TOUCH CHOICE - My Top Three Contenders for the Vocal Jazz Grammy
January 26, 2017 by Helen Borgers


Photos courtesy of the artists' press kits. From top:  Rene Marie, Tierney Sutton, Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling

The Grammy choices for vocal jazz performance this year are all wonderful. I don’t know how one could be considered “better” than another, or more award worthy. Making it even tougher is the fact that the male and female jazz vocal categories were combined several years ago. It would be hard enough to choose between Tierney Sutton and Rene Marie, but to have to add Kurt Elling into the mix seems unfair.


Tierney has been nominated for every project she has released in the last decade.  This year’s disc is The Sting Variations, an exploration of the songs written by the former Police member.


Several years ago, Tierney—who has been nominated 6 times in a row, plus one earlier, yet has never won —expressed what I thought was exactly the right attitude when she told me in an interview that it was just terrific to be nominated. She said that while you’re a nominee, everybody calls you and congratulates you, and tells you how great you are, and then, if you don’t win, you’re suddenly labeled “a loser.”  You go from being this “great artist” to being a “non-winner.” So, Tierney believes that being nominated is the gratifying thing because you are in a group of acclaimed peers.

"Message in a Bottle" from Sting Variations


Probably due to her Bahá'í faith, Tierney manages to maintain a balanced and pragmatic view in extreme emotional activities (such as group artistic endeavors, for example), and enters into the spirit of things without becoming bitter or frustrated. This is one of the reasons she and her band have been able to stay together so long, working literally and figuratively in harmony while sharing and exploring their differing ideas. No one in the group is so wedded to their concept that they can’t consider someone else’s.

“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” from Sting Variations


Rene Marie has had one prior nomination, for her 2013 tribute to Eartha Kitt, I Wanna Be Evil.


Rene Marie: I Wanna Be Evil

She has been on my radar since 1999, when her first disc, Renaissance, came to my attention.  It was sent to me out of the blue by a friend of Rene’s. (It was an independent release before it was re-issued by Max Jazz in 2000.) I was knocked out and had a heck of a time getting in touch with anyone to find out about this wonderful singer. She was going under the name “Rene Croan” in those days.


Born in 1956, she is a self-taught singer, who started to sing professionally at 15, with an R&B group called the Randolph Brothers. However, she married while still a teenager, and gave up the idea of singing or of becoming a lawyer (which had been her original plan) in order to raise a family. It wasn’t until 1996 that her son talked her into going back to singing. It was a brave move because her husband threatened divorce if she tried it. She was soon a single woman off on a brand new career.


All she knew about jazz singing she learned from listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan records. But those she could sing note-for-note.  She soon tired of singing like others and began to experiment by taking songs from other genres and giving them jazz treatments.  It was her slow, sultry rendition of “Mr. Sandman” from her first disc that hooked me on her.


Since then, she has not only found her own sound, she has also found her “voice,” that is, her political voice as well as her own singing style. She made big waves by substituting the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to the those of “The Star Spangled Banner” when she was invited to open an event in Denver.  Later, she combined the songs “Dixie” and “Strange Fruit,” which brought both jeers and cheers in clubs, even in the South.


She has become a prolific songwriter, writing socially conscious songs (some qualify as out-and-out “protest songs!”) and other songs of all sorts. Her current Grammy nominated disc is all original material. It’s called “Sound of Red.”


Rene Marie:  Sound of Red

So far, then, we have one singer with a tribute disc of wonderful, original arrangements, and another singer with entirely original songs, both with extraordinarily versatile voices, great bands, and terrific material.  


Then, in a completely different field, there’s a new disc from Kurt Elling that is a project created by saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who leads the session.


Branford Marsalis with Kurt Elling:  "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" from Upward Spiral

Branford never does the same thing twice. He is always pushing the boundaries of music and his fan base goes right along with him. Every now and then, though, he puts out a disc that reaches out to a wider audience because it has a different focus. His duet disc with his father Ellis (Loved Ones), or his celebration of the blues (I Heard You Twice the First Time, with guests John Lee Hooker, Linda Hopkins, B.B. King, and brother Wynton, among others), or his lovely tribute to the painter Romare Bearden (Romare Bearden Revealed). The new release has a similar goal. Branford says, “This is the kind of music that should expand our base to include people who would like jazz if it were friendlier.  From the minute Kurt started performing with us, it was all good.”

Kurt and Branford had bumped into each other on the road a few times, found mutual respect and significant conversation, so when Branford floated the idea of recording together, Kurt said, “any time.” The result is a collection of songs that includes Songbook staples, jazz standards, and some originals. Branford says, “The goal here, even though he sings lyrics, was to highlight Kurt’s voice as an instrument.”


Upward Spiral EPK

I can't imagine trying to pick one of these three as better than the other two. They are equally significant as projects and wonderfully satisfying as music. I think they have each already won by being selected to represent the best of what vocal jazz had to offer in 2016. All three are a must for serious fans of vocal jazz. I'm just happy that mainstream, straight ahead jazz is alive and vibrant and that it is being recognized in a popular forum. 

The televised 2017 Grammy Awards 59th Annual Ceremony will air live from LA’s Staples Center on CBS on Sunday, February 12th, at 8pm; the pre-telecast ceremony will be available to stream online as it happens at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live. Details about Premiere Ceremony streaming, and about red carpet broadcasts will be available at



On-air personality, Helen Borgers, can be heard on KJazz 88.1 FM from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. As a jazz broadcaster, Helen has been invited to give pre-concert lectures at various performing arts centers, served on panels in jazz conventions all over the world, and lectured about the history of jazz in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She has also written articles for international jazz publications and regularly emcees concerts, festivals, and club dates throughout southern California.

Classical music is back on 88.1 HD2

Bubba Jackson
12pm - 5pm
listen now
3:33 PM Kenny Burrell
Killer Joe
3:28 PM Bill Evans Trio
3:24 PM Billie Holiday
Fine And Mellow
full playlist
Upcoming events, exclusive offers and more all sent to your inbox twice a month
sign up now
listen  |  pledge  |  contact
Jazz Birthdays
Blues Birthdays
1886   Ma Rainey
1915   Johnny Shines
1926   J.B. Hutto