her voice. In fact, for her latest CD, she’s written a three-song suite of wordless vocal compositions. On their new albums, each singer excels in her own way. Kent comes to Scullers on December 4, Hardy to Ryles on December 11.

Kent is from Orange, New Jersey, a Sarah Lawrence undergrad who went to Europe after graduation and has lived there ever since. Studying for a year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she met Tomlinson, who at least musically knew what he had right away. “The first time I heard her sing, it wasn’t so much the voice, or anything in particular, but there’s an almost indescribable way in which you feel as if you were being spoken to directly.”

It’s something that the two have understood ever since they started making albums together, in 1996: Kent’s voice is always up in the mix, something that allows her to deliver the lyrics conversationally. But Tomlinson understates the quality of that voice, and of her singing — that “indescribable” essence is both adult and girlish, suffused with wit but also rhythmic acuity, and a roundness in tone, sometimes tinged with the slightest vibrato, that can lend a plummy fullness or additional rhythmic spin to an end word or syllable.

Kent has always been an interpreter, not a songwriter. But on the new Breakfast on the Morning Tram (Blue Note), she and Tomlinson enlisted a fellow Londoner, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), to contribute lyrics. Ishiguro had chosen a Kent song for the BBC Radio show Desert Island Classics, whereupon he was invited by Kent and Tomlinson to write liner notes for her next album. “He was so insightful in those liner notes,” says Tomlinson, “in terms of understanding Stacey’s persona. If anyone would be able to write lyrics that sounded right coming out of her mouth, it would be him.”

Between Ishiguro’s lyrics and Tomlinson’s music, the four songs — which are the “core of the album,” says Kent over the phone from London with Tomlinson — sound like standards. The opener, “The Ice Hotel,” with its mix of hot and cold metaphors, could be something out of Cole Porter: “Let’s you and me go away to the Ice Hotel/The Caribbean’s all booked up and it’s just as well.” Come to think of it, Sammy Cahn’s lyric for Sinatra — “Come Fly with Me” — is another reference.

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