One way to define a categorical number line of female jazz vocalists would be to put artists like Ella Fitzgerald (full of insistent smolder, fire & brimstone) at one end, and balance that with voices of pure subtlety at the other — Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, and maybe even Norah Jones. This construct is unsatisfying, partially because nearly every singer has elements taken from either end of the scale. So what to do?
Maybe the answer lies in ignoring concrete answers and letting the music tell its own story.
I've been listing to Deeper for several months now. Part of the reason the review has not materialized is that not only can I not decide where Maria Neckam lives on the number line (with perhaps the more important side issue of: Should I care where she lives on that line?), I can't take an intellectual step back from the music. The truth is, I've been having too much fun listening.
OK, let's get serious here and bring in some of the detail. Maybe some sense will come into focus after that.
Neckam's voice has a buoyant spark to it that reminds me of Carla Bruni or maybe even a less breathy Jane Birkin. This doesn't mean that she leans more toward the pop side. Give a listen to "Indestructible Fort," which contains some lovely melodic lines in the chorus that at first run in unison with the horn, and then serve as a harmonic base to the sax solo. Quite an interesting series of interdependences.
"Happy Song" brings to mind something that Bruce Hornsby might do, opening with vocals doubling the riff. Ah, but when we switch over to the chorus the vamp turns a little more sultry, an almost Sade or Erykah Badu kind of thing. The theme of the song, "When happiness knocks on your door/you should let it in" is one of the many reasons this album is so much fun.
Don't let all of this pop songstress name-checking lead you to believe that Neckham has limited jazz chops. Check out "Fear," which starts off with a nice and angular four-note figure, voice and saxophone in unison. The drums and bass drop in to push up the funk a bit before Neckam takes off on the first verse, driven by modifications to that initial setup. It's really tremendous stuff, showing off not only Neckams's voice but the power and flexibility of her band. This kind of song construction is also used to great effect on the closing "Learn My Tongue," though this time the band pushes things just a little bit farther out, with a sparse and funky middle section that spotlights piano player Aaron Goldberg and saxophonists Samir Zarif and Lars Dietrich.
One tune that really stood out to my ears was "Missing You." For part of it, Neckam takes a forceful lead role, again singing in unison with the horns. As the band lays back, she sings some delicate, wordless vocals against the rhythm section. It's the prettiest moment on Deeper, and provides great contrast to the solos that launch forth before that final return to the main theme.
So forget categories. Forget about what's "right" or "wrong" in a jazz singer. In Deeper you will hear Maria Neckam and her band having a great time. And sometimes, that's all that matters.