Why do jazz vocalists tend to be more popular than their instrumental counterparts among plain folks? Words, for one thing. My sister-in-law is an example. She cannot listen to music that doesn't have words. There must be vocals. OK, I can understand that. And jazz standards tend to be about romantic topics, which folks tend to resonate with. There are many very pretty female vocalists, dashing male singers, also. I can understand that. Jimmy Rushing, "Mr. Five By Five," was a notable exception. He wasn't pretty! And of course none of that matters in the end, if they can sing.
The fact is though, that we naturally respond to the human voice, like baby ducks respond to their mom, following her anywhere. We are imprinted with it. And to understand what's really good about a jazz vocalist, listen to some not-so-good ones and you will be reminded, especially after you put on some Billie Holiday afterwards.
So we have Elizabeth Shepherd. Pretty? Sure. Even if she wasn't though, she has a voice that leaps out of the speakers at you. On her latest, Rewind (Linus 270135), which I believe is her second, you hear her and there is an immediate recognition. The voice has a sensuous quality, plenty of finesse, pitch perfect control and she does versions of things that stand out as different, sometimes partially due to he double-tracking vocal harmonies she incorporates as backdrop, but even if not. If I were a baby duck I'd follow her wherever she led. Quack!
"Lonely House," the Kurt Weil-Langston Hughes masterpiece, for example. Take that. Her version comes across whispery, sulky, truly lonely sounding. One of the best versions I've ever heard, in fact.
So there is an emotional element involved too in doing these songs right. Betty Carter didn't care all that much about that aspect and nobody cared because she just blew you away. There are songs though where some kind of emotional honesty is needed and the fickle-fay-phony mannerist opposite destroys the song and degrades the fine art of singing in a jazz mode. Billie again. You know she was feeling it.
So these are some reasons why Elizabeth Shepherd is such a pleasure to hear. Chanteuse extraordinaire!