Chris Connor - vocals; Bob Kaye - piano; Bill Douglass - bass; Eddie Marshall - drums
One of the classy, cool jazz vocalists from the 1950s, Chris Connor was in the midst of a comeback at age 48 when she appeared at the Great American Music Hall on October 22, 1976. A one-time singer for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, she had a successful run as a solo artist with Atlantic Records, beginning with 1956's self-titled debut and concluding with 1962's Free Spirits. There followed a lull in her recording career until 1972's Sketches on the obscure Stanyan label, which included her jazzy renditions of pop hits of the day. For this GAMH performance, the husky-voiced singer with the perfect intonation, fluid phrasing and assured sense of swing alternated between jazz standards and interpretations of current pop tunes.
Connors' trio (pianist Bob Kaye, bassist Bill Douglass, drummer Ed Marshall) warms up the crowd with a relaxed rendition of Sonny Rollin's buoyant calypso theme song, "St. Thomas," before the singer hits the stage and launches into a hip, swinging rendition of the 1937 ditty "The Gypsy In My Soul." She next reaches back to cast a spell with the smoldering romantic ballad "All About Ronnie," which she recorded with the Kenton Orchestra in 1953. Jumping ahead to 1969, she interprets the Blood, Sweat & Tears pop hit "Spinning Wheel" with requisite energy and sass. Then it's back to the Great American Songbook for a swinging rendition of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Her sublime take on Billy Strayhorn's melancholy, harmonically rich "Lush Life" is imbued with deep understanding of the lyrics and a stirring delivery, accompanied only by Kaye's piano through the first half of the confessional piece. The full range of Connors' haunting voice is on display here. She is clearly in command of her emotive powers at this stage in her career.
An inveterate swinger, Connor kicks into high gear on a blazing version of "All or Nothing at All," a hit for Frank Sinatra in 1939. She next settles into a highly expressive rendition of the Billie Holiday staple, "God Bless the Child." Pianist Kaye cleverly works motifs from Miles Davis' "Milestones" and Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm" into the fabric of Noel Coward's "Poor Little Rich Girl," then Connors jumps into Peggy Lee's bouncy 1959 song "Things Are Swingin'" with unbridled enthusiasm. Her take on Duke Ellington's 1940 ballad "All Too Soon" (a tune that had previously been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee) is rendered with deep hues and hushed tones. Switching eras once again, she next tackles Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move" from her landmark 1971 album Tapestry. Then it's back once again to the Great American Songbook with an all-knowing romp through Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." (The lyrics: I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all are particularly telling, considering Connors' longtime struggle with alcoholism, which she overcame by the early '70s.) She cleverly segues to Porter's "From This Moment On" in this swinging medley that concludes her superb GAMH set.
Born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City, Missouri on Nov. 8, 1927, she studied clarinet for eight years before becoming a singer in her late teens. She made her public singing debut at age 18 and in 1948 joined Claude Thornhill's band, remaining through 1952. The following year she replaced June Christy as singer for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with whom she recorded such hits as "Jeepers Creepers," "If I Should Lose You," "I Get A Kick Out Of You," "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" and the song that would forever be associated with Connors, the somber "All About Ronnie."
Connors' solo career began when she signed with Bethlehem Records in 1953 and debuted the following year with Chris Connor Sings Lullabys Of Birdland and Chris Connor Sings Lullabys For Lovers. She followed up in 1955 with Chris and This Is Chris, which made her the best-selling artist for the label. She jumped to Atlantic Records in 1956, becoming the first female jazz vocalist to be signed by label heads Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Her best recordings for Atlantic include 1957's Chris Connor Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song, 1958's Chris Craft, 1959's Sings Ballads of the Sad Café and 1960's A Portrait of Chris. In 1963, she signed with the FM label and released Chris Connor at the Village Gate, followed by 1964's A Weekend in Paris. She recorded for ABC Paramount (1965's Sings Gentle Bossa Nova and 1966's Now!) and subsequently released a string of recordings in Japan for the JVC, Sony and Lobster Records labels. She later recorded for the Progressive, Stash and Contemporary labels in the '80s. Her last three albums - 2001's Haunted Heart, 2002's I Walk With Music and 2003's Everything I Love -- were released on Highnote Records. Connor died from cancer on August 29, 2009 at age 81. (Bill Milkowski)