By Mark Winkler
In the last few years, the jazz world has lost some fantastic songwriters – Jon Hendricks, Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, and a few years before that, Abbey Lincoln and Blossom Dearie. Although those great composers and lyricists are no longer with us, there are some wonderful writers who are singing, recording, and releasing great songs right now. I’m going to single out three of my favorites who are stretching the boundaries of jazz with their genre-bending compositions.
When people ask me who my favorite lyricist is, I always say Lorraine
Feather. She is a brilliant wordsmith with an ability to rhyme that rivals the
Great American Songbook maestros. Her quirky, brainy, and modern
sensibility is irresistible. She’s been writing and recording since the 1980s
and has received eight Emmy and three Grammy nominations for both her writing and singing.
She has an incredible catalog, but here are my favorites:
You’re Outta Here is the best of Lorraine. From her album New York City Drag, it is a fun and sassy “laundry list song” in which she says goodbye to a cheating lover. Lorraine wrote the lyrics to I Always Had a Thing for You for Shelly Berg’s poignant melody.
The lyrics seem simple, but she uses a clever conceit. The person singing is also in the middle of writing the song.
She writes lines like “…and hope you like the turnaround in the very last line – the one that says how glad I’d be to find you always had a thing for me.” She naturally uses a “turnaround” while writing about a turnaround! I recorded this one on my new album “Late Bloomin’ Jazzman.” This is the first time I have recorded one of her songs, but I will certainly be singing other of her songs in the future. I do not know why every singer of a certain age (Dianne Reeves and DeeDee Bridgewater are you listening?) hasn’t recorded The Rules Don’t Apply. It is a stunning ballad that proclaims dreams don’t have an expiration date. The music was composed by Eddie Arkin.
Also worth checking out are “In Living Black and White,” “I Know the Way to Brooklyn,” “The Veil,” “A Hopeful Note,” and “We Appreciate Your
When Gregory Porter started releasing albums about a dozen years ago, I became an immediate fan of his gorgeous, honey-toned voice (think Nat King Cole meets Sam Cooke), but I was also struck with how wonderful his songs were. And he is both a composer and a lyricist. His melodies are reminiscent of Bacharach in their beauty and richness, while his lyrics encompass everything from love to the Harlem Renaissance to dating a white girl and facing the wrath of her father. He sometimes reminds me of Bill Withers in his simplicity. He has recorded several albums, and I am always delightfully surprised with his songwriting abilities.
Be Good is my favorite song written in the last ten years. It is a waltz that starts out sounding like Mancini’s “Dear Heart.” It has a neat concept.
Gregory is metaphorically a lion in a cage and in love with a girl whom he mistakenly thinks is named “Be Good” because she uses that admonition to him so often. Gregory writes, “She said lions are made for cages, just to look at in delight. You dare not let them walk around, cause they might just bite.” If Love Is Overrated is a beautiful old school ballad from his most recent album “Rise.” Echoing the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote “If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me,” Gregory asks “If love is overrated, let me be the one that is naïve. If love is overrated, let me be the one that is deceived.” Of course, we know he knows love is the farthest thing from overrated. There is a bit of the preacher in Mr. Porter, and in Take Me to The Alley, he definitely takes us to church. The song imagines that if Jesus were around today, he would not be found in gilded houses but rather in the alleys where the lost and afflicted are. Very powerful stuff.
Also check out, “Painted on Canvas,” “Mister Holland,” “On My Way to
Harlem,” “Water Under Bridges,” and “Insanity.”
Rene Marie received a Grammy nomination for her knockout tribute to Eartha Kitt “I Wanna Be Evil.” She is such a good singer that it is almost easy to overlook her songwriting abilities. Her voice conjures up the plushness and strength of a Nancy Wilson singing at the Fairmont or Carmen McCrae at a little New York jazz boite. But her songs are every bit a match of her voice and should be more widely applauded and recorded.
She left day a job well past her 20s to start recording for MaxJazz, and her experience and savvy only make her songs that much better. She is sassy and bold, smoking a cigar on the cover of her album “Black Lace Freudian Slip,” and I must admit I would not mind being like her perhaps in another life. She’s cool!
Black Lace Freudian Slip has most of the elements I love about Rene Marie’s writing. It is sexy, brash and has wonderful wordplay.
She sings about the audience’s expectations of her as a female entertainer and then what she is actually willing to reveal. She does this to a swinging, walking bass line. This is Not A Protest Song” is a wonderful character study of people who are on the margins of society, starting with Rene Marie’s aunt.
There is an honesty and specificity that is disarming and commanding. “My Aunt is stone crazy, she fell right thru the health care cracks…well she won’t go to a shelter so she gets her meals from a garbage can.” She makes today’s headlines something personal. Wishes is a ballad with a gorgeous melody. The song has so many great lines, but I especially dig “Sittin’ in a café, amidst the smoke and perfume, my coffee cup’s my ashtray, and I’m way past my bloom. The last lonely women’s wishes are here on my glass and oh I’m just another in a long line movin’ fast.”
Also check out
“Take My Breath Away”, “I Like You”, “Lost,“ “The Sound of Red” and“Rufast Dailiarg”
The bench of talented jazz songwriters today is deep. Here are more writers/performers who have composed fine songs that you should check out: Kurt Elling (And We Will Fly), Gretchen Parlato (Wonderful), Jacob Collier (All I Need), Karin Allyson (Some of That Sunshine), Cecile McLorin Salvant (Moon Song), Jazzmeia Horn (Free Your Mind), Dave Tull (I Just Want to Be Paid), Sinne Eeg (Aleppo), and Allan Harris
(Autumn Has Found You).
Mark Winkler is a platinum award winning songwriter who has 20 CDs that have received stellar reviews and consistently topped the jazz charts. A
prolific lyricist, his songs recorded by such artists as Dianne Reeves, Liza Minelli, Claire Martin Sara Gazarek Sinne Eeg, Randy Crawford, Bob Dorough and Jane Monheit. His newest album, “Late Bloomin’ Jazzman,”
will be released in April 2022. It features eight of his songs