The audiophile debate about the relative merits of vinyl and compact discs rages on. I tend to agree with the purists who argue that the digital format’s convenience, portability, and silent surfaces have been achieved at the expense of a subtle but discernible decline in sonic warmth and resonance. The upside of the CD revolution is that it has spurred record companies to open their vaults and resurrect albums that have been out of print for decades. Here are some indispensable recordings by nearly forgotten jazz vocalists that have recently reappeared to delight and inspire new listeners:
In the 1920s, Oklahoma-born Jimmy Rushing sang with two legendary Kansas City bands, Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. When Count Basie, the pianist with both groups, started his own band in 1935, he took the crowd-pleasing Rushing along with him. Basie primarily featured the rotund, high-spirited singera beaming Buddha nicknamed “Mr. Five by Five”on blues numbers; Helen Humes, the orchestra’s distaff vocalist, was assigned the ballads and rhythm tunes. Leaving Basie in 1950, Rushing performed and recorded as a leader, usually backed by other ex-Basieites, until his death, at 69, in 1972. He expanded his repertoire, adding pop and jazz standards, and though he never achieved mainstream popularity, many of his colleagues regarded him as the greatest male jazz singer after Louis Armstrong.
Two excellent Rushing LPs are combined on the Columbia/Legacy CD Rushing Lullabies: Little Jimmy Rushing and the Big Brass (1958) and Rushing Lullabies (1959). The earlier collection features a hard-driving, stellar ensemble (including Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins, Doc Cheatham, and Jo Jones); the latter album finds Rushing in a more intimate setting, a sextet sparked by organist Sir Charles Thompson, pianist Ray Bryant, and tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate. Rushing’s gruff, ebullient tenor swings madly in both contexts. Whatever the idiomblues (including his own “Jimmy’s Blues” and “You Can’t Run Around Blues”), Tin Pan Alley chestnuts (“When You’re Smiling,” “Somebody Stole My Gal”), jump-band riffs (“Knock Me a Kiss,” “Mister Five by Five”), or Broadway show tunes (“Rosalie,” “Travel the Road of Love”)Rushing’s performances are robust affirmations of life. He even translates Irving Berlin’s melancholy, Hebraic “Russian Lullaby” into a hopeful expression of black liberation. Compared to the vinyl versions, the remastered sound is a bit brittle, but original producer Irving Townsend’s affectionate liner essay and reissue producer Phil Schaap’s discographical notes offer revealing insights into Rushing’s personality and the genesis of these recordings. If this CD sells enough copies, perhaps Columbia will be encouraged to unearth Rushing’s autobiographical 1957 masterpiece The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq.
Born in 1926 in Royal, Neb., Jeri Southern began studying classical piano at age 5. After high school, she worked as a hotel and nightclub intermission pianist in Omaha and later Chicago, adding singing to her performances in the early ’50s. A sultry 1952 single, “You’d Better Go Now,” hit the pop charts, extending her reputation beyond jazz circles. Southern’s understated, conversational vocal style left its mark on a generation of singer-pianists, including Shirley Horn, Audrey Morris, and Joyce Collins. A private, moody woman, she terminated her performing career in the early ’60s but continued to compose and teach on the West Coast until her recent death.
Last year, two of Southern’s Decca LPs, You Better Go Now and When Your Heart’s on Fire, were combined on a single import CD. Now, two superior 1959 collectionsJeri Southern Meets Cole Porter and Jeri Southern at the Crescendohave been reissued on an English EMI/Capitol disc. The Porter album, with Billy May’s imaginative orchestral arrangements, showcases Southern’s subtle interpretations of some of the composer-lyricist’s most celebrated songs (“You’re the Top,” “I Concentrate on You”) along with a sprinkling of obscurities, including the winkingly lascivious “Don’t Look at Me That Way” (“I’m very mild/I’m very meek/My will is strong/But my won’t is weak”) and the wry “Which?” (“Which is the right man/Walt Whitman or Paul Whiteman?”) ingeniously recast in a Mozartean setting. A representative Southern cabaret set including “When I Fall in Love” and a revived “You Better Go Now,” the Crescendo date, taped at a now-shuttered Hollywood club, offers 10 introspective ballads backed by a piano trio (Southern accompanies herself on four tracks, spelled by Dick Hazard on the remaining selections) and Edgar Lustgarten’s expressive cello. Southern’s intonation is a bit wobbly, which only enhances the affecting Kim Novakian vulnerability of her performances. You might have to special-order and pay a premium price for this one, but it’s well worth the patience and expense.
Oscar Brown Jr.’s 1960 debut album, Sin and Soul, announced the arrival of a extraordinary, multifaceted artist whose current obscurity is difficult to comprehend. An accomplished singer, composer, lyricist, actor, and playwright, Brown articulated the African-American experience with wit and passion. (The same year, he collaborated with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on the militant We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.) Entertaining and edifying, Brown’s songs, subsequently recorded by Nina Simone and Sheila Jordan, expanded the jazz repertoire and fueled the nascent black movement.
On four selections, Brown adds lyrics to previously recorded jazz instrumentals. He transforms Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” into the saga of an ill-fated chain-gang convict, and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” becomes a lighthearted dialogue between a proud parent and his quizzical son. The majority of the compositions, which feature Brown’s music and lyrics, are equally impressive. The minimalist “Bid ‘Em In,” just voice and percussion, is a harrowing glimpse of a slave auction, and the tender, punningly titled lullaby “Brown Baby” expresses a father’s hope that his child will grow up with pride in a hate-free world.
For this welcome reissue, Columbia/Legacy has added five previously unreleased selections. Four are the premiere performances of songs from the score of Kicks & Co., Brown’s ill-fated musical that crashed on the road to Broadway. Although these compositions (the gleefully satanic “Mr. Kicks,” the sexy “Hazel’s Hips,” the mournful “World of Grey,” and the gospel-flavored “Forbidden Fruit”) appeared on subsequent Brown albums, these interpretations, recorded when the songs were new, are livelier and less mannered than the later versions.
These days, most of Brown’s energies are devoted to community service and social activism in his native Chicago. Although he has made several hard-to-find independently produced CDs, it’s been two decades since a major label has recorded him. Perhaps the reappearance of Sin and Soul will correct this situation. American music has been made poorer by his silence.
Irene Kral spent most of her too-brief life in the shadow of her older brother, singer-pianist-arranger Roy Kral, who with his wife Jackie Cain formed the bebop vocal duo Jackie and Roy in the late ’40s. (Their 50th anniversary as performers will be celebrated in New York on June 23 with a tribute concert featuring Bob Dorough, Phil Woods, and Bobby Short.) In early recordings with the Maynard Ferguson and Herb Pomeroy bands and pianist Junior Mance, Kral displayed considerable assurance and musicianship, but something was missing. Her artistic breakthrough came in 1975 with the release of Where Is Love?, an exquisite all-ballad album of duets with pianist-arranger Alan Broadbent. Battling the cancer that would claim her life three years later, Kral sang with newfound focus and control, leaving a legacy that continues to inspire aspiring vocalists.
Like Fred Astaire’s footwork, Kral’s long-lined singing seems so natural and effortless that casual listeners might not perceive its artfulness. Eschewing theatrics and largely avoiding embellishments, Kral’s warm alto caresses the melodies of 11 love songs, clairvoyantly supported by Broadbent’s spare, harmonically astute accompaniment. The ultimate late-night album, Where Is Love? sustains a level of such consistent excellence that it isn’t easy to single out individual selections. (At the moment, I favor “When I Look in Your Eyes,” “A Time for Love,” “Never Let Me Go,” and the title tune.) Kral’s idol and friend, the redoubtable and much-missed Carmen McRae, got it right in her brief liner-note endorsement: “Anyone who loves beauty should have this album.”
The CD boom has even prompted the belated release of music that has never been available in this country. Cleo’s Choice compiles 20 early Cleo Laine sides recorded between 1956 and 1958, accompanied by a variety of small jazz ensembles, most featuring her husband, saxophonist Johnny Dankworth. Cut a few years before Laine hit her stride as an interpreter of unconventional material, notably jazz settings of Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot, Auden, and Betjeman poems, and several decades before she calcified into the contrived, self-congratulatory diva currently on display, these unaffected performances of quality pop standards effectively exhibit the remarkable range and richness of her youthful voice. A few rarely performed songs, including Alec Wilder’s sweeping “April Age” and Duke Ellington’s rollicking “Hand Me Down Love,” spark this lavishly annotated English CD, which is available as an import from several mail-order companies.
Skylark is the first American release of two 1956 Annie Ross albums, Annie by Candlelight (a 10-inch LP) and Nocturne for Vocalist (a 7-inch EP). Recorded just before the singer’s breakthrough as the linchpin of the trend-setting jazz vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, these urbane, dryly cynical readings of standards backed by an airy British quartet (piano, clarinet, guitar, and bass) contrast boldly with her nimble, octave-leaping LH&R flights, which replicated solos by Basie and Ellington instrumentalists. Surviving a tempestuous life that has included acting, at age 5, with Judy Garland in an MGM musical and writing lyrics for saxophonist Wardell Gray’s bebop anthem “Twisted,” as well as an early marriage to expatriate jazz drummer Kenny Clarke, an affair with Lenny Bruce, and a battle with drug addiction, Ross continues to flourish as an actress, in movies ranging from Robert Altman’s Short Cuts to Frank Henenlotter’s psychotronic Basket Case 3, and as a cabaret performer. On Music Is Forever, released last year, Ross relied on showmanship and guile to compensate for lusterless, burned-out vocal equipment. Skylark takes us back four decades to the moment when she emerged as the hippest singer of her era.CP