The great tradition of vocal jazz has become – even more than mainstream instrumental jazz itself – the subject of light mockery and a specious, easy dismissal in some quarters. In part, jazz – you know, jazzzzz! – has only itself to blame for the laughs of the lounge, for some calcified manners of sophistication and some conventions of phrasing and persona that make for an easy target. Why we tend to hear jazz vocals as mannered while we often uncritically accept stylized retro folksinging as “real” is a subject for another essay: one concerning the problematic idea of the “authentic.”
But this essay is all about the good news of Fleurine, the mono-named, Latin-leaning jazz vocalist and poet who performs at the Falcon on Sunday, November 30 at 7 p.m. In the tradition of the great bossa nova singers, Fleurine’s delivery is an understated, crystalline and cheese-free affirmation of jazz song. Her tone is bell-like and subtle, her phrasing miraculous in the way that it honors the verbal line and the melodic line equally, and without much in the way of melisma and showboating expression. On her stunning 2008 release San Francisco (the title of which has nothing to do with the California city), Fleurine sings over a variety of spare chamber-Latin settings: some with nylon string guitar as the principal accompaniment, some (for example, the exquisite duet “Spring-Buds through the Snow”) with Fleurine’s husband the brilliant pianist Brad Mehldau providing profound and empathic counterpoint.
It is hard to fault jazz lyricists for attempting to discover equivalencies in sentiment and in language for the music’s extraordinary sophistication, even though the result is often an unintended comedy of manners. Happy to report, again, that Fleurine is up to the task as a writer as well as a singer, crafting lyrics of wit, emotional precision and striking image. San Francisco kicks off with a breakup song, “Love Marks,” that manages to combine real pathos with light wordplay and phrase-shaping worthy of classic musical theater: “I’m going to leave you our cherished good luck charm; it didn’t work/But I’ll keep the jazz records we bought on our trip to New York/Dividing our lives with a fine-tooth comb…”
Fleurine is a truly international jazz vocalist: Dutch-born, Portuguese-bred and in love, as are we all (or should be), with the music of Brazil. She sings in both English and Portuguese (writing primarily in English, it seems). Light percussion buoys most of San Francisco with that rhythmic indeterminacy and impossibly subtle accenting that has both seduced and confounded American ears (and American drummers).
At the Falcon, Fleurine’s band is oddly drumless. It features guitarist Syberen van Munster, bassist Doug Weiss and – yes – a certain legendary eminence of the jazz piano who has become a bit of a fixture at Tony Falco’s chapel of serious music over the last few years. If you would like to be reminded of the relevance of vocal jazz and its potential for growth and surprise, this show promises to be a real revelation. The guitar duo of Tom Polizzi and Scott Veilleux opens.
Fleurine, Sunday, November 30, 7 p.m., by donation, Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; www.liveatthefalcon.com.