Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald… this timeless trinity of female jazz singers will never grow old. In a genre once dominated by men, they paved the way and carved out their rightful places, bringing joy to our lives with their talent.
When the 1980s came around, another new generation of jazz singers would continue the legacy. Nicknamed “BCD” for Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves, the “new” jazz scene at the time was a space for inspiration, innovation and evolution. Today, Sound of Life brings you our roundup of the decade’s greatest female jazz singers who keep delighting music lovers with their distinctive identities.
Born into a musically-inclined family (Stevens’ father is a choral music composer, and her mother a trained opera and theatre singer), Becca Stevens started performing at a young age with her siblings in her family band, the Tune Mammals. An accomplished singer-songwriter with five solo albums, Stevens has released two albums as part of a band: Tillery (with fellow jazz artists Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin), and David Crosby’s Lighthouse Band. She also plays the guitar, ukulele and charango, a ten-stringed Bolivian lute.
Stevens is well-loved not just by jazz lovers, but also by her industry’s peers: on his website, music critic Ted Gioia commended Stevens’ albums, listing Weightless (2011) and Perfect Animal (2015) as one of the top 100 albums of the corresponding years. Notably, her collaborations with popular jazz band Snarky Puppy are worth playing on repeat, but Stevens is always ready to push her boundaries in the name of artistic expression, having provided vocals for Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra, a genre-bending jazz orchestra that exclusively performs Björk’s music. More recently, under GroundUP Music (a record label founded by Snarky Puppy frontman Michael League) she has also released new music with electronic elements, adding to her extensive repertoire.
Music news outlet London Jazz News wrote of Stevens: “She has a beautifully nuanced vocal style, a delicate yet strongly assured delivery rooted in an open, broad range which is very much her own, with the mildest of echoes of one of her heroines, Joni Mitchell, that also carries through to her guitar work.”
Steven’s Weightless album cemented her position as a powerful vocalist and songwriter.
Her collaborations with Snarky Puppy are always a dream to watch and listen to.
A flawless jazz rendition of Björk’s “Hyperballad” with vocals by Becca Stevens.
“I want to be a voice for young women. Especially the third culture kids, who are citizens of the world, but also a citizen of none.” Born in Bangkok, raised in Sweden, and based in America, Sirintip (Tippan) Phasuk’s life is as colourful as it gets. For her, the “power of three” struck a chord even as a child – she played the piano, violin and double bass classically, and from there, progressed to studying jazz. Call it serendipity, but Sirintip’s debut album, Tribus (2018) is an amalgamation of all things three: the three continents she lived in, the three cultures she experienced, and the three relationships we share (with the world, other people and ourselves). It should come as no surprise that “tribus” means “three” in Latin.
Founder of GroundUP Music and three-time Grammy winner Michael League discovered Sirintip while she was working at a jazz club in Stockholm, and as they say, the rest is history. Tribus is admittedly a jazz album, but with an edge. “The idea is to bridge the gap between pop and jazz by combining singable melodies with grooves, jazz harmonies and electronics,” says Sirintip. “I want to appeal to people who don’t know anything about jazz, while inspiring and challenging those who already listen to jazz in a new way.”
Sirintip’s music flawlessly bridges the gap between jazz and other genres.
With the help of electronic effects, even vocals can be transformed into a musical instrument.
The clever use of autotune helps to accentuate flair instead of disguise flaws.
Born in Los Angeles, Gretchen Parlato is the daughter of Dave Parlato, the late Frank Zappa’s bass player. As a child, Parlato was influenced by her mother’s collection of bossa nova records: “When I heard João Gilberto's voice, the texture and simplicity of the music struck me — even at 13 years old. That was definitely a turning point.”
In 2004, Parlato came in first at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, barely a year after she moved to New York. The competition was judged by jazz heavyweights like Quincy Jones, Flora Purim, Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jimmy Scott. The allure of her music lies in its complicated rhythms, oftentimes accentuated by beautiful harmonies. Parlato is also skilled at complementing her performances with syncopated hand claps, which has since become one of her signature moves.
This year, Parlato is set to shake up the scene with her latest album, Flor. Like a fresh blossom unfurling its petals, Flor pays tribute to her first memories of falling in love with music as a teenager, featuring a blend of American, European and Brazilian influences.
Gretchen Parlato’s signature hand-clapping style adds a touch of unique flair to her performances.
Parlato performing together with fellow Tillery bandmates, Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin.
French-Dominican singer Cyrille Aimée’s brand of jazz is markedly different from the three artists we recommended above, but her scat improvisation is second to none. Aimée was brought up in the village of Samois-sur-Seine, where Gypsies came to town each June for the annual Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival. At that time, she often sneaked out at night to meet them, learning their language and their version of jazz, which heavily features the guitar as the main instrument.
“I became obsessed with the Gypsy way of life, and especially with their music. Gypsy music reflects a sense of freedom, living each day like it’s the last,” said Aimée. Despite being chosen as one of the semi-finalists of Star Academy (the French equivalent of American Idol), Aimée decided to walk away after seeing how restrictive the contract was. "It would have been a great career move, but I was more interested in learning more about music and the art of improvisation, harmony and rhythm," she explained.
For many years, Aimée performed with her band, which had three guitarists – the combination of jazz, Gypsy and Brazilian guitars brought together all different types of her favourite musical instrument, and she thrived in the environment. However, she also has a secret trick up her sleeve: the loop station, which has since become a charming highlight of her live performances.
Aimée’s improvisation ability is beautifully seamless and easy on the ears.
Cyrille Aimée performing on stage with two guitarists.
One woman, an endless loop of improvisation that brightens up any day.
In recent years, Indian jazz musicians have become an emerging community in New York, and Kavita Shah is one to watch. Her voice is soothing, like a balm that patches over rough spots after a bad day. Raised in Manhattan, Shah began playing the classical piano at age 5. As a member of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, she honed her singing prowess in more than 20 languages and in a variety of genres, ranging from opera to gospel to folk.
Shah attributes her love for jazz to her former neighbour, saxophonist Patience Higgins, whom she would later join to perform together in a band at various venues in Harlem. Visions (2014), Shah’s debut album features 14 musicians from all around the world, bringing together Indian, African, and Brazilian elements into a modern jazz setting. Through Visions, jazz takes on a unique tone, thanks to the incorporation of the Indian tabla (twin hand drums) and West African kora (a 21-stringed instrument).
The Boston Globe called her “a polyglot in more than language alone”, and the moniker is befitting: Shah has demonstrated an uncanny affinity for connecting with people, as seen in her collaboration with Beninois guitarist Lionel Loueke in “Oju Oba”, as well as with French jazz bass player François Moutin in their joint album, Interplay.
"Musically, I wanted to bring together different elements that I love, and combine them in a way that may be surprising to others but makes sense to me." – Kavita Shah
This Afro-Brazilian gem features Lionel Loueke on the guitar, complementing Shah’s soothing vocals.
An energetic, playful rendition of a French classic by Shah and François Moutin.
Listen to our roundup of the decade's greatest female jazz singers with their distinctive identities.
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Life on 4 March 2021.
Cover image: Becca Stevens/Universal Music
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.