"I even scatted on national TV – I bet they had no idea what was happening."
There was a time when certain jazz singers presented their material as contemporary performance art. Hands, body, voice, face and feet were all in sometimes highly stylised motion. Everybody calculates their appearance to some degree, but I mean stylised. If you ever saw the 1958 film of the Newport Jazz Festival (Jazz On A Summers Day) you will not have forgotten Anita O'Day; her singing, her dancing hands, her smiles and fly asides – and the apparent magnetic attraction for the camera of her buck teeth! To be as free yet highly stylised today as she was then is to risk seeming mannered and dated. And in some cases irritating to tell the truth. Rock singers have a particular freedom. To perform in this sense is just considered par for the course. While I can certainly appreciate the Rolling Stones for instance, Mick Jagger's posture-perfect strutting sometimes catches me unawares and seems extremely silly. This has never occurred to any of the many rock fans I have known. That's just what he does and, hey, self-parody can be part of the act. That is a kind of freedom. There are Australian jazz singers who can make stylisation work – from a jazz point of view. Jazz has something to yield in this area – Jo Fabro and Jane Irving come to mind – but it's a fine balance.
Today I am contemplating one Josh Kyle. Many will be aware that he took a sidestep recently and did well on The Voice. I have just learned this, and have in fact seen the show once only.
I first saw Josh at the Sound Lounge and went over in the break to Peter Rechniewsky and said, "This guy's really got something! It's kind of theatrical and it works." More recently I saw Josh Kyle at The Foundry and my feeling was reinforced. Now to understand what I am about to say you would have to be quite old. Josh Kyle looks and sounds nothing like Johnny Mathis, but something made me think of that somewhat odd jazz-influenced singer of then-current pop tunes and Broadway standards (as well as songs from new shows) in the 1950s and early sixties. I say he was odd and that is hard to explain. He drew you into his own curious aura of introspection, yet he projected emotionally. It was an act yet very much him. Let's leave that there. The night before I saw Josh Kyle, I had seen rock singer John Newman on Rage. He had something too – very definitely. I saw an affinity. Newman had lots of rock energy and emotion, but also a curiously introverted, very private quality. I saw fit to mention him to Kyle when we later spoke. More of this at the end.
Kyle has sheer musical excitement, virtuosity, and sophistication. Also the feeling of private yet raw emotion held back and vividly released. He has the ability to pitch very accurately, incorporating dissonant chromatic intervals and microtones to create an aura of dramatic tension and high sophistication. He can use silence dramatically. This is heightened visually by tense emotion in the face, and angular hand movements in which the fingers sometimes suggest talons. Sometimes his wrists twist in an "unnatural" way suggesting the odd gestures of a rapper. Against this is Kyle's ability to sing at very slow tempos so that the music is both floating and tense. At times you get that floating falling glide of a falcon with sharp talons reaching.
Kyle also has the ability to sing very fast and accurately at up tempos without apparent effort. Cross rhythms at tempo create tension. Ease at tempo combined with cross rhythms works against the time and creates relaxation, like centrifugal force acting on a Formula One car as it takes a bend. Or indeed a surfboard as it cuts across a wave. If we were in a jazz club of another era we might see smoke suspended around the music. The music moves, time is suspened. The smoke finally begins to drift. Kyle can create that atmosphere without the smoke. Or mirrors for that matter. Sophistication, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, beautiful tone. mood and songful melody. Here we are somewhere in the region of, say, Miles Davis. A region well understood by Kyle's band: Greg Coffin ( piano) Sean Coffin (tenor saxophone) and in December Andrew Gander, drums. It is a brilliant band. I strongly recommend you see them at the Sound Lounge on December 7, 2013.
Here are some words from Josh emailed in reply to a few questions I put to him:
"I was on The Voice this year, and what a trip that was. I decided that 2013 was the year of "Yes" to any opportuniies that came my way. Good friends of mine were acually high up in the production team and when they approached me I felt a little more comfort knowing they would be taking care of me and not taking the piss out of me, if that makes sense. It was also a chance to shake up my career. I wasn't after a pop career, I was after an experience to take me out of the comfort zone and TV certainly offered that. I sang Fragile by Sting and then some music by Gotye and Kimbra. I even scatted on National TV – I bet they had no idea what was happening.
"As for my appearance/look – I think it's important as a male singer trying to position himself outside the Buble/Frank Sinatra mould that you are almost instantly positioned into when you mention you sing jazz: be current with my age group, be current with what I'm like as a person and have that effect as a performer, if that makes sense. I want to be a 27 year old human/musician. I'm a product of my generation in terms of influences of pop culture, music, art etc. I like to try and tie all those things in with the history of jazz and the practice of.
"I take real interest in the nuts and boltsof both the lyrics and the music – as a singer I think they are of real importance and I think some singers miss that in the jazz world. Artistry in my eyes is not all about theoretical application, its about theory working alongsideemotional content and intent, as both composer and interpreter.
John Newman, hadn't heard of him till now, just googles him. Sounds great – a really modern voice. Will check out more."
P.S. Josh Kyle certainly sings things from the tradition, but he's also a singer/songwriter. I should add that I intended to hear Josh singing at Wangaratta with the wonderful pianist and composer Sam Keevers, performing a series of instrumental works by Australian jazz composers to which Josh has added words. Unfortunately I had one of the intermittent bouts of imminent death that have followed my world famous operation and jumped off the train at Central and went home.
Article courtesy of John Clare