Michelle Nicole

by Mark Isaacs

Michelle Nicole
Keep Your Heart Right
Newmarket NEW 3108.2

Jazz instrumentalists often have unkind words to say about so-called “girl singers”. I do not believe this is underpinned by sexism from their mostly male ranks. For a start I have heard accomplished female jazz instrumentalists make similar remarks!

There is no doubt there is an epidemic of cabaret/show singers masquerading as jazz singers. And though one occasionally encounters a male version of the species, overwhelmingly it is the female variety that makes it presence felt.

So what distinguishes the genuine jazz singer from the impostor, given that they frequently tackle the same material from the Great American Songbook?

Quite simply real jazz singers are also jazz musicians. They have the subtlety and fluidity of (poly)rhythmic phrasing that enables them to swing with masterful assurance. They fully understand the harmonic structure of the piece that they are singing and so are able to improvise variations on the melody, whether by way of ornamentation to the actual melody or in the form of an actual improvised “scat” solo.

They don’t simply stand in front of a backing band, they are an integral member of the ensemble itself, aware of the subtleties of what the instrumentalists are doing and reacting spontaneously to the gift of the moment.

They often compose their own material. And while they take pride in their appearance on stage as their male colleagues (hopefully!) also do, overtly forced and superficially self-conscious “glamour” is not really an integral part of the equation.

On all of the above counts is Melbourne-based Michelle Nicole not only a jazz singer, but a jazz singer par excellence. She is very comfortable to anchor herself to the “core” tradition of jazz singing and it is precisely in this area that she shines. She is without question at the very forefront of jazz singing in this country, a mature artist who has clearly worked hard for (and has realised) very high standards of real musicianship as well as the ability to communicate with an audience.

There is a grace and ease about all that she does that is extremely endearing. It is impossible not to like this woman’s singing, as one basks in the coolness of her phrasing and her warm and affecting sound (that only very occasionally becomes a little strained and harsh in the higher register).

She is full of surprises, whether it be as subtle as an unusually placed note or as overt as the up-tempo arrangement of Jimmy van Heusen’s Darn That Dream, which I have never heard done at other than a ballad tempo. There are three Michelle Nicole originals on the CD – all have music by Nicole, and two have her lyrics too. They are all strong, interesting songs.

Nicole is at one with her excellent band, such that one hears a true quartet in action. Geoff Hughes’ brilliantly understated yet masterful guitar provides unwavering support and brilliant solos, Ronny Ferella’s drums are tasteful and deft (though occasionally in a slightly more urgent place than the other performers) and Howard Cairns is a very accomplished double bassist who would do well to inject himself into the overall brew with even more presence.

It did trouble me that the first three tracks on the CD all had brooding openings in G minor – while not disastrous, this is without a doubt careless programming.

Nicole refers in the liner notes to this album as a “‘warts and all’ dream” – obviously alluding to the minor glitches that must be a part of any live recording. In fact it is a credit to Nicole and her colleagues that there are precious few of these. By and large this album pulls off the remarkable feat of combining the sort of polish one finds in a studio production with the spontaneity of live recording. They are aided by an excellent recorded sound from engineer Mal Stanley. I would have liked to know where the recording was made. The combination of what is obviously a smallish crowd with the absence of jazz venue noise suggest it was made in a studio with an invited audience.

By the end of the CD, I had a certain hunger for a broader range of colours from Nicole. The warm and endearing quality in her voice can be its own worst enemy if not offset by a sufficient proportion of contrasting colours. Her sound walks up to you and gives you a big hug. What is missing from her voice are the colours of pathos and edge, of trouble and strife. To my mind, Nicole’s voice “smiles” too much of the time. This is especially noticeable when the lyric is going in another direction entirely, for example the first few lines of Irving Berlin’s Be Careful, It’s My Heart:

Be careful, it’s my heart
It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart
It’s not the note I sent you that you quickly burned
It’s not the book I lent you, that you never returned

The tone of these lines is open to interpretation, but the possibilities lie on a spectrum between the pathos of a tormented plea and the confronting assertion of a final warning. Yet Nicole’s rendition lacks the “edge” that something on this spectrum would inevitably have – she tends to smile and coo her way through it as if she wasn’t really mindful of the meaning of what she was singing.

There is no question that Nicole is a great singer. She would break through to levels approaching the transcendental if as well as charming her audience, she sometimes confronted her listeners with a raw emotion that would pick them up and shake the living daylights out of them.