Jelena Ana Milcetic – aka Helen Merrill – born in New York in 1930 to Croatian immigrant parents, was to have a long and distinguished career as a jazz (sometimes “near-jazz”) singer. Her voice from its earliest 1950s albums to those made in 2000 and 2003 retained its intimate, gentle, sometimes plaintive and unique intonation, whether singing with small groups or string-laden orchestras. Her discography lists over 30 recordings, not all of which are now in print. This collection features some of her more notable early albums.
The first track on CD1 has Merrill with the Earl Hines orchestra in 1952, singing (without a health warning) A Cigarette For Company. Her first LP album, Helen Merrill, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones, is one of her finest. Accompanied by Clifford Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, Jimmy Jones, Barry Galbraith and Danny Banks, she delivers intimate and moving interpretations of such classic songs as Don’t Explain, What’s New and S’Wonderful. The follow-up LP, Helen Merrill With Strings, was a successful attempt to increase her commercial appeal, with songs like Wait Till You See Him, Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year and Lilac Wine, backed by tastefully scored strings.
CD2 contains two highly regarded sessions. Dream Of You (1956) has her partnered with Gil Evans, but should not be confused with its equally excellent 1987 remake, Helen Merrill-Gil Evans: Collaboration, of which Dan Morgenstern commented: “Only Helen Merrill and Gil Evans could have made this music live again, in an act of pure collaboration.” Its predecessor, recorded over three days in July 1956, is a sheer delight. An uptempo People Will Say We’re In Love, Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, Where Flamingos Fly, and I’m Just A Lucky So And So, have Merrill responding to Evans’s haunting orchestrations with complete empathy.
Merrill At Midnight has her featured with Hal Mooney and his orchestra on a well-recorded selection of “romantic” songs – Soft As Spring, Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair, The Things We Did Last Summer and a particularly memorable I’ll Be Around. This is certainly not “jazz” but it is “popular music” of the highest order.
CD3 opens with a jaunty rendition of Bye Bye Blackbird, followed by a semi-serious version of I Remember You, both from the LP The Nearness of You. Among her accompanists were Bill Evans, Bobby Jaspar, Oscar Pettiford and Jo Jones. On Summertime, Merrill almost whispers the final chorus, while Cole Porter’s All Of You receives a gently swinging interpretation, with Jaspar’s flute adding to the ambience.
The album You’ve Got A Date With The Blues (two separate sessions) has Helen backed by pianist and arranger Jimmy Jones, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Frank Wes or Jerome Richardson on flute, and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. Mainly a collection of mid-tempo standards – The Nearness of You, Am I Blue, This Time The Dream’s On Me, it also has two tracks (You Go To My Head and Just Squeeze Me) on which she sings in passable French. In his liner notes for the original album, Leonard Feather quotes Merrill herself, who informed him: “This is definitely a jazz album.” She was right.
The three sessions on CD4 are a curious – but intriguing – mixture. American Country Songs is, by her high standards, decidedly underwhelming. Titles like Cold, Cold, Heart, Condemned Without Trial, I’m Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail and You Don’t Know Me have her contending with syrupy strings, choral backings and banal lyrics. (Is there a “country” song called My Tears Spoiled My Aim? If not, there should be.) In his original sleeve notes, Bill Ackerman implausibly maintained that “this album strikes out in new directions by presenting a dozen of the greatest country songs in arrangements that are quite new to the genre and invest the country song with a new dimension through sophisticated arrangements and scoring”.
The final CD selections – Parole E Musica and Helen Merrill Sings Italian Songs – are as unusual as they are interesting. The first album was recorded in Italy. It has the individual lyrics in Italian read by Fernando Caiati before Merrill delivers impeccable versions of such classics as Night And Day, Autumn In New York, Why Don’t You Do Right (which compares favourably with the famous 1942 Benny Goodman / Peggy Lee version) and When Your Lover Has Gone. She is accompanied by an excellent sextet of Italian musicians made up of Piero Umiliani (piano), Nini Ross (trumpet), Gino Marinacci (baritone sax), Enzo Grillini (guitar), Berto Pisano (bass) and Sergio Conti (drums). Once a collector’s item and originally previewed by her on the TV show Moderato Swing, here it is shorn of its spoken introductions. The remaining tracks have Helen singing four songs in acceptable Italian, with a large orchestra and a vocal group. Not essential.
With an informative essay by Olivier Julien, and attractive photographs of the LP album covers, this is a welcome collection of early Merrill. But the discography is woefully lacking in details of the various personnel. Where possible, I’ve provided some of these in the text of this review.
CD1: A Cigarette For Company; Alone Together; This Is My Night To Cry; [Helen Merrill] 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; [Helen Merrill With Strings] Lilac Wine; Anything Goes; Mountain High, Valley Low; Beautiful Love; Comes Love; End Of A Love Affair; When I Fall In Love; The Masquerade Is Over; Just You, Just Me; Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year (77.24)
CD2: You Won’t Forget Me; Wait Till You See Him; 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; I’m A Fool To Want You; I’m Just A Lucky So And So; Troubled Waters; Soft As Spring; Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair; Lazy Afternoon; The Things We Did Last Summer; After You; If You Go; I’ll Forget You; If Love Were All; Easy Come, Easy Go; I’ll Be Around (70.22)
CD3: 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; The Blues; Am I Blue?; Blue Gardenia; You’ve Got A Date With The Blues; The Thrill Is Gone; When The World Was Young; Blues In My Heart; You Go To My Head; Just Squeeze Me; The Meaning of the Blues; Signing Off (75.18)
CD4: Maybe Tomorrow; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; You Don’t Know Me; Condemned Without Trial; You Win Again; I’m Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail; A Heart Full Of Love; Cold, Cold Heart; Devoted To You; My Heart Would Know; Any Time; Half As Much; Night And Day; Everything Happens To Me; Autumn In New York; Why Don’t You Do Right; You Don’t Know What Love Is; These Foolish Things; April In Paris; I’ve Got You Under My Skin; Solitude; Willow Weep For Me; When Your Lover Has Gone; Nun E’ Peccato; Estate; Nessuno Al Mondo; S’e’ Fatto Tardi; Blue Guitar; Listen (79.47)
Frémeaux & Associés FA5814