Some weeks ago when I was preparing to review a reissue of Chris Conner Sings Gentle Bossa Nova, the ’50s jazz vocalist’s attempt to stray from her roots to broaden her appeal to a more popular audience, I was somewhat conflicted. While her “smooth styling and crystalline tone” impressed me, I was disturbed by the idea that she had to play down those very vocal elements that had made her reputation as a jazz great; that she had to forsake the jazz standards that had been the heart of her repertoire for a set of pop crowd-pleasers. It did manage to produce a very pleasant (if safe) album, even if it didn’t result in the popular success that was sought at the time. It suggested that somehow the market for her brand of jazz artistry was anemic at best and that jazz songstresses might well have become, if not an extinct breed, niche performers. If so, would there be new generations to carry on the tradition?
No need to worry: the likes of Diana Krall and Esperanza Spaulding may not be huge pop phenomena, but they have developed an audience, “the fit though few.” Then along comes 21-year-old Polish singer Monika Borzym and her debut album Girl Talk, and it becomes possible to believe that there will always be artists who want to explore the creative possibilities of a piece of music, jazz standard or some more popular piece. Following in the traditions of Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Anita O’Day, Borzym says she loves playing with “melody, phrase, and rhythm. You’re not likely to hear me sing the same song twice in the same way.” Currently a student at the LA Music Academy, her new album, a fine debut, is a promising indication of many more good things to come. This is an artist with a future.
Wisely, at the suggestion of her producer Matt Pierson, Borzym decided not to go with a set of standards for this album. Only 20 at the time of its recording, she says in an interview on her website, “I wasn’t going to sing the pieces of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan better than they did. He persuaded me to take on songs by contemporary artists and show them in our climate, filter them through our jazz sieve.” They decided to go with all female artists after they noted the “strong range of female songwriters” in their initial playlist. “We were very keen to choose from among those, vocalists with plenty of charisma, those whose songs count in the contemporary music world.” That decision makes for an interesting comparison with the choices Conner and Pat Williams made for her album.
That said, Borzym and her arranger Gil Goldstein provide some truly interesting takes on the songs that they have selected. The closest thing to a standard on the album is Abbey Lincoln’s “Down Here Below,” and if there’s one thing Borzym doesn’t have to worry about, it’s suffering by comparison. She delivers a fine performance. Of the more contemporary songs, highlights include a swinging version of Joni Mitchell’s “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” and Estelle’s “American Boy” arranged as a bossa nova. Any Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” beginning with of all things an accordion, is a winning opener for the album. Rachael Yamagata’s “Even So” is a smoky ballad delivered with understated passion. Among others represented on the album are Regina Spektor (“Field Below”), Fiona Apple (“Extraordinary Machine”) and Feist (“Gatekeeper”).
Girl Talk is an auspicious debut. Monika Borzym is a talented singer who may not be Ella Fitzgerald (but then, who is?), but she sure as hell has the goods to compete on the same playing field as the best of the jazz singers of past years. It will be interesting to see how she develops that talent.