For decades, jazz artists and producers have tried different methods to introduce their music to a younger audience.
Often, it’s the interpretations of recognizable pop or R&B songs. Also, there’s the tried and true method of updating jazz standards.
Now, with the coming of Renee Olstead, there’s hope that yet another mode of transference will succeed: having it sung by today’s youth. One need only look as far as Jane Monheit and Norah Jones as examples of young singers attempting to bridge the gap between jazz and their peers, albeit by different routes. While Monheit has adopted the approach of singing jazz standards in much the way that they were sung by the original artists, Jones has blended her jazz with contemporary pop.
It could be said that Olstead borrows a bit from both schools. But one thing sets her apart from her vocal sisters: Renee was only 14 when she recorded her self-titled, debut CD.
The Texas-born singer scores lots of points. Backed by a variable cast of professional musicians, including solo artists Chris Botti and Carol Welsman, Renee has put together a sensational collection of classics from the American songbook, including some jazz standards, as well as pop and folk tunes.
The album begins with a charming rendition of Summertime
and continues with excellent takes on such hits as Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby
, Sunday Kind of Love
, Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
and Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis
The music is performed with all the panache, polish and personal flair one expects from Billie Holliday and Judy Garland, among many others. It’s no small wonder that Olstead turns heads and wins hearts whenever and wherever she steps in front of a microphone. But what may start as a sheer surprise that a voice so resonant and revealing could come from an artist so young, quickly turns to utter delight at the stylish sensibility and consummate craftsmanship of this Houston native.
The only child of creatively supportive parents, Renee grew up in a diverse musical atmosphere and remembers Celine Dion as her first CD purchase. With no formal musical training, the youngster was constantly singing along to the radio, adding her own spunky spin to the hits of the day, and quickly found herself appearing in local musical theater productions and talent showcases.
But music is only one element in the mix. A natural actor with a knack for lighting up screens both big and small, Renee has been in front of audiences almost as long as she has been singing - appearing in such major films as The Insider
with Russell Crowe, End of Days
with Arnold Schwarzeneggar and the recent 13 Going on 30
with Jennifer Garner. Renee has also been on television, including a co-starring role on the CBS comedy Still Standing
, which recently completed its third season.
After relocating to Los Angeles to accommodate her shooting schedule, and even keeping up with her studies with home schooling courses, Renee found time to perform with local jazz and swing bands at such well-known Hollywood hotspots as The Madison and The Derby. When it became clear that her commitments were conflicting, she decided to make a CD to commemorate her stint with the group, cutting several songs that were selected for her major label debut. The result eventually found its way to the desk of David Foster, the multi-Grammy winning artist, producer and talent scout.
Through mutual friend Jamie Gertz, Renee’s co-star on Still Standing
, Foster immediately made contact, followed in short order by an exclusive recording offer.
"I came to David with a list of songs I love," Renee explains in a press release. "I knew a lot of the material had been done by some of the greatest artists ever and, of course, that was a little intimidating. I wanted to do them justice, but I was also grateful for the opportunity to keep the flame alive by introducing this music to my own generation and making it new for them.
"Some people may not take me seriously because of my age, but I can’t let that stop me. This is music that belongs to all of us."
It definitely belongs to Renee Olstead. While she sings each song as if it were a jazz standard from way back, she adds a bit of her own touch - swinging at times, or waxing romantic. Her rangy voice reminds the listener, at different times, of such divas as Barbra Streisand, Loretta Lynn and Etta James.
And if the CD isn’t enough, fans may also learn more about Renee’s career online. A short video contains clips of her singing and explaining that it was a song done by James that got her interested in jazz.
Now, hopefully, her presence as a star on the horizon will lead other youngsters to embrace the music as Renee has.
As she said, it belongs to all of us.