It’s hard to clearly articulate the distinction between the good and the great singers in the jazz idiom. The great singers have the special talent of immaculate timing, an ability to choose the right millisecond in which to enter into, or withdraw, vocally from a song. They also possess a sense of tension in their voice; a sense that they are barely managing to hold back the myriad of emotions whose fluctuations they are finely attuned to at any given moment. As Nat Hentoff, one-time jazz writer for The New Yorker and Village Voice magazines, described it: “Part of the power of jazz is its spontaneity, its directness – its sound of surprise.”
There are very few vocalists who manage to harness this quality to rise above the large pack of pretenders who may strike the pose but who cannot manage, to paraphrase Hentoff once again, hit that elusive ‘pulsatingly supple’ beat and deliver the necessary evocative phrasing that convinces their audience that their speech is the music.
West Australian singer Jen De Ness is unfortunately one of the latter group. Undeniably, she has a pleasant voice, and she writes passable jazz, bossa, and sixties vocal pop pastiches that are sweetly played and crisply recorded. But too often she sounds like she has no ambition to be anything other than pleasant background sound – producing what would once have been called ‘dinner party music’ – filling gaps in the conversation with her inoffensive sound. She is too self aware and safe in her singing.
Her voice sounds remarkably similar in its timbre to Chrissie Hynde in places and she adopts a constrained vocal delivery that is reminiscent of Margo Timmins, the singer from the Cowboy Junkies, but without Timmins’ latent sensual appeal.
The whole album plays out as a pleasant and undemanding listen, but there are no songs here that force their way into the forefront of your consciousness, despite some tasteful playing from a number of her supporting musicians – evident most notably in the occasional sax solo from Ray Vine, and the excellent gypsy violin flourishes of Ashley Arbuckle.
Most of the songs are originals by De Ness, but many of these suffer from a formulaic adherence to generic forms and structures. The best of these are when she breaks from jazzy clichés and ventures into more sixties vocal pop forms, as she does on ‘Just Gets Better’ which is in a style akin to a band like The Association, and in the chamber pop piece ‘No More Goodbyes’.
The one cover here – the genre standard, ‘Cry Me A River’ – is a lacklustre effort, failing to touch upon the power of the definitive version by Julie London, or the raw emotion of Ella Fitzgerald’s recording, or even Joe Cocker’s visceral interpretation. De Ness, by comparison, has only delivered a ‘by the numbers’ walk through of this classic tune.
Jen De Ness is coming to Adelaide for a performance during the upcoming Cabaret Fringe where her style and approach will certainly suit such a festival. Beyond such events though, it is hard to envisage her commanding a stage of any significance beyond city cocktail bars, or theatre foyers.
Reviewed by Ken Grady