When an opera diva turns to pop and jazz, she’s likely to have mixed results, and dramatic soprano Jessye Norman’s 2010 double-CD collection, Roots: My Life, My Song, is no exception. Of the 23 tracks recorded in concert in Munich, Frankfort and Berlin there are some truly remarkable performances, but there are also some that miss the mark.
The repertoire is not solely pop and jazz; included is a nice helping of spirituals, a show tune or two and even a classical piece. In the liner notes, Norman explains she has chosen “music that comprises my personal universe and allows my fellow musicians and me to explore, to expand our own musical language and to pay homage to the icons who created the music that we celebrate and love.” This is the “music of her heart,” and there is little question that whether she is singing a French cabaret torch song or an upbeat Dixieland standard, she is enjoying herself immensely, and that joy is infectious.
Her passionate, swinging version of the traditional “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” which closes the first CD to a huge ovation, shows her at her powerful best. The lullaby “Pretty Horses” shows the softer side of her voice and echoes with a simple beauty. Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” and Duke Ellington’s “Heaven” give her the opportunity to do some interesting scat and vocal improvisations.
On the other hand, her performance of “Mack the Knife” seems mannered and artificial at times. Her voice sounds shrill in moments during “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” She uses “Somewhere” from West Side Story to show off her operatic chops, if only for about a minute and a half.
It is when she can make the most of the drama implicit in the music and the lyric that Norman is most clearly in her milieu. She milks “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” for all the pathos inherent in the traditional plaint. Her “Stormy Weather” begins slowly against a bass accompaniment and builds to a stormy crescendo that rocks the concert hall. This is not to say that she can’t swing. She may not be Ella Fitzgerald, but her homage to Nina Simone with “My Baby Just Cares For Me” swings with the best of them, as does her take on the Duke Ellington classic, “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” a crowd pleaser that gives the band a chance to shine. Mike Lovatt begins with some fine work on the trumpet and then the rest of the band—Ira Coleman (double bass), Martin Williams (reeds), Steve Johns (drums) and Mark Markham (piano)—gets recognized for an impressive solo.
Norman features a number of pieces she calls her French connection. The “Habanera,” from Bizet’s Carmen, is her sole concession to her operatic background, although even here she makes sure to add a playful element to the performance. Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de L’Amour,” written for a popular cabaret singer of the day, begins with some bluesy give and take between the trumpet and the saxophone before transitioning into a sultry waltz. “J’ai Deux Amours,” made famous by Josephine Baker, is another cabaret classic done with stylish ease. Then there is also “April in Paris,” which seems to get into the mix simply as a result of the title.
While there will certainly be those who would prefer that the opera star stick to opera, there will just as certainly be others who are thrilled by versatility. If the reactions of the audiences to her performances are any indication, the latter may well be in the majority.