Young singers take on jazz classics

Mention "jazz" to the average music fan, and visions of old men in dark, smoky rooms playing tarnished horns may come to mind, along with names like Bird, Duke, and Zoot.

Oh, how times have changed!

These days, both the artists in the world of jazz and the audiences that listen to them are getting younger.

Artists such as Jane Monheit, Norah Jones, and Peter Cincotti are refreshing and reshaping the world of jazz – in some cases with original material, sometimes by incorporating pop in their repertoire, and sometimes by hewing steadfastly to tradition.

The end result of this cross-pollenization is an even younger generation of fans, who are being introduced to the tradition of jazz in their own contemporary terms. "They are getting into the game through these new people," says veteran jazz producer Joel Dorn, who works with Ms. Monheit. "They are the ones keeping a light on in the window."

And while some authorities may consider them curiosities at best, other aficionados give the new generation full props for keeping the jazz flame lit, even if not all of their songs can be sung torch style.

"It's wonderful to have these young artists keep this tradition alive," says David "Fathead" Newman, who has played with everyone from Ray Charles to Natalie Cole. "Overall, they are doing a great job, and they bring discipline and loyalty to the forefront."

Monheit, who began singing professionally when she was 16, is a prime example. "I was serious about singing from the time I was 2," she says. "It was always a huge focus for me."

And while her selections and singing style hint at pop proclivities, she remains devoted to the great American songbook. "I like all kinds of music," she says. "Ella Fitzgerald, of course ... but also Barbara Cook and Joni Mitchell and vocal groups like Take 6 and New York Voices. They all taught me how to be a good singer."

Hot young singer Norah Jones veers even further away from traditional torch songs. Her debut album, "Come Away With Me," relies more heavily on original pieces and music from Jones's native Texas than on classics from George Gershwin. So much so, that even though it's released by jazz label Blue Note, it's getting air time on pop stations.

That has led to some criticism from other jazz musicians. "Jazz and pop are not what they used to be," says Ron Gill, a jazz vocalist and producer at WGBH radio in Boston. "Back in the day, Sinatra and Tony Bennett were pop artists, and that is more the stuff these kids are doing. So you have to be careful how you define jazz."

Mr. Dorn counters that, just as Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis took from their surroundings to create popular jazz in their era, so, too, are performers like Monheit and pianist Peter Cincotti.

"It's part of a continuing progression," agrees Monheit. "I see more and more people bringing influences of the last few decades and combining them with jazz – like Brad Mehldau recording Radiohead and Dianne Reeves doing Peter Gabriel, or even me recording Joni Mitchell."

But not all of the young musicians are looking to reinvent the saxophone. Cincotti, for one, may be one of the most traditional young jazz players out there. In fact, though he is still a teenager, he sometimes speaks as if he were of another generation himself. "Kids today listen to new stuff, like guitarist Pat Metheny," the pianist observes. "In my house, my parents always played older jazz by people like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Errol Garner. It was all I knew until I went to school. So I came to today's music from the past."

As the youngest performer ever to play at the Oak Room at New York's Algonquin Hotel, Cincotti is already being compared to Harry Connick Jr. In fact, it was Mr. Connick who "discovered" the then 7-year-old Cincotti when the young pianist sent him a tape of his work. "That was amazing," Cincotti recalls. "He invited me to New Orleans to study with his teacher, Ellis Marsalis."

In addition to Connick, Cincotti's list of fans also includes critic Rex Reed and Broadway producer Jack Lewin, who cast Cincotti as the lead in "Our Sinatra."

Having worked with many members of the jazz pantheon, Dorn sees many similarities between the new generation of performers and their predecessors.

"The guys I knew when I was starting out were all cutting edge, but they all came from the tradition and paid their dues," Dorn says. "All the stuff that all the greats came through, they came through, and it's the same things that these new artists are coming through.

"The first time I saw Jane," he recalls, "she was 21 or 22, yet she was so steeped in that female jazz vocalist tradition. She wasn't even born when it was starting to die, but she was able to speak inside of the idiom even though she had never experienced it."

But though he's hopeful, not even Dorn can claim to know where the jazz tradition is truly headed. "I don't even know what I am having for lunch," he says. "All I do know is that the material strikes a chord, and that any time you work off a tradition and add to it, or at worst keep it alive, it's important."

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