By Don Heckman
It’s no news that female singers have been arriving on the jazz scene in the past few decades with far greater frequency than males. Which makes it worth noticing when a male jazz singer with credentials as an instrumentalist makes an appearance.
John Proulx isn’t exactly a new jazz artist, either as a pianist or a singer. In the decade or so since he arrived in Los Angeles, he has rapidly established himself as a first-call pianist with wide-ranging skills. More recently, he’s won a Grammy award for a song he composed for Nancy Wilson. And he’s begun to showcase his singing in his albums.
On Wednesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill he introduced selections from his latest album, The Best Thing For You Would Be Me. In fact, he sang and played virtually all of the album’s selections. Backed by most of the participants on the album – saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Ron Stout, drummer Joe La Barbera, bassist Chuck Berghofer and singer Sara Gazarek, with the added aid of guitarist John Chiodini (who was not on the album) – Proulx made an ambitious presentation of his diverse skills as pianist, singer and songwriter.
Proulx opened the program with a sequence of tunes from a variety of sources: a pair of standards (his album title — “The Best Thing For You Would Be Me” and the Jimmy McHugh classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”); Cannonball Adderley’s “Wabash;” Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes;” and Joe Raposo’s Sesame Stree song, “Sing”).
That’s a challenging group of songs, dissimilar enough to call for vocal skills that are lyrically interpretive, rhythmically driven and aurally appealing.
At times, Proulx’s readings touched on all those qualities. And on the up side, there was always a strong, propulsive swing in his vocals, ranging from a brisk articulation of melody to inventive scat singing.
The second half of the program, broadened to feature six Proulx originals, followed similar patterns. Here, the interpretations were aided by the beautifully articulate vocal contributions of Gazarek, whose presence on Sarah McLachlin’s “Angel” and Proulx’s “Love Is For Dreamers” and “Before We Say Goodnight” brought authenticity to each.
The final selections, climaxing with originals, were also enhanced by instrumental contributions from Sheppard, Stout, La Barbera and Chiodini. One of the most appealing, “Here’s To the Chuckster,” featured Berghofer and Proulx together, in a song dedicated by Proulx to the veteran bassist.
Ultimately, one was left with a view of a musician/singer still working to find the most effective focus for his considerable skills. For that to be achieved, Proulx might consider the application of those skills in more musically expressive directions. To emphasizing the telling of a musical story, remembering that a song is a musical tale. To reducing his use of long, sometimes edgy notes (Checking out the master of musical phrasing, Frank Sinatra, might not be a bad idea). To finding a better balance in his music between sounds and silences, recalling Miles Davis’ classic phrase, “The notes I don’t play are as important as the notes I do.” It’s a thought that Chet Baker – whom Proulx clearly admires – understood well.
But the potential is already amply visible in Proulx’s work. When he gets all the right pieces together, that potential will reach skyward.
Photos by Bob Barry.