Carmen McRae: The Singles & Albums Collection 1946-58

Ninety-seven song compilation shows how, early on, the singer brought wit and jazz variation to the standard repertoire

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Although she never achieved quite the eminence of Billie Holiday (one of her idols), Sarah Vaughan (another) or Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae (1920-1994) was a highly accomplished singer, equally at home with popular songs and innovative jazz arrangements.

This generous 97-song set contains selections of her early recordings on the Musicraft, Decca, Bethlehem and EMI labels in orchestral and small group settings. During this formative 12-year period, she developed and honed a distinctive voice and delivery, marked by flawless intonation, behind-the-beat phrasing and a remarkable ability to invest her materials with irony.

Richard Cook believed that “no jazz singer has ever used sarcasm and a dark wit in the way that McRae did”. Downbeat critic John Tynan commended her performances which contrived “to give the constant impression that she’s never wrong in the interpretation and delivery of any song”. Will Friedwald admired her “fastidious musicianship” but confessed “one forever walks away from Carmen McRae records liking her tremendously but not being exactly sure why”. Ralph J. Gleason opined: “With Carmen you get it all. For the melody of the song itself, you get a jazz musician interpolating, bringing variations of phrasing, melodic line and rhythm and sometimes adding completely spontaneous improvisations.” These comments can be applied to this collection – which includes some inferior material she was forced to perform in her early career. This review can only select the dross and the gold from this welcome anthology.

The first track on CD1 – Pass Me By – has “Carmen Clarke” as she then was, the wife of drummer Kenny Clarke, attempting to enhance its unmemorable lyrics. Among the better songs on CD1 are a sprightly Foggy Day, a sensuous reading of Go Slow, a clever adaptation of the traditional song Charlie Is My Darling, a swinging “OOH” (What ‘Cha Doin’ To Me) with backing from the Dave Lambert Singers, and A Fine Romance (including some amusing exchanges with Sammy Davis Jr.) and an equally delightful They All Laughed.

On CD2, Carmen is heard with the strings of Jack Pleis’s orchestra on a satisfying version of Star Eyes. An upbeat “live” version of Charlie Barnet’s Skyliner (the only one I’m aware of) has a faultless, fast-spoken treatment from Carmen. Tadd Dameron provides Carmen with a smoothly swinging arrangement of Putting All My Eggs In One Basket (taken from her excellent Decca album Blue Moon).The less said about It’s Like Getting A Donkey To Gallop, I Love The Ground You Walk On, and Lo And Behold the better, but lend an ear to her treatment of Old Devil Moon.

In the obviously congenial company of the Tony Scott Quartet (CD3) McRae delivers a loping version (with accordion accompaniment) of You Made Me Care, and a gently persuasive Last Time For Love. Ralph Burns provides a shimmery backcloth for [The] Midnight Sun, and a recitative rendering of Good Morning, Heartache. Backed by The Matt Mathews Quintet, Carmen requests Give Me The Simple Life, followed by a declamatory slow tempo interpretation of Sometimes I’m Happy, and a persuasive I’ll Remember April.

CD4 is probably the best of the bunch, with Carmen directed (again) by Tadd Dameron on Blue Moon, and I Was Doing All Right (both highly recommended). She also masters the difficult lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life (directed by Jimmy Mundy). On Funny Valentine, Little Things and East Of The Sun, she has unobtrusive but subtle support from Ronnell Bright, Ike Isaacs (her second husband) and Specs Wright. Nice Work and Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea have Carmen accompanying herself on piano.

Paul Watts provides informative and copious liner notes – but should be advised that Leslie Gourse, whom he cites, is a woman and not a man. She is the author of The Billie Holiday Companion (1999) and Carmen McRae: Miss Jazz (2001).

Minor warts and all, this is a valuable and instructive introduction to “early” McRae. If nothing reaches the heights of such latter-day sessions as her tribute album Lover Man And Other Billie Holiday Classics and the magnificent Carmen Sings Monk (with the late George Mraz on bass), we are still fortunate to have this “Old Testament” compilation.

Discography
CD1: Pass Me By; Autumn Nocturne; In Love In Vain; A Foggy Day; Wanting You; Go Slow; Charlie Is My Darling; Are You Happy? Oh, My Darling! “Ooh” (What’cha Doin’ To Me); If I’m Lucky; Keep Me In Mind; They All Laughed; Whatever Lola Wants; Am I The One To Blame; Get Set; You Don’t Have To Tell Me; I Go For You; A Fine Romance; Love Is Here To Stay; This Will Make You Laugh; The Next Time It Happens; Come On, Come In; Come Down To Earth, Mr. Smith; Guess I’ll Dress Up For The Blues; Tonight He’s Out To Break Another Heart (73.05)
CD2: Star Eyes; Never Loved Him Anyhow; You Don’t Know Me; Skyliner; If You Should Leave Me; Namely You; I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket; The Party’s Over; I’m A Dreamer, Aren’t We All; It’s Like Getting A Donkey To Gallop; How Many Stars Have To Shine? Baby, It’s Cold Outside; Happy To Make Your Acquaintance; As I Love You; Passing Fancy; So Nice To Be Wrong; Moonray; Invitation; Lo And Behold; I Love The Ground You Walk On; I’ll Love You (Till I Die); Easy To Love; Old Devil Moon (60.54)
CD3: If I’m Lucky; Tip Toe Gently; You Made Me Care; Last Time For Love; Misery’; Last Night When We Were Young; Speak Low (When You Speak Love); But Beautiful; If You’d Stay The Way I Dream About You; Midnight Sun; My Future Just Passed; Yesterdays; We’ll Be Together Again; Good Morning, Heartache; I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You; Give Me The Simple Life; Sometimes I’m Happy; Something To Live For; I Can’t Get Started; Yardbird Suite; Just One Of Those Things; My One And Only Love; I’ll Remember April; Supper Time; You Took Advantage Of Me (73.55)
CD4: Blue Moon; My Foolish Heart; I Was Doing All Right; Summer Is Gone; Nowhere; Until The Real Thing Comes Along; Lush Life; Even If It Breaks My Heart; Laughing Boy; Lilacs In The Rain; All This Could Lead To Love; I Can’t Escape From You; Guess Who I Saw Today; My Funny Valentine; The Little Things That Mean So Much; I’m Thru With Love; Nice Work If You Can Get It; East Of The Sun; Exactly Like You; All My Life; Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea; Dream Of Life; Perdido (72.10)

McRae (v, p) on all tracks with orchestras conducted and directed by Mercer Ellington, Larry Elgart, Sy Oliver, Jack Pleis, Tadd Dameron, Ralph Burns, Jimmy Mundy, and small groups featuring Herbie Mann (f); Mundell Lowe (g); Wendell Marshall (b); Jenny Clarke (d); Tony Scott (p); Osie Johnson (d). New York, 1946-1958.
Acrobat ACQCD7157