Carmen McRae ‘Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Singer Carmen McRae had an intimate knowledge of Billie Holiday since they lived in the same block when the former was growing up in Harlem, New York, according to the authoritative biography of Holiday by Donald Clarke. In fact, being childhood friends was not the only thing they had in common since Carmen’s birthday came the day after Billie’s and they regularly celebrated together, invariably over-indulging. Thus, when it came to Carmen McRae interpreting songs that the late Billie Holiday had immortalised, the music was in good hands and this album, recorded in two sessions during 1961, and released in 1962, more than lives up to the billing. It certainly helped that McRae was surrounded by a crème de la crème billing of instrumentalists, and ones who were used to accompanying top calibre vocalists. These included Norman Simmons on piano, Bob Cranshaw (he of ‘Sidewinder’ fame with Lee Morgan) on the acoustic bass, and Walter Perkins on the drums, and with production duties courtesy of Teo Macero, who of course also produced Miles Davis among others. Guesting were the considerable talents of Nat Adderley on cornet and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis on tenor saxophone. Carmen McRae possessed a unique voice and one that, according to writer Keith Shadwick, was not just a singer’s singer; she was a musician’s singer as well. Carmen was adept to take more liberties with the material than Billie and in this respect, she was closer in affinity to both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who were technically the most gifted. Furthermore, McRae, in her phrasings, dispensed with sentimentality whereas the emotive voice of Billie Holiday was the polar opposite and this was a major distinction between the two.

As the excellent back cover sleeve notes from noted San Francisco based jazz journalist, Ralph J. Gleason, one of her greatest admirers, attest, Carmen McRae imbued the songs with her own inimitable style. That meant a cool character reading of both ‘Strange Fruit’ and a dispassionate take on ‘Lover Man’, while she excelled with ad-libs on the more uptempo material such as, ‘Yesterdays’ (a favourite song of a future lady of jazz, Dianne Reeves, who emerged in the mid-late 1980s). Subsequently, Carmen McRae would record in a variety of contexts during the 1960s and 1970s, from reworking the then new standard, ‘Take Five’, with the Dave Brubeck quartet as part of the Jazz Ambassadors line-up for Columbia through to covering the new sounds of soul with string accompaniment on ‘For Once In My Life’, for Atlantic records. The album contained within represents a high point in her career and is on a par arguably with her greatest live recording, ‘The Great American Songbook’, from an intimate 1971 double album at a Los Angeles’ club, and the end of career opus, ‘Carmen Sings Monk’. Carmen McRae would go on to record for Blue Note, Concord (especially with George Shearing) and its Latin-Jazz off-shoot Concord Picante on the memorable ‘Heatwave’ album from 1982, with the latter recording especially recommended and again it was her ability to distance herself from the emotional lyrics that impresses.

Tim Stenhouse