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Two Concerts – ZeeBee and Viktoria Tolstoy:
Female Vocalists in Jazz, Alternative and Country

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Zeebee – Priorities (album cover)

I was at the ZeeBee album launch on Saturday night where legendary Vienna DJ Klaus Waldeck was playing afterwards. ZeeBee is an FM4 Vienna creation. If you don’t know FM4 is an Austrian phenomenon. The radio station has an incredible popularity among most people from 20 to 40. Personally I don’t like FM4 much.

The English langauge DJ’s are annoying and some of the German-speaking ones even more so, with a kind of cool pushed to insupportable. The musical taste strives to cover all its bases a little too much for my tastes. Many of the DJ’s seem to play whatever is ghetto and cool in the United States (not the mainstream charts, but underground ones) without thinking much if they like it or not, if the music is any good or not, or whether the music means a damn thing to someone sitting in beautiful Vienna.

But I should be careful what I write about FM4 – as I said, FM4 is very popular. They do contribute a lot to cultural happenings around Vienna with all kinds of promotions of clubs and releases of special compilation albums.

What do I listen to then? Osterreich Einz. Great talk shows and special reports and cultural news and great classical music with a midnight book reading every evening. But the Austrians are right about one thing – those are the only two conceivable choices on the Vienna radio dial. Austrian radio would be much poorer for the absence of FM4.

Zeebee came out of their studios and playlists to a cult following for her first album Tender in 2003. Then she disappeared for a couple of years while making her second album priorities which was released on Friday.

Zeebee played us a short set from priorities in the Rot Bar (in Volkstheater right next to Museumsquartier just outside the first district – great location).

The sound was catchy and engaging – it was just zeebee and her keyboardist. The show had a lot of panache – many songs of spurned love, much about independence.

be good to yourself
stop eating when you’re full
preserve the beauty
for times when you are angry

the time with yourself
is no luxury
these are my priorities
a simple life is all i need

Two problems. The volume gradually became too loud. When will people realise one can’t push speakers and amps to the breaking point without destroying the music with distortion?

Second problem was that too many of the songs sounded the same. Zeebee has this little girl raspy vocal style. Think of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. Which would be alright – except that a lot of the music reminds one of Portishead’s instrumentation and style as well. Too much. Much too much.

After listening to the CD a couple of times, there are a few outstanding songs but too much filler. It’s not a CD I can listen to straight through without pushing the skip track button four or five times (there are thirteen tracks). And all of it too much like ten year old Portishead. On the other hand, the music is well enough executed that a Portishead fan might be thrilled to get Zeebee’s Priorities into his or her hands.

Zeebee has a lot of style and her website is a wonder to behold full of great photography and some amazing photoshop work – according to the credits zeebee does a lot of both herself. Well worth a visit to take a look yourself and for a second opinion. A lot of reviews of her earlier work are posted there.

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Viktoria Tolstoy

Tonight I managed to get out for the second half of the Viktoria Tolstoy concert over at Porgy and Bess, Vienna’s best musical club (mainly jazz but not only). Viktoria Tolstoy is a female jazz singer in the Rebekka Bakken mode. Tolstoy herself is a tall, fairly good woman with a good stage presence. Apparently she is a direct descendent of Leo Tolstoy’s son (also named Leo, who emigrated to Sweden).

The crowd went wild for her performance, bringing her out for something like four or five encores. What amazed me was the great work of her pianist Jakob Karlzon who occasionally hit the keyboard like a demon and sometimes light as an angel. The piano seemed to take on a whole life of its own. The bass player and drummer in the tight three man group also seemed to be enjoying playing together very much and each put in a good effort.

Viktoria Tolstoy has a very nice voice, smooth and velvety. She doesn’t have perfect pitch though. In normal singing, it’s not noticeable but occasionally Tolstoy catches one of her extended notes wrong and we have to suffer for about twenty seconds while she finds her way back to the instruments. It happened often enough to push things back from brilliant to very good.

Most remarkable though is that Viktoria Tolstoy’s singing is much like three or four other jazz divas (and it’s not a genre I spend a lot of time with) – it could be her ACT label mate Rebekka Bakken, or any of the others up there on stage if you just close your eyes singing,

I thought we were meant to be
Time has brought some changes
In love I feel alone
I thought it would last forever
But now I am standing all alone

But no one seems to mind when Jazz singers sound alike. All we care about is their individual delivery. The quality of their voice. The emotional intonation they can impart. It’s something like classical dance. All the ballerinas dance more or less the same steps, with more or less the same style (within any one national school). Yet some (myself) are happy to go back and see a bunch of different versions of the same Swan Lake or Gisele.

Many of the female vocalists in country music are indistinguishable as well, unless you are looking at them.

What I don’t understand is how we have so little tolerance of sonic resemblance in alternative and pop music. If something sounds too much like another group, it irritates. Zeebee is less like Portishead than Viktoria Tolstoy is like Rebekka Bakken, yet the resemblance is far more grating in the first case.

Viktoria Tolstoy was promoting her second album My Swedish Heart which is a tribute to something called Swedish jazz – when jazz first came to Sweden in the 1950’s and through the 60’s. It’s a silly title and I’ve listened to My Swedish Heart a couple of times and can tell you I don’t like Swedish jazz much. But her first album Shining on You, entirely composed by well known composer Esbj√∂rn Svensson, is a much more coherent and stronger bit of work.

Viktoria Tolstoy’s version of “Things that Happen” is particularly moving. But generally on CD her whole performance has a superficial and commercial gloss which I don’t find at appealing. While the voices may be similar, there is whole lot more sincere emotion in Rebekka Bakken’s work.

Two derivative but strong singers, two genres, two totally different reactions. If anyone else has any ideas on why our standards for originality are so different for jazz vocalists and pop singers, please let me know.

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