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Sunday, May 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz

It's a woman's world on the jazz scene now

Seattle Times jazz critic

Thanks to the decadelong success of Diana Krall (and, more recently, Jane Monheit), there is a renaissance of women jazz singers these days. Here's a roundup of a few new releases.

Kitty Margolis, Left Coast Life (Mad-Kat Records). West Coast musicians get passed over by the insular New York jazz press, but San Francisco has been a nexus of terrific singers for quite some time now. Kitty Margolis is one of the best.

Her new album, "Left Coast Life," takes care of business in a way purist jazzers neglect: It's brightly-produced (including excellent, selected string and horn arrangements), tells a cute concept story — a sort of "Pilgrim's Progress" of an artist/lover in the City by the Bay — and reaches standards for new repertoire, to singer/songwriters like Tom Waits and even cool jazzer Joyce Cooling.

Margolis' voice is appealingly true, she swings and scats (but not too much) like a champ, and can hoot like a lovestruck bassoon on ballads. Her treatment of Dave Frishberg's "Heart's Desire," Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" and Waits' "Take It With Me" are heartbreakers. Her Brazilian-tinged collaboration with Cooling, "It's You," is a keeper.

Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note). Fetching, brown-eyed Jones is the new industry sensation — her album shot right to the top of the contemporary-jazz charts — which is odd, since she's more a country-inflected singer/songwriter (with an urbane twist) than any kind of jazz singer.

But, hey, Jones is a major talent, so who cares how she's marketed? She has a slight Dallas twang and a melancholy twinge she picked up from her mother's Billie Holiday records and consummate musicality that could trace back to her dad, the great Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar. Jones, 22, is everything the industry wanted to make out of the wispy Madeleine Peyroux five years ago.

With an intimate, throaty whisper and tremendous rhythmic confidence, Jones projects a kind of jukebox-waitress sadness while never sounding like a victim. Her bassist and guitarist, Lee Alexander and Jesse Harris, respectively, provide some of her best material ("One Flight Down," "Don't Know Why"); she does a bang-up job with Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael material; and she wrote the title song herself, which ain't bad. Producer Arif Mardin deftly sets Jones amongst atmospheric acoustic and electric guitars.

Jackie Ryan, Passion Flower (OpenArt Records). This San Francisco Bay Area singer is a real discovery. With a Mexican/Irish heritage that somehow led her to jazz, Ryan blasts out powerful, sexy swing in a compelling, full voice on "Now or Never," then turns on a dime, in Spanish, to a passionate torch song like "Historia de un Amor."

She sings "Mood Indigo" in a loud whisper, digging a deep, slow groove; on "Some Other Spring," she lays behind the beat, then pushes the words with a groan, like Carmen McCrae; Joe Henderson's "The Kicker" receives a snappy new set of vocalese lyrics. Portuguese? No problem. Ryan gives "O Silèncio Das Estrelas" a slow and slinky reading, then sounds like a soul diva on Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone To Love." Ryan's one to watch.

Cassandra Wilson, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note). This one is tickling Krall for the No. 1 spot on the straight-ahead jazz charts, but I feel like I've been to most of the places Wilson's taking us here on her last two albums. What started out as a homecoming to explore delta blues (she hails from Mississippi) expanded beyond its original premise, but still falls short.

Wilson's smoky alto, moody tempos and oblique diction are dangerously approaching self-parody, though her choice of repertoire — Robbie Robertson's "The Weight," Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March," Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," and Robert Johnson's least-known ditty, "They're Hot" (mistitled "Hot Tamales") — is still nothing short of brilliant. But why dump producer Craig Street (she produced this one herself), only to imitate his style, right down to the precious gesture of recording the album in the old Clarksdale train station?

The album's most memorable track, and possibly pointing toward the future, is a Nina Simone-like protest song Wilson wrote herself, "Justice," which articulates a whole world with an ironic consumerist metaphor, as in "I'll take that box of reparations." More, please.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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