Helen Merrill: Four Classic Albums

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In 2006, when the eighth edition of the Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings came out (this was the last edition Richard Cook was able to work on before illness stalled him), the Helen Merrill discography was in a parlous and faintly perverse state. The only things that were available were an Emarcy compilation of early material whose reissue was presumably endorsed by the marketable presence of Clifford Brown and Gil Evans, a Brownie tribute on the same label and a marvellous but improbable 1986 collaboration with Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli (though not on the same tracks) and her favourite accompanist Gordon Beck; the only other Merrill in the browsers was the 2002 Lilac Wine, recorded in Prague with Lew Soloff, husband Torrie Zito, son (from another marriage) Alan Merrill, who more or less pioneered the pop term “big in Japan” and George Mraz.

Slim pickings from a long career of consistent artistic quality. Things are a bit better now, and better still with this budget option, but Merrill still doesn’t make her way into many lists of major female jazz singers. Her smoky, Julie London-like delivery perhaps banks down critical recognition, but it also disguises the subtlety and musicality of her performances, which always sound thoughtful, perhaps even troubled and without what we described in 2006 as the “exaggerated pathos” of Billie Holiday on something like Don’t Explain.

That’s the lead-off track here, taken from the 1954 set with the Brown sextet. What’s New is the other outstanding track, one of the best in the whole jazz singing canon, in my view at least. Quincy Jones’s arrangements are instinctive and open, allowing Merrill to explore the material rather than simply act it out. That’s also evident in Gil Evans’ charts for her on the 1956 material. For all its short span, People Will Say We’re In Love is done without a speck of coyness or coquetry; it’s actually quite a troubling rendition.

The slightly later material will be less well known. Avid have put The Nearness Of You and You’ve Got A Date With The Blues out of chronological sequence. A sequence from Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige is sufficient to show how distinctively she approached blues material, again without superadded pathos and with devoted attention to the construction of the line. She actually reminds you that blue is a colour. There’s some more Ellington further on, done in French, like a couple of the tracks.

Then comes the 1957/58 LP The Nearness Of You, which is Merrill at her most languid and unswinging, which is maybe why it comes last, though it’s far from filler. In fact, it’s probably one of the better places to start if you know nothing of this astonishing singer. The voice has the capacity to make men flush and then grow pale. There is always an undercurrent of uncertainty, not of diction or musical direction, but in the narrative she is spinning, which as we’ve observed before often has the air of a woman sharing a particularly difficult confidence. Unique and, once experienced, strangely addictive, Merrill deserves a thorough reassessment and this is an excellent place to start.

Discography
CD1: [Helen Merrill With The Clifford Brown Sextet] Don’t Explain; You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To; What’s New; Falling In Love With Love; Yesterdays; Born To Be Blue; ‘S Wonderful; [Dream Of You] People Will Say We’re In Love; By Myself; Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home; I’ve Never Seen; He Was Too Good To Me; A New Town Is A Blue Town; You’re Lucky To Me; Where Flamingos Fly; Dream Of You; I’m A Fool To Want You; I’m Just A Lucky So And So; Troubled Waters (72.25)
CD2: [You’ve Got A Date With The Blues] The Blues (From Black, Brown & Beige); Am I Blue?; Blue Gardenia; You’ve Got A Date With The Blues; The Thrill Is Gone; (Ah, The Apple Trees) When The World Was Young; Blues In My Heart; Vous M’Eblouissez (You Got To My Head); Lorsque Tu M’Embrasses (Just Squeeze Me); The Meaning Of The Blues; Signing Off; [The Nearness Of You] Bye Bye Blackbird; When The Sun Comes Out; I Remember You; Softly As In A Morning Sunrise; Dearly Beloved; Summertime; All Of You; I See Your Face Before Me; Let Me Love You; The Nearness Of You; This Time The Dream’s On Me; Just Imagine (75.03)
CD1: Merrill (v), with Clifford Brown (t); Danny Banks (f); Jimmy Jones (p); Barry Galbraith (g); Oscar Pettiford (b, clo); Milt Hinton (b); Osie Johnson, Bob Donaldson (d); Quincy Jones (arr, cond). NYC, December 1954. Merrill (v), with Gil Evans orchestra, inc. Art Farmer (t); Jimmy Cleveland (tb); Jerome Richardson (ts, f); Danny Bank (bar); Hank Jones (p) Galbraith (g); Pettiford (b); Joe Morello (d). NYC, July 1956.
CD2: Merrill (v), with inc. Kenny Dorham (t); Richardson, Frank Wess (ts, f); Jimmy Jones (p, arr); Galbraith (g); Hinton, Al Hall (b); Johnny Cresci (d). NYC, 1959. Merrill (v), with inc. Bobby Jaspar (f); Bill Evans, Dick Marx (p); George Russell (g); Johnny Frigo, Pettiford (b); Jerry Slosberg, Jo Jones (d). Chicago & NYC, December 1957, February 1958.
Avid AMSC1337 2CD