Helen Merrill with the Clifford Brown Sextet: What’s New?

Quincy Jones thought the treatment of What's New on Merrill's 1954 LP produced perhaps the most stimulating version ever


Originally entitled Helen Merrill, this was her debut studio album, with an all-star backing. In 1954 she made splendid albums with Clifford Brown – with arrangements by Quincy Jones. In his sleeve notes to the original album, Quincy endorsed Don’t Explain, Born To Be Blue and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To as prime examples of Helen’s ability to invest classic songs with her own imaginative interpretations.

Her partnership with Brown was a marriage if not made in heaven, certainly consummated on earth. She later commented on Brown’s playing on the album: “We were the same age [both were 24]. I think he felt the same shyness that I did. So he was very protective of me, musically. There’s a certain warm honesty on that record that I love.”

Reflecting on this version of What’s New? Quincy Jones thought that it was “perhaps the most stimulating rendition ever. Helen’s voice is treated as an instrument, with a series of piano clusters [Jimmy Jones] merging smoothly into the regular progressions.” ’Nuff said?

For my two cents, Yesterdays (with sensitive support from guitarist Galbraith) and a plangent solo by Brown, runs it a close second. A lightly swinging ’S Wonderful with superb brush work by Osie Johnson and a fleet solo from Jimmy Jones heralding a boppish one from Clifford Brown stays in the memory. A bonus track – This Time The Dream’s On Me (which I always associate with Mel Tormé) – receives Merrill’s earlier imprimatur.

Richard Cook noted that with this seminal album (which can be compared with Sarah Vaughan’s recording with Brown during the same period) Merrill “set down her style: a coolly effective voice which specialized in ballad tempos, a stark delineation of lyrics and no scatting or anything of that kind”. Amen to that.

Don’t Explain; You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To; What’s New?; Falling In Love With Love; *All Of You (22.06)Yesterdays; Born To Be Blue; ’S Wonderful; **Dearly Beloved; *I Remember You; *This Time The Dream’s On Me (21.15)
Quincy Jones (arr, cond) Merrill (v); Brown (t); Danny Banks (f); Jimmy Jones (p); Barry Galbraith (g); Milt Hinton, Oscar Pettiford (b); Osie Johnson, Bobby Donaldson (d). New York, 22 & 24 December 1954.
Bonus tracks: * Bobby Jaspar (f); Bill Evans (p); George Russell (g); Oscar Pettiford (b); Jo Jones (d). New York, 21 February 1958. ** Mike Simpson (f); Dick Marx (p); Fred Rundquist (g); Johnny Frigo (b); Jerry Slosberg (d). Chicago, 18-19 December 1957.
Supper Club 024