- By John Stark
Harry Connick Jr. created a firestorm on American Idol this season when he went where no guest mentor has gone before. He criticized the show’s four finalists for not understanding the songs they had chosen to perform from the Great American Songbook: “My Funny Valentine,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “You’ve Changed” and “Stormy Weather.”
The immediate buzz after that episode was that Connick would be a judge next season. Shortly after his Idol appearance Connick was a guest on Ellen. He told the host Ellen DeGeneres that despite the rumors no one from Idol had approached him about coming aboard. He didn’t deny he’d enjoy doing it.
The producers of American Idol are reportedly so worried about the show’s recent plunge in ratings that they’re looking for all new judges. Sorry, Harry, but I'm betting none of them will be over 40. You’re 46. For years Idol was TV’s ratings champ, thanks largely to teenagers and twentysomethings. Not anymore. NBC’s The Voice, with its hipper edge and younger judges, has been beating Idol in the ratings.
(MORE: Why Harry Connick Jr. Couldn't Sit Idle During 'Idol')
So if we Idol lovers can’t have Connick, I have a proposal: Find a young judge who can carry out his message. I don't want to watch another season of songs I grew up with being massacred. To that end, I’ve put together a list of 10 young singers who, despite their youth, are carrying on in the tradition of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. They do exist, brilliantly so.
From Gershwin to Porter, the Beatles to Bacharach, these singers know how to craft a song, be it a slow, sad ballad, a swinging up-tempo number or a jazz-infused deconstruction of a classic. Like the legendary interpreters of the Great American Songbook, they do it without false sentimentality or vocal overkill. Any one of the following 10 would an invaluable addition to Idol — and not just for boomers. The contestants need them more than ever.
Here are my choices in alphabetical order:
Michael Bublé, 38 Whether he’s performing a swaggering rendition of “I’ve Got the World On a String,” or a dreamy version of “Stardust,” the Grammy-winning Canadian crooner is the closest living thing we have to Ol' Blue Eyes. His latest CD, To Be Loved, is his fourth consecutive No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. Make him an Idol judge and we’ll all be singing his new hit, “It’s a Beautiful Day.” (Click here for "You Make Me Feel So Young.")
Peter Cincotti, 29 Elle magazine dubbed this onetime wunderkind jazz pianist and singer as “the rebirth of cool.” His latest album, Metropolis, is adult alternative pop — not quite the Great American Songbook. But his earlier albums are packed with jazzy renditions of the standards — from Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to Billie Holiday’s “Comes Love” to Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” Harry Connick Jr., he says, is his mentor. How cool is that? (Click here for "I Love Paris.")
Matt Dusk, 34 As a kid this Canadian singer used to perform opera and classical selections. That was until he heard the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett and changed musical directions. His just-released My Funny Valentine CD is a tribute to the Chet Baker album of the same title. On Dusk’s retro Live in Las Vegas album he’s accompanied by a big band. Think young Steve Lawrence. Pass the martinis, ring-a-ding-ding. (Click here for "Fly Me to the Moon.")
Melody Gardot, 28 The Grammy-nominated singer from Philadelphia has been described as “an old school jazz chanteuse with a rich-toned voice and superbly controlled vibrato.” She understands a lyric: 10 years ago she was hit by a car while cycling, leaving her with severe injuries, including brain damage. The last few years she has been writing her own songs; Stan Getz, she says, influences their soothing rhythms. Ballads like “Our Love Is Easy” and “Love Me Like A River Does” bring comparisons to Nina Simone. “Sublimely cool yet passionate,” wrote one critic. (Click here for "Baby I'm a Fool.")
(MORE: Singing the Praises of a More Satisfying Life)
Katharine McPhee, 29 Even though McPhee has released two albums of adult contemporary music, she can’t get away from her “standard” roots. Her holiday album, Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You, showcases her pure silky voice — a highlight being “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with Chris Botti. McPhee nearly won the 2006 season of American Idol, coming in second to Taylor Hicks. She most recently starred in the NBC series Smash, about the making of a Broadway show. The songs suited her theatrical delivery. Keep Hicks home. Bring McPhee back. (Click here for "Over the Rainbow.")
Jane Monheit, 36 The beautiful chanteuse from Long Island has performed at most of the major concert halls, cabarets and jazz venues around the world. She has seven CDS devoted to the Great American Songbook. The Grammy nominee has been described as “a jazz singer with a soft side.” In other words, she’s a glorious throwback to the great 1950s stylists — shout-outs to Julie London, Peggy Lee and June Christy! Monheit could teach the young Idol contestants a thing or two — like tone, inflection, phrasing and emotion. She lets the song be the star, making her one, too. (Click here for "Cheek to Cheek.")
Renée Olstead, 23 David Foster produced Olstead’s debut, self-titled CD, a collection of jazz and pop standards. It came out in 2004 when she was just 14 years old! In 2009 the Foster protégé released a second volume. You may know her as an actress; she co-stars in the ABC series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Her recordings of such classics as “Taking a Chance on Love” and “What a Difference a Day Makes” are a joy to hear. Her bright, sassy voice, reminiscent of the great Lee Wiley, clearly articulates each word in a lyric, underscoring its intricate construction and internal rhymes. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, she says, are her influences. (Click here for "Someone to Watch Over Me.")
Steven Pasquale, 36 You might know Pasquale as Sean Garrity in the TV series Rescue Me. Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli collaborated with the actor on his vocal debut CD, which features a dozen American standards, including “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Laura” and “Summertime.” The soothing baritone slowly works his way through each song, savoring each delicious lyric. Let’s hope American Idol's producers will let him rescue them. (Click here for "My Funny Valentine.")
Esperanza Spalding, 28 This musical genius began performing at age 5 and has an M.A. from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Besides singing in three languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese), she plays bass, guitar, violin and cello, and writes much of her own music. For Esperanza, her second studio album, she won a 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist — the first and only jazz artist to win the award. True, she’s not associated with the Great American Songbook — but she creatively mixes many genres. Listen to the new colors she brings to Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Wild Is the Wind.” Even her wordless vocals have a sharp sense of purpose. She could, like the late Betty Carter, teach Idol contestants the most valuable lesson of all: You can’t deconstruct a song until you’ve mastered it. That was Harry Connick's point. (Click here for "I Know You Know.")
John Stevens, 26 The American-standards pop singer was the sixth-place finalist on the third season of American Idol. His audition songs were Dean Martin’s “That’s Amoré” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Judge Simon Cowell didn’t take to his old-school style, to say the least. But David Foster, who definitely knows talent, was a fan. He produced Stevens’ debut album, Red, which features tributes to Sinatra (“Come Fly With Me”), Tony Bennett (“The Shadow of Your Smile”) and the Beatles (“Here, There and Everywhere.”) Now that Cowell’s long gone, bring Stevens back! (Click here for "The Shadow of Your Smile.")