JAZZ / LAdy Day to last Friday

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The Independent Culture
JUST IN time, Jimmy Scott is taking his place among the century's great American popular singers. He was past retirement age before a lifetime of bad luck took a good turn but now, at 69, his reputation is here to stay. At the Purcell Room on Friday, in front of a small audience of torch-song connoisseurs and metropolitan sensation-seekers, he proved himself to be considerably more than merely this week's solution to a jaded palate.

Scott's calling card is a reedy alto voice. Some, relishing its apparent freakishness, have called this a woman's voice; in fact it is simply a man's very high voice, no more freakish than the use of the falsetto register by such gospel-trained soul singers as Smokey Robinson and the Stylistics' Russell Tompkins. But Scott is not a soul singer - not, at least, in the conventional sense. On the infrequent recordings he has made since he began his trouble-strewn career as a big band singer in the 1940s, he has shown himself to be a specialist in the art of ballad singing, owing an obvious debt only to his friend Billie Holiday and, perhaps, Mabel Mercer. Now, following several decades of obscure and sporadic activity, his voice has inevitably lost some of its firmness and elasticity, but enough inherent quality remains, as in the latter days of Holiday and Mercer, to indicate his gift for the sort of phrasing and melodic invention that can reopen the meaning of a song.

His speciality is the sort of dead-slow tempo that gives him full scope to linger on the essence of a single word. To those seeing him for the first time, the principal surprise was that this languid slow-motion delivery is accompanied by an entire lexicon of body language, an unbroken flow of bird-like hand and arm gestures and torso bends which help reshape the songs through their swoops and flutters.

In person, too, the question of his intonation became unavoidable. Every few bars, Scott hits an emphatic note that sounds several degrees flat. Since this is done with absolute conviction and consistency, it encourages the belief that Scott simply has a highly idiosyncratic sense of pitch, and that he is perhaps not mis-hitting the note but merely hitting another part of it. In jazz this is not unknown among instrumentalists (Charlie Parker, no less, had a similar tendency), but in a singer it seems more blatant, and takes more getting used to, and in a veteran it can seem misleadingly like the effect of infirmity.

Scott sang several of his most familiar pieces, such as 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool' (which he recorded with Lionel Hampton in 1950), 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' and 'Embraceable You' (which, he announced, he once sang with Parker). Although the up-tempo songs were generally less interesting than the ballads, his best singing came on a fast 'Blue Skies' in which he barely touched the melody while devising a series of cryptic variations worthy of Lester Young.

Just in case God was smiling too kindly on his renaissance, however, somebody had found him an accompanying trio of risible ineptitude. The pianist sounded like a man who had learnt to copy his idols and then lost heart, the drummer seemed to be waiting for the second coming of John Coltrane, and the bassist - well, the best you could say for this poor fellow was that at least he was doing something relatively harmless, rather than flying an airliner or performing brain surgery. Fortunately, as we know, Jimmy Scott is a born survivor.