Carmen McRae - vocals; Frank Collette - piano; John Giannelli - bass; Frank Severino - drums
Highly regarded among musicians and critics alike for her clear articulation, hip phrasing and driving sense of swing, Carmen McRae was a direct link to jazz vocal greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. She was in fine voice for her appearance at the Great American Music Hall on February 21, 1975, which came a month before the recording of her Blue Note album, I Am Music, and came a year before her live 1976 Blue Note album, At the Great American Music Hall.
The jazz diva kicks off her GAMH set with a soulful, mid-tempo swinging rendition of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner tune "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)." McRae's interpretation of this Broadway musical number (popularized by Robert Goulet's 1965 hit single) is marked by her signature behind-the-beat phrasing and unpredictable leaps into the high register. Next up is her stirring balladic reading of the Rodger & Hammerstein ditty "It Might as Well be Spring." Her sly, soulful phrasing elicits much animated response from audience members who call out their encouragements with each dramatic pause and elongated note by the great vocal stylist.
A relaxed, sultry reading of "Star Eyes," a tune introduced in 1943 by singer Helen O'Connell with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and later reinvented as an instrumental jazz vehicle by Charlie Parker, leads into an intimate, highly evocative reading of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets." McRae takes her time and delivers with elegance on a jaunty mid-tempo rendition of Bronislaw Kaper's "On Green Dolphin Street" then puts her stamp on the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein chestnut, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," a 1937 tune that was recorded innumerable times by jazz artists and popularized in 1957 by Peggy Lee. Shifting gears, McRae and her crew head into a romp through "Them There Eyes," a Tin Pan Alley number recorded in 1930 by Louis Armstrong and made famous in 1939 by Billie Holiday. McRae's version opens with a spirited bass-voice duo before the trio jumps on the up-tempo pulse.
McRae next introduces a poignant number, "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before," which was written specifically for her by Roger Kellaway and includes lyrics by the team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. "Hey John" is a buoyant Blossom Dearie tune given a vibrant reading by Carmen, and her heart wrenching rendition of Leon Russell's 1972 hit "This Masquerade" represents an emotionally-charged peak of the set. Carmen unleashes some frisky scatting on a bluesy, shuffle-swing rendition of the Jule Styne/Chester Cohn Swing era ditty "Sunday," then closes her set with the gorgeous Dori Caymmi ballad "Like a Lover" (with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) which she calls her favorite song. After shouts of encore from the audience, McRae returns for a stirring rendition of another Billie Holiday staple, "Weaver of Dreams," accompanying herself on piano (and showing flashes of some impressive two-handed stride technique in the process).
Born in Harlem on April 8, 1920 to Jamaican parents, McRae began studying piano at age eight. The music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington filled her home, helping to develop an early appreciation for jazz. By age 17, she met singer Billie Holiday, a primary influence on her career. In her late teens, McRae played piano at Minton's Playhouse, a Harlem jazz club that was a magnet for players on the burgeoning bebop scene, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Kenny Clarke (whom she married and divorced) and pianist Thelonious Monk. In 1944, she played with Benny Carter's big band and later played with Count Basie before making her first recording as a pianist in 1946 with Mercer Ellington Band. She was signed to Milt Gabler's Decca Records in 1954 and remained with the label for five years, a period that saw her profile rise significantly in the jazz world (including being named Best New Female Vocalist by Down Beat magazine in 1955). She recorded for both the Atlantic and Columbia labels during the '60s, then recorded a string of stellar albums for Blue Note label in the mid '70s before jumping to Concord Jazz in the '80s.
In 1987, McRae teamed with fellow jazz singer Betty Carter for the live recording, Live at the Great American Music Hall, which was well received by fans and critics a like. Carmen continued to lead bands and record steadily up to 1989, when a bout with emphysema forced her to retire. Her discography of over 60 recordings includes collaborations with Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Cal Tjader and George Shearing as well as heartfelt tributes to Thelonious Monk (1990's Carmen Sings Monk) and Sarah Vaughan (1991's Sarah: Dedicated to You). She died on November 10, 1994. (Milkowski)