Fresh jazz from a new generation of Philly chanteuses

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Jacqueline Constance performing at Voltage Lounge as a part of the Queens Village Showcase. (Credit: Daniel Jackson)

On April 7, the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth in Philadelphia was observed. Artists paid homage, and a Holiday star is set to grace the Music Walk of Fame. Talk of "jazz preservation" is in the air, in a town fighting for decades to preserve it.

Key to a vibrant jazz scene are the city's singers - and this is where Philly musicians of the jazz persuasion are kicking with millennial fervor. A new generation of young female vocalists is harking back to the era of smoky clubs, smokier voices, and gardenias in the hair - but the new singers do it in their own way.

Terell Stafford, acclaimed trumpet player and director of jazz studies at Temple University, says he sees a resurgence in the number of young people interested in jazz.

To help that audience grow, Stafford says, the jazz community must "find a way to meet [younger listeners] halfway."

That means going where the listeners are. Performing, for example, in non-traditional places.

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Cloud, the executive director of the nonprofit presenter Jazz Bridge, says that while the Philly jazz-club scene has died, jazz itself hasn't. "Jazz is moving into less traditional venues," she says, in which vocalists find themselves performing in, say, libraries or museums.

Here are four of Philadelphia's young jazz-inspired voices, singing at venues traditional or not:

Kriss Mincey, 24, has a high-top fade, so you can trust her - or so she tells listeners during a recent show at Relish restaurant in West Oak Lane, as the opening act for Grammy-nominated singer Eric Roberson. Mincey is in a sunny yellow dress - with a sunny smile - as she dances to the pulsating jazz band behind her.

After a medley of Sade's "The Sweetest Taboo" and Miguel's "How Many Drinks?" she tells the audience, "I'm from Baltimore, but I'm a Philly girl now," doing a cute curtsey.

Mincey says she often listened to Philly acts such as Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Floetry while growing up. So when it came to starting her music career, performing in Philadelphia made sense. "They were so human, you can feel a pulse in their music," she says. "They make it feel so easy to just be."

As she sings, Mincey savors each syllable like decadent chocolate. When she hits the iconic whistle-tone in Minnie Riperton's "Loving You," the audience erupts.

After two years in Philly, she is no longer the self-proclaimed "new girl," garnering followers and support with each gig. The former American Idol contestant headlined a Sittin' In session at the Kimmel Center early this year, and - realizing she can't stay "a one-woman show" - is collaborating with producers and songwriters for an upcoming project that she describes as "sweet sweat."

Lee Mo (a.k.a. Shelia Moser), 23, sits in the back of the Grape Room in Manayunk at the RECPhilly Acoustic Showcase. As a rock band jams on stage, she admits she's a little nervous. Her guitarist couldn't make it, so she has to scramble to find a keyboard she can play to accompany herself.

Onstage, she starts with an a cappella version of "Nature Boy," a 1948 Nat King Cole jazz standard that seems new to much of the audience. The bar falls silent as she sings. Her soul-tugging voice pierces the stillness.

"Hot damn!" someone yells. She smiles, leading into a rendition of "The Worst" by Jhené Aiko and her own "I'm Afraid," which she plans to release as a single in the fall.

Less than a year out of Temple University - where, she says, there was only one other jazz studies and vocal performance major in her class - she has headlined the Sanctuary Live show at Art Sanctuary and performed with the likes of jazz combo Vertical Current and drummer George "Spanky" McCurdy.

"There's this assumption that the 'jazz heads' are snobby and sophisticated," Mo says. Being stuck up gets you nowhere, so she prefers to "penetrate somebody's heart."

After her set, she's surrounded by fans.

"Tonight I wouldn't say I sounded the best . . . " she begins to say - just as someone walks by, yelling, "I love you!" She smiles and continues, " . . . but I definitely made a connection."

Laurin Talese, 32, has a voice like Christmas morning on this spring evening.

It's the African American Museum's Annual Gala, with the theme "Art in Motion," and Talese is the centerpiece.

Talese sings originals such as "This Love" and "Winter," featuring Grammy-winning jazz pianist and producer Robert Glasper.

Talese says that, even now, jazz "makes me feel like I'm in a movie." The Ohio native hopped on a Greyhound bus at 17 and headed to Philadelphia to major in vocal performance at the University of the Arts.

"Little did I know it was the peak of the soul era here," she says.

Soon Talese was working with Jaguar Wright, Vivian Green, Bilal, and German songstress Joy Denalane. Now, Talese is working on an album, with Adam Blackstone of BASSic Black Entertainment and Grammy-winning drummer Ulysses Owens as producers. It features the Christian McBride Trio and other musical guests.

Her music is inspired by Sarah Vaughan, Astrud Gilberto, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. But she says singers and bands now are "making things fresh."

"People are getting the hint that jazz doesn't have to be something over your head or abstract," Talese says. Is she worried about the much-discussed decline of music-industry interest in jazz?

"What would scare me more," she says, "is if [my music] sounded like anything else."

Jacqueline Constance, 26, is at Voltage Lounge for the Queens Village, an all-female lineup of rappers, girl groups, and R&B singers.

"I'm weird," says Constance, a loop-pedal artist. "I'm the only one doing what I'm doing."

With her Afro haloing her face, she begins to beat-box and hum, creating her own backup vocals, which loop back and layer, voice on voice. And for the next 20 minutes, you're in Constance's world. First-time beholders are at first confused, then intrigued, then awe-struck.

Born and raised in Mount Airy, the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts alumna released The Jacqueline Constance Show, her debut EP, produced by Philly producer Wes Manchild. Stars such as Questlove, Marsha Ambrosius, Jazmine Sullivan, and Phonte and Zo from the Foreign Exhange tweeted their praise of the EP, which was released last year.

Onstage, she sings "Summertime" à la Billie Holiday and then masterfully segues to Jazmine Sullivan's "Mascara," off the latter's new Reality Show album - as if Holiday were a mother talking to her daughter-in-music.

"There's no way," she says, she can sound like Ella Fitzgerald. "You have to adjust with the way music is going and still have your own vibe." 

She admits that there are times she feels discouraged because she's different and Philadelphia isn't the easiest market.

"My lane hasn't been paved yet," she says, "but it's fulfilling because my lane hasn't been paved yet."

 


sballin@phillynews.com

215-854-5054 @sofiyaballin

 

Joey and David Landreth of Manitoba, Canada, released their band's debut album, Let It Lie, to open 2015. It's a compelling mix of real-life tales, played from alt-country/Southern-rock roots. Very tasty, indeed. 8 p.m. Thursday at Milkboy.