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One of the hallmarks of jazz-oriented singers is the apparent timelessness of their art. Thanks to CD reissues and exposure in TV commercials, the voices of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and their peers now command larger audiences than ever before. Each month, another batch of jazz vocal reissues is unleashed, in a process that will no doubt continue until the well runs dry. These are some of the latest.
Although born and raised in the Catskills, singer-pianist Blossom Dearie had to migrate to Paris to launch her career. In the early ’50s, she arranged for and performed with a vocal group, the Blue Stars, which scored a surprise U.S. pop hit with their single “Lullaby of Birdland” sung in French. She then relocated to New York and recorded six albums between 1956 and 1960 for Norman Granz’s Verve label.
Dearie’s sweet, airy, high-pitched voice is utterly distinctive. Even people who have never heard her records will recognize her from Calvin Klein and Cover Girl commercials. Her piano accompaniment is thoughtful and spare, as dependent on silence as sound. It’s unsurprising to learn that Miles Davis, the poet of pauses, on five occasions chose to share a bill with her at the Village Vanguard.
Give Him the Ooh-La-La, the second and best of her Verve albums, has resurfaced after four decades in limbo. Backed by guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown (two-thirds of Oscar Peterson’s finest trio), plus ex-Basie drummer Jo Jones, Dearie performs an unhackneyed program that mixes a few standards (“Just One of Those Things,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”) with what were then newly minted compositionsBob Haymes and Marty Clark’s jaunty “They Say It’s Spring” and Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s wistful “I Walk a Little Faster.” Except for the addition of a bonus track that unnecessarily exposes Dearie’s screwing up of two takes of the Cole Porter title song, this CD displays Blossom in full bloom.
May I Come In? (1964), Dearie’s sole major-label outing, attempted to reposition her as a mainstream artista ploy that, predictably, did not succeed. Nevertheless, this blend of standards and contemporary pop tunes (“Charade,” “Put on a Happy Face”) backed by a small orchestra is refreshing, especially the ballad “Don’t Wait Too Long” with trumpeter Jack Sheldon’s tender obbligatos. Dearie’s keyboard talents are soft-pedaled, but the CD’s most grating liability is its running timeunder 29 minutes. Because this was Dearie’s only Capitol release, the label could not fill out the disc with more of her music. But why not make it a twofer with another of the label’s songbirdsEthel Ennis or Mavis Riverswhose Capitol albums have yet to be reissued?
June Christy was Capitol’s premiere female jazz singer for most of her 20-year tenure with that label. Although hampered by self-acknowledged technical limitationsher intonation, time, and vibrato were unreliableChristy bravely took on artistic challenges that would have daunted her contemporaries. No other jazz-oriented vocalist of her era consistently unearthed such interesting material or recorded with such daring arrangements as those crafted by her frequent collaborator and ex-Stan Kenton compatriot, Pete Rugolo. 1957’s Gone for the Day, a long unavailable theme album about going back to nature, is Christy’s most endearing and technically assured recording. Predictable tunes (“Lazy Afternoon,” “Give Me the Simple Life”) blend with some resourceful discoveries (the hymnlike “When You Awake,” “Lost in a Summer Night,” the languid soundtrack theme from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Rugolo’s imaginative settings, using bass trombone, oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, and other instruments seldom employed in a jazz context, also enliven an appended 1957 bonus album, Fair and Warmer. Christy’s vocal shortcomings are more pronounced on this zingier collection, and several tracks, like an up-tempo performance of Irving Berlin’s defeatist “Better Luck Next Time,” don’t make much sense. But this lagniappe offers some bright bonuses (“The Best Thing for You,” “It’s Always You”) to flesh out a generous 70-minute Christy twofer.
Verve has three new jazz vocal reissues, all facsimile reproductions of early ’60s LPs. Of particular local interest, Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington was recorded during the singer-songwriter’s 1964 appearance at Georgetown’s then-popular jazz and folk showcase, the Cellar Door. Coming on the heels of last year’s reissue of Brown’s debut album, Sin and Soul, this live recording should help to revive interest in the work of an overlooked but still productive artist. Accompanied by a quartet featuring pianist Floyd Morris and guitarist Phil Upchurch, Brown’s warm, raspy-edged voice cheerfully communicates his songs celebrating women, children, and urban life. However, his most striking compositions address less conventional topicsthe joys of two-timing (“Living Double in a World of Trouble”), post-coital drowsiness (“Glorious Tired Feeling”), old age (“Tower of Time”), the JFK assassination (“Muddled Drums”), and reparations for slavery (“Forty Acres and a Mule”). Verve missed an opportunity to reorganize a sloppily produced albumthe original order of Brown’s performance has clearly been meddled withand a bonus track, “Brother Where Are You?” needlessly repeats an earlier cut with tacked-on introductions of the band. Nevertheless, this disc is a worthwhile rediscovery, which, with luck, will inspire Verve to disinter Brown’s Finding a New Friend, a collection of charming duets with Brazilian singer-guitarist Luiz Henrique.
Mel Tormé gives rise to ambivalent feelingshis magnificent vocal instrument and impeccable musicianship are stewarded by a bewigged, triple-knit pseudo-hipster. 1960’s Swingin’ on the Moon kicks off with the inane Tormé-penned title tune to establish the album’s lunar theme (“Tell mater and pater/We live in a crater”). But the remaining songsboth ballads (“I Wished on the Moon,” “How High the Moon,” with rarely heard verses) and swingers (“Don’t Let the Moon Get Away”)are superbly performed and wittily arranged by Russell Garcia for string and brass ensembles. This is not the best of Tormé’s many recordings, but it is well above average and essential for his fans. The cover shot of a grinning blonde model sporting a blue bodysuit and a Lucite space helmet is the last word in futuristic camp.
The unsightly drawing disgracing the cover of Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook triggers a bad vibe that carries over to the CD’s opening track, “How Soon?” a mawkish ballad with swooping strings that fail to conceal the singer’s wide-wale vibrato. This ballad-heavy collection of Henry Mancini television and movie themes is one of Vaughan’s rare misfires. Boxed in by saccharine arrangements and radio-ready cuts averaging three minutes, Vaughan manages to break loose only on tricky versions of the Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky TV themes. This disc is only for Vaughan completists, and even they are advised to visit the listening post before buying.
Poor Johnny Hartman. For nearly 40 years, the amber-voiced balladeer bounced from one record label to another, winning the admiration of musicians and critics but never achieving the popularity he deserved. Then, 12 years after his death (at 60 in 1983), Clint Eastwood used Hartman recordings on the soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County, and suddenly the world took notice of him. Soon, music-shop bins overflowed with CDs of albums that had long been out of print and sessions that were never released in this country. Now Hip-O’s The Johnny Hartman Collection 1947-1972, a two-disc, 38-track retrospective, retraces the first quarter- century of his career, including nearly two dozen previously unreissued singles from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Many of these neophyte performancesstiffly sung pop ephemera designed to position Hartman as a traditional pop starare of largely historical interest, but many of the later tracks are treasures, especially an excerpt from his 1956 Bethlehem LP Songs From the Heart with trumpeter Howard McGhee and two cuts from his classic 1963 Impulse collaboration with John Coltrane. The Bethlehem and Impulse reissues belong in any collection of classy popular music, but the Hip-O anthology is intended for die-hard Hartman fans who have to own every scrap of his music.
For the ultimate in jazz singer esoterica, there’s a two-CD import set with the antediluvian swinger title Songs for Sophisticats: 40 Cool Jazz Vocals. These tracks are all drawn from Bethlehem, a label that started in 1953 and lasted about a decade. Although Bethlehem released albums by stellar instrumentalists (Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey), it also championed novice and veteran jazz vocalists. Unfortunately, as soon as the label’s artists began to get attention, they promptly decamped for stardom at bigger companies. (Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Julie London, and Nina Simone made their first significant recordings for Bethlehem.) Songs for Sophisticats includes performances by 21 singers. Some signed with the label during career slumps (Tormé, Hartman, former Ellington vocalists Herb Jeffries and Betty Roche). Others (Bob Dorough, Audrey Morris) made their debuts on Bethlehem and remain active today as cult artists. Still others (Helen Carr, Sue Ryan) vanished along with Bethlehem. Cleanly remastered, reasonably priced, and handsomely packaged, this compilation is great fun, ranging from sublimity (Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy,” Dorough’s “Yardbird Suite”) to eccentricity (Billie Holiday clone Marilyn Moore’s “Lover Come Back to Me,” whiskey-voiced Frances Faye’s “September in the Rain”) to ineptitude (Jerri Winters’ hoarse “Sometimes I’m Happy,” Terry Morel’s fungus-y “You’re Not the Kind”).CP