Never being a “band kid” in high school (“chorus kid” all the way!), perhaps I’m a bit biased towards vocalists in the Jazz genre. Yet realizing that it is crucial to show that Jazz is not just vocal but instrumental, I wanted to share two inspiring artists that do not rely on their vocal cords to toss out a tune. Now, when it comes to female instrumentalists over the years, I have had a frustratingly hard time finding them. Like books written before the 20th century, most instrumentalist have been male (do I hear a boo growling in the background?). However, we live in the 21st century where self-parking cars and coffee pods are a thing, so…
Please give a classy beatnik snap or two for: Susan Palma-Nidel and Haruna Fukazawa.
Although Susan Palma-Nidel is a native of Michigan, USA, she has a distinctly Portuguese sound on her 2018 album, Lisboa à Solta. Known primarily as a classical flutist, she has embraced the world and expanded out of dead white composers (Bach, Mozart, and the like) to samba to a different beat. Although some might say, This isn’t Jazz! I would politely correct you and say this is not traditional Jazz. World Jazz, however, it is.
Tracks like, “Velho Mondego” implement guitar (though whether it’s a Spanish guitar or not is another debate) and flute (though definitely not a Spanish flute) in a stunning duet. I love the way the song moves between the two, dancing its exotic—almost courting—tango. There is a visceral sadness, too, that I think any singer worth her salt should be able to match. Mrs. Nidel moves effortlessly; breath is a beautiful and light thing, there but not there.
This song, however, contrasts greatly to the passionate penultimate track, “Maria Lisboa”. With its (dare I say, jazzy) runs and a thrumming guitar that keeps pace amazingly, I fell in love instantly. Though I have never heard of any of the Portuguese composers on the album before, I feel myself embracing the odd use of accordion in its faux-Parisian puffing or the gruff interruption of Fausto Bordalo Dias’s old-romantic’s voice. Such sounds sometime come out of nowhere, yet they are never truly unexpected. This is a mark of a great musician and a great listener. Susan Palma-Nidel expertly uses her flute and her ears to interpret the repertoire known only to its close-knit phalanx of Portuguese musicians.
Another recent album, Genealogy, by (yes, a singer—now stop groaning) Lila Ammons includes a song titled, “É Preciso Perdoar”. Here, as with Nidel’s work, the flute plays about the space, wafting lightly and without that high school shrill trilling we all know of so well. But whereas electric and acoustic guitars keep the beat and bassline going, Susan Palma-Nidel’s Lisboa à Solta has a tasteful authenticity to it. They almost sound medieval, at times. The track, “A Morte Saui à Rua” uses simple percussion to add a folky/roots tone to the piece. Not knowing very much about Portuguese music, I cannot communicate the degree to which the performance does justice to traditional renditions.
What I do know is, these songs are unique and flavored with collaborations with native artists and with Nidel’s own impressive virtuosity in apply her classical training to such a, seemingly, different style of music and movement.
Though I would love to sway to the bossa nova beat till dawn, our next performer has arrived from Tokyo. Though a native of Japan, flutist Haruna Fukazawa lives and performs in New York. At once modern and daring, her first US release Departure (2019) opens with “Contact”, a self-composed piece. “Contact” is just that, a few minutes of self before pulling back to past composers like Horace Silver or Billy Strayhorn.
What impressed me most about this album, was her intermingling of original and interpreted tunes. “I Wish You Love” written by French singer-songwriter Charles Trenet dives back into the 1930’s/40’s era. Meant to be sung, Fukazawa skillfully treats the piece with tenderness bordering on nostalgia. Not only does flute take the melody, but saxophone gives the musical stroll a lonely vibe. Though not a tear-jerker in any way, the idea of paying respect to past performers and pieces is all the more poignant alongside her own clever compositions.
The next track (if you weren’t convinced by my oh so excellent analysis) furthers her homage by being an homage to Count Basie. “Bassi Blues” moves the time period to the 50’s/60’s but keeps the flute lively and the piano supportive. Nothing lags, really, if anything it takes off midway. One always worries that albums containing songs over six minutes can get wearisome and bogged down in either redundant repetition or unceasing instrument solos (and if you’re a really unlucky ducky, both…). By speeding up the tempo to an allegro, the Basie homage keeps its previous energy without sinking into that sinkhole where more experimental Coltranes and Davises sometimes wind up. Be Warned!
Haruna Fukazawa finishes off her eight-track album with one of her own tunes, “No Fine Weather.” Unlike what the title suggests, there seems to be plenty of fine weather to be had (and heard…though fine weather is usually the silent kind). The song skips in a conservative way, ending on a wavery flute and percussion. Playing it safe, is sometimes smarter than going all out. As I was listening to Departure, I was reminded by a similar flutist, Magela Herrera. Her 2019 release Explicaciones did not catch my attention as Nidel or Fukazawa had, but there was a corresponding blend of new and old that. What makes the flute standout in the Jazz genre, I think, is the placing of it in either new technical spaces (like Miss Fukazawa’s applying it to older standards) or by situating it in a culturally authentic sphere to revive lesser-known works (like Mrs. Nidel).
Both these female flutists have erased all those strangled canaries I heard way back when in the band room with mellifluous and thrilling chirps and trilling. I hope they’ve also impressed you.