Generated on Nov 7, 2014
The Style, The Voice, And Its Critical Reception
Producer Joel Dorn and critic Will Friedwald have aptly pinpointed the general effect of Chris Connor's singing: it comes across as "warm cool." Their succinct description (used as the title of the CD anthology that they released in 1999, on the 32 Jazz label) echoes a longer comment made by music critic Gene Lees in 1962: "[s]he sings in a near vibratoless style that is as warm in ballads -- where it is tricky to handle and makes even greater demands on precise intonation -- as it is cooly relaxed at the uptempos."
Connor's approach to uptempo tunes was actually more varied than what Lees' comment would seem to suggest. It could indeed be winningly relaxed, but it could also be daringly dynamic. During her peak years, Connor's singing was in fact known for its experimental drive, which would often involve rhythmic and melodic alterations as she moved from one chorus to another. She also had a penchant for emphasizing key words and key phrases which had the potential to enhance or complicate the more superficial meaning of a given lyric. It should be noted, however, that all those alterations were generally at the service of the song's message. In other words, her approach was not ornamental or exhibitionistic (as it often was in the case of one of her influences, the "divine" Sarah Vaughan) but semantically and emotionally driven (as it was for another of her major influences, the "fabulous" Peggy Lee.)
Pianist and academician Ran Blake has further encapsulated the Connor style in three snapshots: "intensity, use of silence, and ability to surprise." (Blake is partially and intentionally echoing the comments of another critic, quoted at the end of this page.) As for the tone of her singing voice, it has been variously deemed smoky, intimate, lush, and cello-like.
Technically, some of the adverse criticism aimed at Connor had validity. Music critics noted both a recurrently flat tone and a tendency to pitch under the note, flaws which probably stemmed from her midwestern background and from her cool school influences. In uptempo numbers, her shift from a comfortable middle range to an upper register could divide listeners between those who felt excited by the dynamic or dramatic progression at hand, and those for whom the shift generated a harsh, shrill vocal production. Moreover, the quality of her performances varied widely during the 1950s and also during some of the 1960s, partly due to her interest in experimentation, and partly as a result of personal problems (most notably, alcoholism, which she proudly and permanently overcame from the 1970s onwards). Adding to the unsettling feeling experienced by portions of her concert audiences was Connor's extreme concentration, which the singer achieved at the expense of the physical image that she projected: the singer would close her eyes for very extended periods, and would make what was often described as unpleasant grimaces.
And yet, even Connor's most negative critics acknowledged how daring the melodic risks which she took during her peak years (the 1950s and the early 1960s) were. They also acknowledged the intimate intensity which she exhibited in ballads such as her trademark tune, "All About Ronnie." What's more, some of Connor's harshest critics (Gene Lees, John Wilson) eventually came around -- as illustrated by the Lees observations quoted at the outset of this essay.
Moreover, enthusiasm for Connor's craftsmanship was as strongly worded as the adverse criticism. "Miss Connor, a stubborn individualist if there ever was one, takes more chances than any other singer who preceded her," marveled Robert Sylvester, of the New York Daily News, in 1956. "Singer Chris Connor is one of the most profound and astonishing lyric interpreters and vocal stylists of this popular music era," enthused Philip Elwood, of the San Francisco Examiner, in 1971. Another critic nicknamed her "the Kim Novak of the jazz set." Jazz luminary Miles Davis declared himself a fan. And according to Connor herself, legendary actor Henry Fonda once called her "the girl singer to (make love) by" -- with the parenthetical words apparently substituting for unprintable ones.
In later years, her style underwent a few changes and adjustments. Some of its more experimental or dynamic traits were abandoned. "When you're young," she said in the early 200s, "you overplay as a musician and you oversing as a singer because you're trying all these ideas, and I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink. I've eliminated a lot of things I used to do. The simpler it is, the better it works for me." She also made allowances for her naturally aging instrument (e.g., lowered keys).
The most detailed portrait of the artist's skills was arguably written by Richard Dyer in 1974. After seeing her performing live, the critic wrote an extensive article for The Boston Phoenix. While acknowledging some of the adverse points discussed above, Dyer had the following to say about the singer's virtues:
"When she is on form Chris Connor makes demand [on her listeners]: her best work is intense and original, not a good background for drinks and conversation ... [She] is mistress of most of the familiar forms of jazz vocal ornamentation-- the slant attack and slow settling into pitch, the ricochet of notes at a cadence, like marbles down a washboard, the aspirated repeated tones, the wailing scoopy scale, that slow flap between adjacent tones that sounds like some kind of hay wire thrill. She uses these devices tactfully and with interpretive point ... The real greatness and originality of Chris Connor lies in the extraordinary tension and intensity of her work, a tension that springs directly from her manipulations of rhythm. Her breath control ... is her greatest technical asset, for she can extend and carry over phrases that other singers have to break up. She doubles or halves the tempo at dramatic moments, subdivides the beat in original ways, lags behind and urgently pulls ahead, punches out individual notes ... and links them into phrases without seams; ... most strikingly, she can hold a note or a phrase, filling it with tone for its whole rhythmic life, creating an exciting conflict with the non-sustaining tone of the piano, the plucked brass and the drums in her trio."