Although he sings a traditional kind of jazz, Jimmy Scott's singing is an extreme thing. Most immediately unusual is its range: Scott was born with Kallmann syndrome, which prevented his voice from changing. The voice is often described as a soprano or alto, but those terms are a bit misleading — it's unmistakably male even if it lies an octave above other male voices. Also striking is Scott's treatment of rhythm, which resembles that of a edgy jazz instrumentalist: he hangs way back from the beat, rushes ahead of it, suspends phrases in midair by compressing them unexpectedly, and in a dozen other ways performs a musical high-wire act. His diction is way beyond merely clear: he has a choice of attacks for each consonant, to be deployed in the service of insight into a song's text.
So there's daredeviltry, and a definite exotic component. But Scott's music is never flashy, and it fits in fine at New York's supper clubs. His repertoire is the one that prevailed during the first phase of his career in the 1940s and 1950s: Gershwin, some Rodgers and Hart, and, more unusually, some intensely felt spirituals. Scott's virtuosity is of the precise kind, executed quietly, with a tone of vulnerability that expresses itself in delicacy and detail.
Those qualities have kept Scott's art not only viable but consistently intensifying as he enters his seventh decade of performing. Born in 1925, he started out in Lionel Hampton's big band. About five feet tall, he was known as Little Jimmy Scott. One of his early champions was Ray Charles, who himself began his career with a quiet, high-pitched, rather mysterious kind of vocal jazz. Scott recorded several now hard-to-find albums for the Savoy, Tangerine, and Atlantic labels and then dropped out of sight for a while, working as an elevator operator in his native Cleveland. He resurfaced in the 1990s, providing his distinctive sound for various alternative rock artists and releasing solo albums. His voice has lost the capacity for silvery stretches of vibrato, but that was only one of its many sounds to begin with, and now, at age eighty-two, he has a burnished, uncannily soulful instrument that seems to exist in its own special realm.
Jimmy Scott comes to the Ark, in a concert the club is copresenting with the Michigan Theater Foundation, on Friday, May 9.
[Review published May 2008]