When Diane Schuur burst on the national scene in 1985 with the release of her Deedles recording on GRP, the world was treated to an exceptional vocalist who had strengths in jazz and jazz-pop crossover. Her string of hit records was aided by not just topnotch production and producing via her partnership with the Dave Grusin - Larry Rosen brain trust, but also a selection of material that fit her voice and abilities in way that has rarely been seen since. Add to this her abundant skill on piano, which is subtle and always overlooked, and you had an artist for whom, it seemed, nothing could go wrong.
Since direct control of GRP was sold Schuur's recordings haven't been nearly as dynamic or had the presence of Grusin's direct overseeing. Whether it's been a lack of record company focus or Schuur's own restless musical heart, stellar recordings that approached her GRP work have been far and few between. Concord Records, fortunately, pretty much left her alone; only looking to find ways to package an over theme to her releases. Still, the results don't compare to the GRP catalog.
Schuur's newest recording, The Gathering, now away from the comfort of Concord and on Vanguard Records, is unfortunately a mis-direction for the great female artist. Covering 10 country songs from artists like Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller and Willie Nelson, among others, Schuur's much-too-beautiful-and-pure voice doesn't have the crackling presence needed to pull off country songs. Oh she tries, such as on the melismas at the end of "Healing Hands Of Time," on the sustained note at the end of "Why Can't He Be You," and when she tries to crinkle up her voice on "Beneath Still Waters," as just three examples of many. The results, unfortunately, sound false.
Don't confuse this recording with a country album. It's as country as Wynton Marsalis' trumpet solos on his work with Willie Nelson; in neither case are the two artists infused with the life background musical experiences necessary to pull of country's deceptively difficult nuances. What this jazz-slash-pop-crossover artist aims for is a melding of country songs with jazz sensibilities, just like Wynton aimed for in his work. That the two musics have common ground is undeniable, that either artist is successful is highly debatable.
If there is a bright spot it's learning Schuur isn't afraid to experiment and go way off on a limb, something that is always ultimately a good thing for music; witness Herbie Hancock's great recent pop oriented work on Possiblities and his hip-hop infused Dis Is Da Drum, even while other experiments, like Feets Don't Fail Me Now, tripped. Artists always grow when they try new things. Wouldn't it be nice if more jazz artists tried their hand at different ventures instead of rehashing the tried and true? In this case, however, the experiment is arresting.