Something interesting has happened in one corner of North American popular music: the rise of a new generation of female jazz singers.
I am using the term "jazz" in the broadest possible way, for it is meant to encompass here a range of musical configurations and stylistic approaches. But the women I have in mind do all share certain characteristics. They are dynamic leaders, consummate interpreters of classic tunes, composers of original songs, fearless risk-takers and part of chamber ensembles populated by high-caliber players.
Who am I talking about? Here's my incomplete list: Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Charenee Wade, Esperanza Spaulding, Rene Marie, Becca Stevens and Kat Edmonson.
There are many others: the Canadians K.D. Lang, Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Jill Barber and Renee Yoxon; Americans Lucinda Williams, Nora Jones and Lizz Wright. And then there are the country-folk singers, who also have mastered their banjos, guitars and mandolins, such as Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz and Abigail Washburn.
Of course there have always been talented female singers gracing the stages of clubs, concert halls and festivals, and some might resist my attempt to corral this diverse selection of women into a category. Understandable. Still, I sense a phenomenon and I am determined to celebrate it.
These women are injecting needed oomph into their respective musical scenes and thrilling a new generation of listeners who are being introduced to the Great American Songbook, great American bluegrass and great original songs written with tradition in mind.
Amazingly, Spoleto Festival USA, which has long sought out talented up-and-coming musicians, is bringing five of these women to Charleston this year. The marquee star is Lucinda Williams, who will take the stage of TD Arena on June 4. Rene Marie, no stranger to Charleston audiences, will interpret the music and channel the personality of Eartha Kitt at TD Arena on May 26. Charenee Wade will fill the Cistern on May 23 and 24. Abigail Washburn will light a slow burn at TD Arena on June 1. And Kat Edmonson will enthrall her audience in the Cistern Yard on May 29 with her plain-spoken, endearing approach.
What accounts for this bounty?
The festival has its finger on the pulse of American music, thanks largely to jazz and pop series producer Michael Grofsorean.
He pays close attention to emerging artists from all over the world and notes musical trends, such as the rise of Mediterranean or Latin American jazz, and the popularity of particular artists, such as Brazilian pianist-composer Andre Mehmari (a Spoleto Festival alumnus) or Norwegian saxophonist Hakon Kornstad (in this year's festival).
Each year at the festival, he finds time to sit down with the current slate of musicians, one at a time, to ask for suggestions. Who should he book in the future? And every year, he receives effusive recommendations.
When Bela Fleck was in town in 2011, Grofsorean met him at Kudu Coffee to talk about the future.
"I know she's my wife," Fleck said, "but you really ought to book Abigail Washburn."
Now, recommendations from Bela Fleck are not to be taken lightly. So Grofsorean started listening to Washburn's music, and he was impressed. He watched her TED Talk in which she discussed her early ambitions to practice law and improve U.S.-Chinese relations, then got sidetracked by the banjo, and he was impressed even more. When he heard her record "City of Refuge," he picked up the phone and scheduled her for the 2013 festival.
"City of Refuge" is "absolutely original, and there's a sonority to it that's American but more than American in its character," Grofsorean said. "She's got these influences that just well up in her."
She had to cancel last year, for a good reason: she was pregnant. This year, she is coming with husband and baby Juno in tow. Fleck will join her on stage at TD Arena for her June 1 show.
Kat Edmonson, who will occupy the Cistern Yard with her small band on May 29, has a voice and delivery so captivating and direct that many, including Grofsorean, cannot resist her.
"For me, the best thing she does is her expression," he said. And that doesn't require a big voice. "Her voice is not huge, but it's used with such intelligence and insight into the songs. It's stunning to me."
Edmonson's back story is interesting. She tried out for "American Idol" in its second season but didn't get to the finals. She hooked up with legendary sound engineer Al Schmitt and made two albums, the self-funded "Take to the Sky" (which mostly features classic American songs) and "Way Down Low" (which showcases original songwriting). Each received high praise. She appeared on Austin City Limits earlier this year and caught the attention of NPR, winning even more fans.
She sings like she speaks. She sings about love and heartbreak. She sings new music that sounds old. No, strike that: It sounds timeless. Her voice is down to earth, small, revealing and employed with subtle flare. No wonder Grofsorean wants to introduce her to festivalgoers.
The last of the female vocalists appearing this year is Rene Marie, whose new record, "I Wanna Be Evil," was inspired by the late great Eartha Kitt.
"With this new album coming forth, it made sense to present her at this time," Grofsorean said. "It's a good time to present her at any time. It's a rare thing to have that much charisma and that much art going on at the same time."
Audiences beware: Marie is deep.
"Rene is obviously a great independent spirit and unafraid to address all sorts of things, social questions and otherwise," Grofsorean said. "She's not your cute girl singer profile."
What she is is a force to be reckoned with, someone equally at home in a club or a concert hall, someone capable of belting like Ella, crooning like Sarah and wailing like Nina, while always adding her own contemporary and personal spin.
Her regular bandmates are impeccable: Kevin Bales on piano, Elias Bailey on bass and Charleston's own Quentin Baxter on drums. But for this show - this tribute to Eartha Kitt - Marie adds Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Etienne Charles on trumpet and Adrian Cunningham on reeds. An exclamation would be appropriate here, so I'll end with: wow.