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This report is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

The Song Not the Singer Neil Powell

The other day, my ear was caught by a radio trailer, in which the amiable Humphrey Lyttelton was talking about a programme called 'The Jazz Voice' - one of a series whose overall title is 'The Singer Not the Song'. The best jazz singers, he said, citing Billie Holiday as his prime example, could take liberties with a song to an extent that simply wasn't conceivable elsewhere. True enough; it was only a bit later that the oddity of this struck me, the way in which 'taking liberties', in any normal context an expression of censure, is here a term of praise. For if we say that an actor takes liberties with Shakespeare, or that a pianist does so with Beethoven or a lieder singer with Schubert, we're implying some indefensible mucking-about. But with Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday, the relationship between singer and song is interestingly different. Yeatsians will see where I'm going, though not just yet.

One damp Wednesday evening last September, a capacity audience filled the lovely church of St Peter and St Paul in the North Suffolk village of Fressingfield. We were there to hear Emma Kirkby sing, and Anthony Rooley play, a programme of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English songs, part of the annual Fressingfield Music Festival - a clutch of concerts on successive evenings, supporting the restoration of the church's peal of eight bells. The rector gave an over-long introduction from the lectern (happily, not from the ...


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