At a time when most consumers download music one track at a time and listen to tunes with little concern for an artist's intended sequencing, jazz singer Jacqui Naylor knows that she's swimming against the zeitgeist. But wedded to a creative process in which songs often serve as threads in a larger narrative, the Saratoga-raised vocalist isn't about to give up the concept album format any time soon.
"If I'm going to tell a story through a collection of songs, I feel it's important there's a concept behind it. I'm a big believer in creating boundaries to work within," says Naylor, who celebrates the release of her ninth album, "Dead Divas Society" (Ruby Star Records), Friday at the SFJazz Center's Miner Auditorium. She's hosting a preconcert reception steps away from the center at Gourmet & More to benefit the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, an organization to which she's also donating a portion of her fee.
Twist on a tribute
Naylor's provocatively titled new project offers a fascinating twist on the tribute album. Recorded before a small audience at Coast Recorders in San Francisco, a self-imposed challenge that meant minimal opportunities for fixes and postproduction editing, "Dead Divas Society" is a collection of 15 songs, each intimately tied to a particular vocalist. Deciding on which divas made the cut turned out to be a painstaking process.
"I thought this was going to be one of the easiest albums, but I got almost compulsive and maniacal about doing the research," Naylor says. "I had all these rules for myself around creating the record. I wanted songs from every decade for the last 80 or 90 years. Above all, I had to pick artists who really impacted me."
With her throaty, whiskey-laced sound and slyly off-center phrasing, Naylor doesn't have obvious aural influences. As an artist who often writes original material, she naturally settled on jazz's greatest singer/songwriters, Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee (the latter being the only vocalist represented by two songs, her gospel-steeped "It's A Good Day" and Johnny Mercer and M. Philippe-Gérard's nostalgia-laden "When the World Was Young").
Wide range of divas
Naylor's idiosyncratic definition of divahood provides the album with a steady flow of unanticipated material. Sure, she includes songs by Ella Fitzgerald ("Skylark"), Sarah Vaughan ("Gravy Waltz"), and Billie Holiday ("Crazy He Calls Me"), but she also gleans effective jazz vehicles from Amy Winehouse ("Back to Black"), Mama Cass Elliot ("Dream a Little Dream of Me"), and Queen's Freddie Mercury ("Love of My Life").
Clearly, Naylor's notion of a diva isn't dependent upon gender, highhanded behavior or old-school glamour. She included Cass Elliot when she got a wave of feedback from friends, family and fans. In some cases, a singer came to represent an entire school of jazz singing, so that cool June Christy stands in for Julie London, Chris Connor and Anita O'Day with "It's a Most Unusual Day."
Choosing the singers
"I started with a really big list of artists," Naylor says. "Ella and Sarah were obvious choices. Blossom was obvious, because even though I don't sound anything like her, she was very influential to me. I thought about Michael Jackson, but I haven't covered a lot of his tunes. Whitney Houston was on my list, but I decided I wanted a man for that contemporary R&B slot, so I chose Luther Vandross."
Musically, Naylor's concept goes far deeper than a series of hat tips to fellow singers. Often honed to pop-song concision, clocking in at less than three minutes, the arrangements flow from the entire band, particularly pianist Art Khu (who happens to be Naylor's husband). Friday's show features her working band, with Khu, drummer Josh Jones and bassist Sam Bevan.
"The album is really about all of us playing together and playing off of each other," Naylor says. "Josh is on my last album, 'Lucky Girl,' too, and credited with a lot of arranging. He's the one who suggested adding the reggae tune for Nina Simone, 'Feelin' Good.' "
A self-described "nice Buddhist girl," Naylor grew up in Saratoga, the youngest of seven kids. She graduated from Archbishop Mitty High School, where she participated in musical theater. While studying acting at ACT, she realized that she had far more aptitude for delivering lines as a singer, which led her to the great vocal teacher Faith Winthrop at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
"Up until then, singing was a hobby on the side," Naylor says. "She said, 'I think you're a singer.' I credit her with helping me to find my voice, not trying to sound like anyone else."
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$40, 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org