Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Voice Lessons

Connye Florance adeptly bridges jazz and pop styles

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 14, 1999:  In the music business, there are few paths to success more difficult than trying to make it as a jazz singer. Of course, it's extremely difficult for any jazz artist--except those churning out pseudo-pop pabulum--to get much exposure. But vocalists identified as jazz singers have an even tougher time; if they're doing traditional pre-rock pop material, they can't get airplay, and if they lean toward more contemporary material, they run the risk of alienating their core audience. Even such acclaimed vocalists as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diana Krall, and Cassandra Wilson have run afoul of critics and listeners for refusing to limit their song choices to classics made famous by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Nashville singer Connye Florance knows the score, and she's savvy enough to realize that she's not going to satisfy some fans unless she sticks to a steady diet of Cole Porter and "Stella By Starlight." While she's not interested in competing with urban contemporary divas or alternarock belters, she loves many other styles of music besides jazz. So she's trying to navigate a suitable middle ground, singing both classic standards and popular songs that can be interpreted to fit her style. More than anything else, she wants to find her own niche, one unconstrained by rigid definitions and expectations.

"I love Sarah Vaughan, but I'm also a big fan of Gino Vanelli," Florance says, relaxing after a recent set at Caffé Milano. "I like Michael McDonald also. I actually listen to a lot more male singers than females, because when you've got a contralto voice like mine," she laughs, "there aren't a whole lot of females that sound like me."

True to her own tastes, Florance's debut CD Turn My Heart walks the line between pop and jazz. "Love Walked In," "For All We Know," "My Favorite Things," "Isn't It a Pity," "More," and "Midnight, Moonlight, You" are all prototypical jazz numbers, with Florance adeptly delivering the lyrics and staying solidly within the established melodic framework. She seldom scats or takes liberties with tempo, displaying instead a strong, resonant lead voice and smoothly fitting in with the rhythmic direction set by her fellow musicians.

On other, more pop-oriented selections, such as "Everything Must Change" or "Dance With Me," Florance remains enjoyable, but the material is simply less exciting. "Dance With Me" includes a fine trombone solo by Barry Green, but it's otherwise a tepid selection. As for "Everything Must Change," not even George Benson or Frank Sinatra could elevate it beyond lounge material; even so, Roger "Rock" Williams' flute solo and Florance's vocal delivery make the best of the tune.

Based on her song choices, it's no surprise that Florance, who came to Nashville from North Carolina in the mid-'80s, has a diverse musical background. She grew up with a father who played jazz and a mother who sang opera, plus brothers and sisters who sang in church. Since arriving here, she's worked on the General Jackson and has done jingle work for both Van Camps food and Major League Baseball; she can currently be heard singing on the promo ad for the WB network. She has also done extensive film, television, and stage work, with credits that range from Proud Heart, a Lorrie Morgan TV-movie, to the John Grisham blockbuster film The Client.

Because of her versatility, Florance is happiest working with musicians adept at switching stylistic gears. In this regard, she's especially pleased with her music director, Kevin Madill--who also happens to be her husband. "I first hired him to play piano, and it was the best decision I ever made," she says. "We've been working together now a couple of years, and he's great for me as music director because he grew up accompanying singers. There are a lot of great musicians who can't back up vocalists; they're not comfortable and don't know how to support them. He played piano for singers all his life and has brought out a lot in me. His mother was a singer, and he's also really into lyrics.

"When we consider a song, sometimes he'll bring me something and say this is just right, and I'll disagree. Other times I'll find something, and he'll say that won't work. But we always find a way to make the material work, and we don't often disagree about [song selection]."

Turn My Heart also includes guest spots by trumpeter Rod McGaha and saxophonist Doug Moffet, who are backed by the core quartet of drummer Bob Mater, bassist Charlie Chadwick, pianist Madill, and percussionist Tom Roady. The date was produced by Madill and issued on Waterstone Records. While Florance says she'd like to get some smooth-jazz airplay, her vocal intensity, plus the level of musicianship, likely will keep the disc from getting played on most of the country's NAC/smooth-jazz outlets--which normally play everything but jazz.

Florance has no illusions about the road ahead. She knows it's tough for non-pop singers, and even rougher for those who perform jazz: The opportunities for exposure become ever smaller and niche-oriented. Even so, she's optimistic enough to feel she can beat the odds.

"I think right now is the time to do the things I'd like to do professionally. We'd like to make another CD later this year, and I'd like to make some more appearances at other jazz clubs. We're also looking at possibly doing some things distribution-wise with the [current] record, and hopefully will get some airplay in the future."

Florance's immediate task is to establish a marketable identity without either obliterating her jazz base or straitjacketing her repertoire. "Midnight, Moonlight, You" and "Love Walked In" from Turn My Heart represent an acceptable middle ground: They're tunes with swinging arrangements and fine vocals, yet they aren't so rigidly presented that they'll turn off people who just want to hear nice melodies and lyrics that excite them. The next record, as well as the months ahead, will determine if Florance can navigate this tricky ground, but thus far she's made a solid start.

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