Zooey Deschanel and Three Other Jazz Singers Who Just Can't Sing

Two types of jazz singing inspired this piece.

First, the good: Norah Jones at Tempe's Red River Opry (now the Marquee Theatre) in July 2002. At the time of this show, Come Away With Me, Jones' jazz-ish debut, had yet to hit suburbia stereos en masse. However, after blow-me-away interpretations of tunes such as "Don't Know Why" and "Shoot the Moon," it was way obvious that the beautiful daughter of the now-90-year-old Ravi Shankar was about to blow up.

Months later — and deservedly so — she did.

Uh, the not so good: Jane Monheit at Chicago's Ravinia Festival in June 2001. I'd heard Monheit's first album, Never Never Land (the cover image features a sultry and seductive Monheit with velvety red lipstick that a vampire might wear), and thought it was okay enough to see her at the yearly summer festival. About Never Never Land, one music critic even went so far to say "[Monheit's] voice is about as close to flawless as a human can get."

Nope.

Monheit — who ended up being nice on the eyes but not on the ears — underwhelmed the you-know-what out of me with her barren vocal performance. As quickly as studio magic had placed me in a fifth-row seat just feet away from Monheit, her live performance forced me the hell out if it.

Where Jones can nail jazz, alt-country, and soft pop while looking good doing so, these "Pretty Singers That Try to Sing Jazz But Can't" aren't able to match or surpass looks with their performance chops. Too bad, especially considering that vocal innovators like Abbey Lincoln and Patty Waters are true beauties who are much more deserving of going-apeshit-over fandom, like number one on our list, or singing on a Lexus ad campaign (see number four):

1. Zooey Deschanel: The doe-eyed, (500) Days of Summer heartthrob kills pop-folk (in a good way) in the She & Him duo project with M. Ward. But when she tries to go all jazz, the flat melodies are like a sonic ouchy. Choosing Hollywood over a Broadway jazz career, the latter of which Deschanel once considered, was the right thing to do.

2. White Hinterland: It pained me a bit to include Casey Dienel's side project because I love her solo singer-songwriter albums. However, White Hinterland, Dienel's vehicle to try stuff out of her comfort zone, usually ends up sounding sophomoric at best. Where the dreamy, pop-heavy "Calliope" is bling-bling to my ears, the tune "Dreaming of the Plum Trees," where she tries the Billie Holiday thing by singing behind the beat, goes like this: Dienel's singing behind the beat, then launches two beats ahead of it, then behind it again and off-key, now in front of the beat again, and now . . . my head hurts.

3. Jane Monheit: Mentioned above. Has since tried performing pop music. Great move.

4. Diana Krall: I guess the Canadian beauty and wife of Elvis Costello can sing the piss out of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and other antiquated jazz standards. But that's the thing. Much like Wynton Marsalis riding the extinct trumpet-playing coattails of Louis Armstrong or Blaise Lantana's I-want-to-kill-myself-if-I-hear-another-walking-bass-line-or-lame-vibraphone DJ selections on KJZZ, Krall isn't bringing anything new to the genre, save for boredom.

 
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4 comments
shimmy
shimmy

It's funny, I personally find Zooey's voice much better when she sings jazz than pop. I can't take her seriously as a jazz singer, but as a throwback to some minor starlet of the golden age competently singing a sweet little ditty in an exaggerated Hollywood twang, it works for me. And though I actually love her pop songwriting, her voice frustrates me in her own songs. I feel like she struggles with the shorter phrasing of pop - her voice just so often sounds cut off prematurely and not in control. She falters quite audibly on some notes and sounds out of breath at the end of some phrases. But mostly she sounds inconsistent, often within the same line. There is this unevenly loud and soft fluctuation that is a bit hard on the ears.I feel there is something about her nasal voice that just can't get much power or feeling in the short bursts pop requires. Whereas with jazz, though not brilliant, I think her voice sounds more even and in control.

I'm kind of surprised she considered being a Broadway songstress, though it makes sense of my feeling that she overestimates her skill as a singer. Ultimately that over-confidence ends up hurting her pop. So many of her songs would sound better without her shaky vocals showcased quite so upfront in the mix. The songs are so good and I just think they could sound that much better.

kate
kate

They should have called this article "Zooey Deschanel and a Guy Who Doesn't Know What He's Writing About." He doesn't know a pop singer from a jazz singer. He writes about concerts that are 8 and 9 years ago, invents a new genre: "Jazz-ish," and calls Louis Armstrong's music "extinct." And he's writing about jazz?? There would be no jazz as we know it, if not for Louis Armstrong and every true jazz performer since has acknowledged that. (The great Dizzy Gillespie once said, "No Louis, no me.") Wynton Marsalis is not only a trumpet virtuoso, but can tell you more about jazz in 30 seconds (and has) than this guy has ever learned. What's the next article, "The Delta Blues Magic of the Carpenters?"

John
John

It's astonishing that someone who obviously knows nothing about jazz singing is writing a review about jazz singing! No fan on Diana Krall at all, I have, however, heard Jane Monheit and enjoyed her. But, just to clear up the confusion for those of you, Mr. Jansen, who are apparently locked into your "smooth jazz" stations, Norah Jones is a pop singer, a very talented pop singer, to be sure, but a pop singer nonetheless.

Paul Green
Paul Green

Blaise Lantana is a local treasure. She plays jazz that was great when it came out and still is, and her nine-o'clock specials (focusing on a particular artist, with historical notes about his or her career) have not only entertained me but taught me a great deal about jazz. Moreover, she plays a great deal of new stuff. Your gratuitous slam on her is itself pretty lame.

 
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