Picking up the pace…

Right on the heels of Harry Connick Jr.’s success two awesome standards practitioners emerged to shift the “standards revival” into high gear. First up — in 1992 R&B sensation Natalie Cole delivered a stunning tribute album to her father Nat King Cole … truly a tribute LP like none before it.

Unforgettable was 22 tracks of Nat Cole’s biggest hits; rendered wonderfully by Natalie AND … utilizing the digital technology at hand Nat (gone nearly 30 years at this point) and Natalie sang the title track as a duet.

Awards flowed and this stunning album raised the awareness of her father’s music to a whole new generation. Natalie continues to dip back and forth between R&B and standards titles as her career rolls on and her duet performance with Nat is a highlight of her “not to be missed” stage act.

Cool as the other side of the pillow…

As if on cue to counterbalance all the heat coming off Natalie’s Unforgettable LP, Diana Krall — a tall, cool, blonde Canadian jazz sensation — wandered out of the great white north in 1993 bringing a prodigious talent for jazz piano and a distinctive interpretation of the classic standards.

I remember coming across Diana’s debut album — Stepping Out — at a Borders Record store while randomly casting about for something new … I think I stood there with those horrid public headphones on for about an hour listening to that album but it was worth it.

Diana is both talented and prolific — cranking out about a dozen albums and three DVD’s (Live in Paris is the best of the video releases) since her arrival — and it was that volume of super quality material — especially in the all important late 90’s — that took the American Songbook revival over the top from my perspective.

Revival done… the foundation was laid…

As the turn of the century approached, we had a body of recent standards work from four “new” artists that spanned nearly 20 years and almost a like number of albums. The mid-century retro movement was in full swing and what was cool in the 50’s and 60’s was now cool again … furniture, clothing and best of all — music!

The standards blew up in the early 2000’s, with the resurgent popularity of music from the Rat Pack era heating up the night and refilling the sails of those classic stars like Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Jack Jones, Johnny Mathis and Nancy Wilson that were still taking to the stage.

Also joining the fray were new headliners like Michael Bublé who in a blink of an eye went from a jazz club act to filling hockey arenas. As the decade progressed, a new breed of cross-over performers emerge to draft off the success of Rod Stewart’s amazing second career singing the American Songbook.

So here we sit today…

…in a wacky, wonderful, robust vocal standards market. Vast and revived catalogs from Sinatra, Ella, Nat Cole and many classic performers are available for the finding; a small but impressive array of still performing classic artists like Buddy Greco, Frank D’Rone, Andy Williams and Tony Bennett take the stage regularly … awesome internet radio with 24 hour-a-day high quality streaming standards …  new talents like James Tormé, Nikki Yanofski, Joseph Leo Bwarie and more emerging every day. There are simply too many great new acts to possibly keep track of … and that is great thing!

Looking back, the re-emergence and broad success of vocal jazz and the standards may seem obvious, but when taken from a circa 1980 or even 1990 perspective, it was anything but assured — or even likely.

The revival of the Great American Songbook was a long hard climb that certainly involved more than the efforts of five individuals. The perseverance of classic artists like Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson and Jack Jones (many, many others) played a major role … as did the quiet but steady success of somewhat less prominent (but no less important) array of “next gener’s” like Nancy LaMott, James Darren,  Michael Feinstein, Steve Tyrell to name just a few.

Indeed, many parties had a hand to play in the Standards genre success we enjoy today. That said, the comeback was initiated and anchored by the artist/arrangers that put themselves out there at critical points along the way and did so with demonstrable success.

These few; these happy few…

… this “gang of five”. With apologies to Will Shakespeare for mangling Henry V, Linda Ronstadt/Nelson Riddle, Harry Connick Jr., Natalie Cole and Diana Krall may not have been a “band of brothers”, but they were the bellwether performers that lead the Standards revival and redirected the spotlight back onto the Great American Songbook.

They shook a slumbering listenership … made us pay attention — see the romance and swinging fun within — and prodded us into rediscovering this wonderful music. I don’t think we can thank them enough for the vocal standards spoils we enjoy today.