Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Within a year, the name of Clare Teal should be as familiar to the British public as those of Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones.

Within a year, the name of Clare Teal should be as familiar to the British public as those of Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones. She is the latest jazz singer to overcome odds greater than those of winning the National Lottery - Teal has secured a multimillion-pound deal with Sony Records.

For the jazz musician, the possibility of such good fortune is not "it could be you" or "maybe, just maybe" but "Somewhere over the rainbow". So with such an investment, you can be sure we'll all be hearing much more about Clare Teal. And it's possible this time that the happy news may bring solace to her companions on the scene from which she sprung, many of whose talents are still only rewarded with £40 pub gigs and the occasional session fee.

Teal does not bring the art of the jazz singer to a new plateau; she is not a forceful fireball like the magnificent Dee Dee Bridgewater, or a vocalese hero like Kurt Elling. But she is fully deserving of the name jazz singer, unlike Cullum, whose best numbers cannot be classed under that label, or Jones, whose country influences are increasingly evident. On her last album, The Road Less Travelled, Teal's take on "Miss Otis Regrets" is a masterpiece of straight-ahead standard-singing, in which she demonstrates superb control even at the piano, and brings a tingle to the spine of the listener. If the style of arrangement she employs is very traditional at times, as in a version of "Blue Skies", there is still enough to remind the listener that there is merit in perfecting an art of the past.

Teal's voice contains the slight swoop of the diva, the touch of breathiness and heaviness reminiscent of the incomprehensibly underappreciated Lonette McKee. In short, she is one of the few British singers to sound as though she could hold her own with any US lounge bar singer, and better many of them, too. She has the polish without being weighed down with it, while retaining a palpable delight in the whole business. There's something much more approachable about her than the slightly regal Diana Krall, against whom she's likely to be competing in the CD store; and she writes good tunes.

This is not the right moment to belabour record companies for their lack of adventurousness in supporting more forward-looking jazz musicians. Teal has gained her deal while being true to jazz - her recording of "California Dreaming" was an expropriation of a pop classic, not an attempt to cross over - and if she manages to bring a rather old-fashioned form of the music to the masses then she will have performed a valuable service. A friend in Cullum's camp keeps telling me he receives sack loads of letters from listeners who have been turned on to jazz by the young singer - Cullum one day, Ornette Coleman the next. I'm convinced he makes them up. With Teal, though, it could happen. Maybe, just maybe.

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