Two of the Best NYC Jazz Vocalists of 2016

Tamar Korn.

Tamar Korn. Facebook

“There is a flow of sound, like water: you float or surf or sail.” This is how Tamar Korn describes the jazz vocalist’s job. And yes, she does have a little more to add, as if improvising knowingly.

“Your center of gravity gives you balance over the constantly moving water,” says Korn of herself when singing. “You can’t control the motion of the waves, but you can choose which waves to ride. When I get above subsistence level in a gig, and can actually feel things and fly on them and float on them…the momentum has gathered enough that I don’t have to make the momentum anymore. I’m feeling supported and inspired,” she explains. “It’s a mixture of repetition and surprise.”

Summing up, she says, “I’m feeling my balance on a perpetually dense moving force, the ocean—my instrument.” She means her voice, naturally. It’s true enough: this California migrant to New York has surfed “a few times.”

Still, the provocative vision suggested by Korn of herself singing atop a wave might also come across as jauntily, merrily incongruous. Could this be because, in person, she impishly evokes a demure and diminutive version of Betty Boop, probably shy of five feet tall, minus her habitual boots? Dark ringlets cling to her creamy, heart-shaped face. Soon, very soon, she will begin to laugh.

Regardless, Korn’s piercing, inventive scat singing distinguishes her joyfully with a carefully wrought eloquence. She can be plenty fierce. Korn out-twangs a banjo, out-toots a cornet. More important, though, when the full range of her subtle musical imagination takes over hot jazz in particular, to some listeners it seems that she succeeds in raising again—and in answering—a basic yet neglected question: what is jazz music anyway, and tomorrow what might it become?

In any case, jazz is roughly a hundred years old, give or take, since its beginnings in New Orleans. By 1925 Rodgers and Hart had already written “Manhattan.” Since then, female vocalists have been carrying a torch for jazz, with a fair share of their disciples and descendants plying a trade now in New York. Two who carry the torch here with conspicuous skill could hardly be more different from each other: Tamar Korn and Hilary Gardner, who sings in a don’t-miss-it duo with pianist Ehud Asherie.

Both in their 30s, with more than a decade of song apiece behind them, Gardner and Korn give us good reasons to keep listening.

When I last heard Hilary Gardner sing this autumn with Asherie at Caffe Vivaldi, I realized again something uncanny I’d noticed before in her gigs at Mezzrow, Fat Cat, and elsewhere: the innate composure and the flowing integrity of her phrasing tempt me to believe that Gardner is the actual author of the songs. Yet she is not.

“I’d give my right arm to have written ‘Autumn in New York,’ ” she admits. She’s like the gifted graphic artist able to complete a pencil drawing without even once lifting the fingers or the pencil from the page before finishing the composition in a single uninterrupted sweep of line. For Gardner achieves a confident, mysterious elastic continuity when she sings.

The drop-dead beauty of the music that night on Jones Street left me wondering whether I was accurately hearing the lucidity and the entirety of slowly rippling lines. The recessional rhythm counts in Gardner’s swing reminded me of how sounds always come back to the place where they have begun. That’s authority, felt with a grace both palpable and profound.

Graceful I’m not. “What is jazz, anyway?” I find myself asking Gardner recklessly at Teresa’s in Brooklyn Heights during a gusty October rainstorm.

“I don’t know,” she replies promptly. “I’m not sure,” she corrects herself instantly, with an adamant shake of shoulders and head.

Of course, that’s the only possible just response. For if she knew what jazz is, then jazz would be over, wouldn’t it?

For Gardner, it all got started at home in Alaska when “my parents heard me singing in my room and said, ‘Do you want to take some voice lessons?’ ” Soon enough, everything changed. She declares, “It has never occurred to me to do anything else professionally but sing. I came to jazz concurrently with classical music.” Still, she “waited tables for over ten years, talking at a high volume night after night,” until her hiring for Twyla Tharp’s production of Come Fly With Me gave Gardner a well-earned career promotion. About the strains on her vocal chords of chronic waitressing she observes tartly, “A piano player can still play the piano. The piano doesn’t care. The voice cares.”

Onstage, she’s known for swatting banter gently about with an understated elegance, announcing with mordant pithiness “Little Girl Blue” as “an anthem to failure.”

Offstage, however, Gardner does not mince words: “The music business is a disaster. Jazz has always been a tiny corner of the market, a genre with ever more noise to cut through.”

Hustling remains a core element of the life. “I do my own website, and I funded my own record, and I shopped the record everywhere. We’re expected to handle, solo, everything in our musical careers. There has to be a way to make Plan A work.”

Hilary Gardner at Birdland.

Hilary Gardner at Birdland. Takehiko Tak Tokiwa

If Gardner sounds like she believes in serious super-heroines, that makes sense, since she admires uppity women. Not that the clean-spoken lyric soprano would dream of transgressing in Brooklyn with a word like “uppity.” But, as she puts it, “There is a mythology surrounding the women who were [first] singing these jazz songs.”

Likewise, she admires 1930s female movie stars. “I love those dames: ladies who are running the show. They were smart and wisecracking and could pull their own weight with any men—but they were ladies.”

Perhaps she’s one of them, too, if only arriving a few decades later. “I’ve always felt very comfortable around jazz musicians, even though I’m usually the only woman,” she says. “When the lights come up, I’m a lady. I never want to be running the show as a dictatorship. Yet if it’s my gig, and I’m holding the microphone, yeah—I’m running it.” Songs she will not sing, based on long-established philosophical differences, include “My Man” (vintage sexist female subjection) and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (“It’s super-saccharine”).

She listens to “a lot of Brazilian music. The Brazilian singers sound like they’re talking to themselves.” That helps to keep her own singing honest. “It’s easy to fall into affectation. Are my vowels too mannered? Does anything feel like a caricature of itself?” she ponders.

The idle mind does not seem to stand much of a chance in jazz now. No one could call Tamar Korn’s mind idle. When she sang with Brain Cloud in September at The Iridium, her bold and detailed rendition of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” owed a great deal to the singer’s hurtling imagination, and to an unquenchable curiosity which would seem to accept no limits.

Korn deconstructed the song and tossed it around with the tickling of tonal moods (and micro-moods), delivering a full-throated shake-up of the expected phrasing, as if to tease into being a majestic mischief. It was heartfelt, too. The ecstatic gambit recalled an earlier comment from singer-songwriter Mamie Minch, Korn’s sometime musical collaborator, during a past gig of theirs at Jalopy.

“Tamar,” Minch crooned adoringly before the assembled crowd, “I’d love to sleep sometime with your brain.” The audience seemed to understand precisely what she meant.

Good fortune ushered Korn from playing Sally in Cabaret to singing jazz in the fall of 2003, when she met the jazz guitarist Jake Sanders and his circle at a house party in New York, where she’d come to study musical theater at NYU. “I just sat down with them. I didn’t know anything about jazz.”

Singing informally with Sanders and the clarinetist Michael Magro led to gigs where she initially performed songs from a broad swath by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, and Suzanne Vega, to name a few. “Jake was always trying to focus on what he could do better, and not on what other people thought of him. He was always the best person I ever met at focusing,”Reminisces Korn. The band they formed, The Cangelosi Cards, is fondly remembered still. Korn now leads her own band, A Kornucopia, with an ever-changing cast.

But she first learned how to harmonize in singing during Shabbat family dinners while growing up in southern California. Her father, Tadek Korn, was a professional classical violinist whose steadfast critical ear both inspired and daunted the 5-year-old piano student, who kept at it until she was 12. “As soon as I made a mistake, he would bark at me and correct me, and I would cry.”

Tadek Korn’s command of languages led her to song lyrics, as well as away. “He was as verbal as a human being could be,” Korn says. “Thinking about what you’re saying when you’re singing it: it’s hard to embody the lyric. That requires a certain relaxed composure, and also an intensity of body and heart.” Memorably, she defines scat singing as “a way you can have a conversation without having to know what the conversation means.” More than a decade after her parents divorced, Tadek Korn died in 2010.

Her father’s father narrowly escaped the Nazi bombing of Poland, where at 17 he was a political activist working as a tailor’s apprentice. After Russia swept into the northeast, he was sent by the Soviets to a Siberian gulag, where Tadek Korn was born in 1941. “They never called themselves Holocaust survivors,” his granddaughter observes. “It took my grandmother dying, when I was twelve, to get my grandfather to talk about this. I saw him cry and show emotion that I hadn’t known was there. He was describing history from a directly personal perspective.”

Korn regards jazz emphatically as “a folk music.”

“Early jazz awakened in me feeling good: feeling positive and happy. There’s an overabundance of depressive music, as if pain is more real than joy. I think pain is more limited than joy—and you can get more addicted to it,” says Korn.

This may be why she will sing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at nearly any gig, with a giddy effervescence that bats around the slaphappy standard as though it were being written on the fly for the very first time. The power of her freedom to redo it makes the past present.

Or, as Hilary Gardner has described her own experience of singing jazz, “There’s something in it that pulls me out of whatever else is going on. It can feel like driving a Ferrari: all of this power and beauty that are just on the brink of slipping out of your grasp.”

Two of the Best NYC Jazz Vocalists of 2016