Monday, June 20, 2011

How Jazz Could Save Amy Winehouse

Can we be so bold as to state that the career of the greatest white R&B singer of her generation is now effectively dead? Saturday night in Belgrade was supposed to be the reboot -- "Miss Amy 2.0: Bigger, Better, Soberer" -- for a 12-date Comeback Tour of sorts playing a few European festivals. Yet "Wino" showed up for the umpteenth time either drunk or high (or both), greeting the crowd with "Hello, Athens!!"; she was summarily booed off the stage by the unforgiving Serbs after a disastrous 90-minute set of forgotten lyrics, frequent absences and flubbed cues. Meanwhile, Adele and a thankfully not-murdered Joss Stone have taken her melanin-challenged Brit soul sista mantle and run with it.

Watching endless YouTube vids of Winehouse's half-assed performances, we remembered a short interview she did on Late Night...with Jools Holland in 2006. Sandwiched between an indifferent read of "Rehab" and a scorching take on "My Tears Dry On Their Own," she speaks warmly of jazz vocalist Sarah "Sassy" Vaughan -- one of her greatest vocal influences as a child -- before launching (with Holland on keys) into an all-too-brief duet on Vaughan's definitive 1946 recording of the standard "Tenderly":

Her vocals are so warm and charming and she injects a great bluesy feel into her lines. This short etude seems to be one of the few times Winehouse is fully relaxed and content when she is performing. She essentially singing the music of her girlhood and one does not need to know too much about the healing psychiatric effects of nostalgia, particularly where music is concerned. (Our ongoing series "M¡PUNK" is devoted entirely to this concept.)

It's not hard to see what attracted the young Jewish chick from Southgate to Vaughan: besides the latter's impeccable phrasing and crystalline voice, her many nicknames -- "Sailor" for her frequent swearing, "Sassy" for her diva-like command of a studio session -- attest to a fully liberated woman (and a black woman in pre-Civil Rights America at that) who completely owns herself. Vaughan was for Winehouse what Siouxsie Sioux was to a whole generation of ice-queen goth chicks.

Up to this point, the only thing jazz-related about Winheouse's career has been her emulation if Billie Holiday: holding her lines just behind the beat and rampant drug addiction fueled by destructive relationships. (Then again, Lady Day never made an internet video as disturbing as this one.) But imagine Winehouse suddenly switching to jazz singing for her next album -- and not even a rote collection of covers but something akin to Mark Ronson's brilliant updating of Retro Motown for her Back to Black album. (Indeed, it's been rumored that Winehouse is conceiving of a jazz-flavored album and plans on enlisting drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots as a collaborator.) Maybe her and Jools can just sit down in an empty studio at a piano with a bunch of candles and just play. I know I would listen to it. And Winehouse could bring whatever star wattage she has left to the moldy ol' world of jazz. After recording a duet with her this year, Tony Bennett told The Guardian: "Of all the contemporary artists I've known, she has the most natural jazz voice." If her fans know she loves this music, they will investigate too. If you think about it, both the music and the singer could save each other.

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