Erin Bode: Quite a Cover Girl

As I listen to the light and bouncy voice of Erin Bode, the young singer being positioned by the boutique jazz label MaxJazz for a Norah Jones-style breakout into the pop mainstream, the word that comes to mind is girlish. And this is not a putdown.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

While it's true that the term can seem pejorative in this age of MTV pop tarts, there is a long tradition of girlishness, in terms of specific vocal characteristics, in both jazz and pop music.

Well into her 70s, the great Ella Fitzgerald had a voice that could be called girlish. This is also the case with Blossom Dearie, who became a respected jazz singer in the '50s and is one of Ms. Bode's prime influences. Female singers who have this type of girlishness exude joy and enthusiasm—a zest for life that is childlike yet also the furthest thing away from immaturity. It is this tradition of girlishness that Ms. Bode, pictured on the cover of her album “Don't Take Your Time” with her long light-brown hair waving in her face, can proudly claim to be a part of.

Take her tender rendition of the Beatles' “Here, There, and Everywhere.” This romantic ballad is difficult to perform, in that it flows with passion yet is not a “young love” song. Yet Ms. Bode manages to mine the lyrics for special meaning found not even in the Beatles' version. Recently married, the 27-year-old says: “I can always apply a lovely love song to my husband. Here, there and everywhere, just having him there with me makes everything OK. I felt all of those things.”

But Ms. Bode goes back much further than the Beatles. She puts a clever spin on '30s and '40s songs by Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, as well as on the more contemporary pop tunes of Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. Ms. Bode is one of the new crop of singers hoping to follow in the phenomenal success of Ms. Jones and Diana Krall. Somewhat derisively called “young fogies” by the music press, these singers are introducing decades-old standards to a new generation. And in the post-9/11 era, these meaningful songs increasingly seem to be what many in all age groups want to hear.

Ms. Bode herself seems to be on a roll. After regional success with a combo in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />St. Louis, she recently made an East Coast tour, playing at such noted jazz clubs as Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia and Blues Alley in Washington. Her CD has been featured on the listening stations at major record chains.

And listeners to her CD get quite an eclectic mix of songs. “Jazz-pop-folk” is how she describes her style of music. Ms. Bode and her producer, Bruce Barth, did a fine job of trolling through their record collections for “hidden standards,” the lesser-known songs of great singers and songwriters. “When you haven't heard them a million times, it kind of gives you a little freedom,” she explains.

For the most part, Ms. Bode uses this freedom very wisely. The last song on the CD is Irving Berlin's “Count Your Blessings,” originally sung by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in the 1954 film “White Christmas.” Ms. Bode sings it as a soothing lullaby. “I loved that movie, and it's such an adorable song, and I thought I really wanted to do that,” she says.

Changing genres completely, Ms. Bode also puts her own signature on Bob Dylan's “Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You.” This was the last song on Mr. Dylan's 1969 country-flavored album, “Nashville Skyline,” and is one of the singer-songwriter's most upbeat tunes. Ms. Bode jazzes it up—there is no steel guitar, and the emphasis is on bass and piano—but she still captures the buoyance of the Dylan original.

Ms. Bode's version of the Gershwins' “But Not for Me” recalls the fine version by her musical heroine, Ms. Dearie. The most daring interpretation for Ms. Bode is that of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song “In the Pines.” With an acoustic slide guitar and violin (or fiddle) backing her, she is able to make a successful mixture of jazz and mountain music.

Ms. Bode looks for the beauty in songs of any genre. “I sing the songs and try to bring out the beautiful parts of the melody and the way they were written,” she says. “I don't really have a huge philosophy about it. I think what I like to hear and what I like to sing is kind of straightforward.”

Ms. Bode's skills of diction and enunciation—she's a classically trained singer—serve her well. In the album's title track, which she co-wrote, Ms. Bode sings of “running”—not “runnin'”—”in circles.” Like great singers from Ms. Fitzgerald to country music's George Jones, she knows that vocalists can still be passionate when fully pronouncing their suffixes.

The one miss on the album is Ms. Bode's syrupy cover of Cyndi Lauper's 1984 pop hit “Time After Time.” It's not that the song was unworthy. Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson recorded a fairly good version of it. The problem is that Ms. Bode bases her version on the remake of the song by the late Eva Cassidy, a mildly talented but overly sentimental singer whose vocal qualities are overrated due to the sympathetic reaction to her untimely death. Ms. Bode has already surpassed her as a vocalist and should look more to singers like Ms. Dearie and Ms. Fitzgerald for further influence.

But, all in all, “Don't Take Your Time” is a very promising debut album. Ms. Bode will no doubt evolve and pursue a variety of styles in her singing career. But may she never lose the girlishness that makes this album such a treasure.