Five Beautiful Women of Discovery

Last Monday I met five beautiful women. I've never laid an eye on any of them. And we were introduced by a man I've never met, but with whom I have a lively e-mail correspondence.

The man is Mike Smith, who lives way up there in the Canadian city of Oshawa, Ontario. He gently guides the operations of SkyJazz and occasionally finds himself doing extra duty on one or another of the six audio programs the web site offers.

Mike and I have talked once on the telephone, sometime back in late October. He phoned me down here in the U.S., where I live in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and work as a newspaper editor. Because it was on Mike's nickel, I didn't feel financially threatened by prolonging the conversation about our common love, jazz. We wandered all over the landscape about styles, artists, the quality of jazz today and the general history and state of our favorite musical style.

Last Monday, Mike found himself sitting in for Paul Gibson on "Discovery," a showcase for new and underexposed jazz talent. I listen to all six programs every week.   What Mike did was put together a breathtaking show that caused me to fall in love five times in less than 45 minutes. It had an all-female-vocalist theme. The focus was on San Francisco. The quality of the music was stunning. And visitors got to vote, a tough decision indeed.

First up: Sherri Roberts with a creamy version of "Dreamsville." Whoever did the arrangement for this piece had a fine sense of the unintrusive. The pianist on this cut plays with the delicacy of a butterfly wing and paints some pretty musical pictures around Roberts' vocals with the deft hand of a Red Garland or a John Lewis. And Roberts brings to the piece some ineffable quality that reminds me of Anita O'Day.

A strong follow was brought to us courtesy of Nanette Natal, who, Mike tells us, was SkyJazz's first "Discovery" artist. She has a smokier voice than Roberts, but bursts out with a very strong vocal spine on certain phrasings in "Waiting." In fact, that smoky quality reminded me at certain points of Billie Holiday, and that is no small compliment. In one voice, Natal delivers soul, desperation, resignation and tearfulness. A gem of a cut here.

Cathi Walkup blew in from the Bay Area with the Irving Berlin evergreen, "Cheek To Cheek," which Mike characterized as "playful." I'll second that and put the motion on the floor for all you jazzers out there. It's a fine ride, for Walkup takes us back to an era of tuxedoes and spats and innocence and sensuality of an earlier era. And she scats, too. Ella Fitzgerald, are you hearing this from your heavenly perch? Walkup is absolutely in the bullseye. An uncluttered arrangement and simple but supportive vibe and guitar solos round out this perfect thing of beauty.

Cami Thompson's "One Touch Of Heaven" changed the pace a bit. A lilt in this voice nevertheless carries a natural vibrato and a strong sense of soul that puts some spice into the mix that came across as peppery to me. If that seems a contradiction, well, I guess it is. The attack is perfect. The intonation is flawless. And Thompson's work in the upper registers is obviously intuitive. And there is a high final note that seals the envelope on this piece that will make you tingle with excitement and admiration. Wow!

Finally, Carla Helmbrecht weighed in with "Mood Indigo." And Duke Ellington, wherever he may be, must have been mighty proud when this rendition of his classic joined the music of the spheres. Mike pointed out her bluesy treatment, an approach to this superior tune not often heard. Helmbrecht has the same youth in her voice that marked Ella Fitzgerald's distinctive sound, but Helmbrecht's pipes sound more mature. And that's a good thing. She has a voice like Scotch whiskey and doesn't force the tune. Rather, she sings the song the way it wants to be sung.

Did I vote? You bet I did.

For whom did I vote? No one will ever hear from me, except maybe Mike, because I give him the credit for showing these artists to fine advantage.

And, ladies, if you're listening out there on the West Coast, I propose that you all come live with me and be my loves. I'm the most appreciative audience you've never met. What you do is important in maintaining the finest traditions of jazz. Fine work, one and all.

At the very least, could we have cocktails?