One depressing trend emerging from some of my recent artist interviews—specifically those profiling younger women—is a fear that they will become unemployably elderly before reaching middle age. After battling for recognition all through music school, winning industry accolades and rave reviews, female singers and musicians in their twenties worry that turning forty will present a hard stop on ever being booked again. They can’t all be Diana Krall, as double JUNO-winner Caity Gyorgy told me.
They can’t all be Masumi Ormandy, either—but this Japanese jazz songstress should offer hope to any younger diva suffering career fatalism. Ormandy worked as an interpreter of songs, receiving vocal training at conservatories in Japan and the US. After a career break, she co-founded the Pacific Language School with husband Ray and taught English to students of all ages. Finally, at the tender age of 77, she returned to her musical interests and recorded debut jazz album Sunshine in Manhattan.
Making up for lost time, Beyond the Sea is Ormandy’s fifth studio release in seven years, recorded at the age of 84. It continues her love affair with the Great American Songbook—as well as her dalliances with Japanese folk favorites and popular romantic ballads. Ormandy’s voice is sweet, soft, and slightly tremulous, but not frail for, while she may not manage the power that a younger vocalist could produce, her singing is flawlessly tuneful. Tight, uncluttered charts by renowned pianist and arranger Allen Farnham—featuring a changing cast of players including trumpeter Bria Skonberg, guitarist Chieli Minucci, and saxophonist Tim Ries—leave ample room for her voice to be heard.
The instrumentation is nice and varied, ranging from small combos to full string and horn sections. The selection of tunes is also a clever one, with the lyrics of time-honored classics like “Smile,” “Here’s to Life,” and “Sentimental Journey” arguably more befitting a mature lady than a youthful starlet. That said, it’s not all about nostalgia: “Tea for Two” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”—both optimistic songs about kindling new passion—are apt reminders that one is never too old to feel the butterflies of blossoming romance.
My personal favorite is “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” featuring a vocal duet with soprano saxman Danny Bacher. It’s an adorable, playful piece in which Bacher offers Ormandy rubber bands from Duane Reade and a mood ring from his bureau, in place of the unattainable diamond bracelets that “CVS doesn’t sell.” (It’s not an entirely unrealistic match: there were 33 years between silver screen idol Martha Raye and her seventh husband, Nick Harris, after all…)
Novel additions come in the form of two Japanese classics, given jazz-ish makeovers. “Ringo No Uta” is a beloved old tune, penned by Tadashi Manjoume for the classic movie Soyokaze. Its bilingual lyrics praise a “sweet little maiden young and fine”—possibly from the point of view of an apple, I’m not entirely sure. Either way, it makes for a finger-snappingly cool jazz track, featuring a sublime flute solo from Anders Bostrom. “Like a River Flowing” is an English translation of “Kawa no nagare no yō ni,” a 1989 pop classic by balladeer Hibari Misora. Its style strays way beyond the remit of this periodical, but it’s a nice tune nonetheless. (Fun fact: In 1997, viewers of national broadcaster NHK voted Misora’s version the greatest Japanese song of all time.)
The album spotlights a range of jazz subgenres, often within the same tune—Latin and bebop appear, nestled in with second line and swing. “Smile” is a softly swinging bossa nova, evoking images of an idyllic retirement on a Latin American beach. Some tracks have a cinematic or even a pop flavor: the title track is a good example of the former, with its intro featuring sweeping strings and arpeggiated synth, while “Like a River Flowing” is pure pop with its tick-tock, four-four beat and funk bass.
Then there are the torch songs, like “I’m Through With Love” and the Shirley Horn standard “Here’s to Life”—once described by the Financial Times critic Eli Zeger as “a meditation for those entering their later years,” making it a particularly apt inclusion here. If you’re a purist, this record may leave you frustrated with these frequent departures from old-timey jazz. Die-hard Dixieland fans would be forgiven for nope-ing this album thirty seconds into its opener, but I’d encourage them to give it three tracks before making their mind up—that should be enough time to get a good feel for the work’s tonal breadth. I think it works very well, but I’m a big fan of Japanese music—particularly the cinematic work of Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno, plus the funk-inspired predecessor to J-pop known as “city pop.”
Still, if your musical tastes are highly focused, then this perhaps isn’t the album for you—but if you’re a musical magpie who enjoys hearing new spins on old classics, then this disc has a lot to offer. When all’s said and done, there’s enough traditional jazz DNA in here—from the timeless tunes of McHugh and Fields, Gus Kahn, Harold Arlen and co. to the hot trumpet and sax solos—to please all but the fustiest listeners. It’s nice to hear standards which are often played bombastically get such tender interpretations and it’s refreshing to hear them sung by an older lady. Beyond the Sea—and Ormandy’s previous works—stand as an important testament to the capabilities of seniors (a much nicer word than “pensioners” or “the elderly,” as we Brits would call them), in an industry which still tends to sideline those—particularly women—of a certain age. It’s out now on Miles High Records.