Journalist, Political Reporter, Cultural Critic
By Alex Henderson
There are some unspoken rules in the jazz world. Rules that say that acoustic-oriented jazz vocalists are not supposed to have platinum and gold albums or sell out large auditoriums night after night. Rules that say that straight-ahead jazz releases are not supposed to reach the top of Billboard’s pop charts. Rules that say that jazz vocalists shouldn’t expect to receive standing ovations at Lilith Fair or compete with Santana, TLC, the Backstreet Boys and the Dixie Chicks in a GRAMMY® category.
But in the 1990s and early 2000s, someone has been breaking these rules and demonstrating that a jazz vocalist can, in fact, enjoy mass appeal without sacrificing her jazz foundation. Her name is Diana Krall.
Not only has the Canadian singer/acoustic pianist become the top selling artist on the Verve roster--she has become jazz’s top selling vocalist period. She is a crossover phenomenon, but a crossover phenomenon who has remained faithful to her bop and swing roots.
After making a name for herself with studio recordings, Krall takes another step forward with Live in Paris--her first live album. Produced by the GRAMMY®-winning Verve Music Group Chairman Tommy LiPuma and engineered by long-time LiPuma collaborator Al Schmitt, Live in Paris contains highlights of the 37-year-old Krall’s concerts at the Paris Olympia in late November and early December 2001. With pianist Alan Broadbent serving as music director, Krall leads a cohesive, intuitive group that includes guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. On some of the selections, she is also joined by John Pisano (who is heard on acoustic guitar) and Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa (who has played on literally hundreds of albums over the years and has backed everyone from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Gato Barbieri). Although Broadbent is an expressive bop/post-bop pianist with a strong Bill Evans influence, he doesn’t actually play on any of the Olympia performances--all of the piano playing is handled by Krall herself.
Krall explains: “My favorite singers have all played piano: Dinah Washington, Roberta Flack, Shirley Horn, Andy Bey, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan and especially Carmen McRae. She has really been important to me and is one of my biggest influences. And Nat King Cole was the ultimate.”
Live in Paris illustrates the diversity of Krall’s repertoire. Krall not only has an extensive knowledge of the great Tin Pan Alley standards of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s--she is also well versed in songs from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Krall shows her love of Tin Pan Alley on swinging performances of Harold Arlen’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and George & Ira Gershwin’s “’S’Wonderful,” but she also brings her interpretive powers to singer Bob Dorough’s 1950s bop classic “Devil May Care,” Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the Burt Bacharach/Hal David favorite “The Look of Love.” Krall picks two songs that are closely identified with Peggy Lee--“Deed I Do” and “I Love Being Here with You”--as well as Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which was made famous by Frank Sinatra.
The only track that isn’t from her Paris Olympia concerts is a studio recording of Billy Joel’s 1977 hit “Just the Way You Are,” which Krall recorded for the soundtrack to the film The Guru. On this track, she is joined by Anthony Wilson as well as tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Christian McBride (who she has often worked with in the past), drummer Lewis Nash and percussionist Luis Quintero.
Born in Nanaimo, British Columbia (not far from Vancouver), Krall grew up in the western part of Canada and began studying the piano when she was only four. Jazz wasn’t something that she discovered after reaching adulthood--Krall was raised on jazz, and by the time she was 15, she was performing standards in a local restaurant/bar. One person who did a lot to encourage her interest in jazz was her father, a stride pianist who had a vast knowledge of 1920s and 1930s pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Krall recalls: "I think Dad had every recording Fats Waller ever made, and I tried to learn them all."
Krall was still a teenager when she was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. After two years in Boston, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met some jazz heavyweights, including John Clayton, pianist/singer Jimmy Rowles and the late bassist Ray Brown (who gave her a great deal of encouragement and ended up playing on some of her 1990s albums). Krall had been in L.A. for three years when she moved to Toronto, and it was a Canadian label that gave the singer/pianist her first chance to record. In 1993, the Montreal-based Justin Time Records released Krall’s debut album, Stepping Out.
But Krall, who now lives in New York, didn’t stay with Justin Time very long. In 1994, she signed with GRP and recorded Only Trust Your Heart, which boasted Ray Brown on bass and Stanley Turrentine on tenor saxophone and marked the beginning of her association with Tommy LiPuma (who has worked with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Natalie Cole to George Benson). After producing Only Trust Your Heart, LiPuma produced several more Krall albums for GRP, Impulse! or Verve, including All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio in 1995, Love Scenes in 1997, When I Look In Your Eyes in 1998 and The Look of Love in 2001. LiPuma observes: “That was the first time I had produced that many albums in a row for any artist. Diana and I have such a good chemistry between us--it makes it easy. When one of us makes a suggestion, the other listens in earnest. We have tremendous respect for one another.”
As the 1990s progressed, Krall grew increasingly popular. Only Trust Your Heart, All for You and Love Scenes were all respectable sellers, but the album that put Krall over the top commercially was When I Look in Your Eyes (which found the great Johnny Mandel joining forces with LiPuma and doing some co-producing on several songs).
In 1998 and 1999, the success that When I Look in Your Eyes enjoyed was astounding. In addition to spending no less than 52 weeks in the #1 position on Billboard’s jazz chart, the album won GRAMMYs® in two categories: Best Jazz Vocal Performance and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. Plus, When I Look in Your Eyes received a GRAMMY® nomination in the Album of the Year category--a category that found her competing with the likes of Santana, the Backstreet Boys, the Dixie Chicks and TLC. Needless to say, it isn’t every day that an acoustic-oriented jazz improviser finds herself competing with major rock, country, urban and teen-pop stars in a GRAMMY® category.
Nor is every day that a jazz improviser becomes a major attraction at the Lilith Fair festival, which was founded by singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and has tended to spotlight female pop-rock and pop artists. But in 1998, Krall had no problem winning over a young, predominantly female audience that was more likely to be into Sheryl Crow or Alanis Morissette than Abbey Lincoln or Chris Connor.
When I Look in Your Eyes went platinum in the United States (where it sold over one million units), double platinum in Canada, platinum in Portugal and gold in France. And in 2000, it won a Canadian Juno Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album.
Although When I Look in Your Eyes was an extremely tough act to follow, Krall’s next album, The Look of Love, has also been an impressive seller. When The Look of Love was released in September 2001, it entered the Billboard 200 at #9 and sold 95,000 copies in the U.S. alone its first week. In addition to going quadruple platinum in Canada and platinum in Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Portugal, The Look of Love has gone gold in France, Singapore and England. And in Canada’s Juno Awards, The Look of Love was a winner in three categories: Best Artist, Best Album and Best Vocal Jazz Album.
A lush collection of ballads and bossa nova, The Look of Love was arranged by Germany’s famous Claus Ogerman and found Krall being backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Recalling the sessions for that project, Krall asserts: “I was so creatively pumped. We recorded so many tunes; I wish we could have released a double record. The Look of Love was my dream come true.”
With The Look of Love and When I Look in Your Eyes still riding high, Krall continues to sell out large auditoriums all over the world. And Live in Paris is a gift to the legion of fans who have faithfully brought her CDs and attended her sold out concerts.
“The thing about Diana is her musicianship,” Al Schmitt said of the platinum-selling singer/pianist in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “More than most singers, she knows what’s right for her, and she knows how to make it happen musically.”♦
Do It Again [314 589 564-2] available on CD March 26th, 2002.
By Alex Henderson
May the Music Never End, the GRAMMY® -Award-winning Shirley Horn’s new album for the Verve Music Group, is the most recent chapter in the life of someone who is widely regarded as one of the finest vocalists in the jazz field. From the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” to Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away,” this self-produced CD underscores what both journalists and musicians have been saying about Horn for years: that she is an artist of considerable depth and substance. Horn has faced some challenges in the last few years, including the loss of a foot and the death of her long-time bassist Charles Ables (who had been with her for 33 years) in 2001. But despite those challenges, she maintains a busy schedule as both a recording artist and a live performer and remains as compelling a storyteller as ever.
Horn has not only been praised by jazz experts like the Los Angeles Times’ Don Heckman--who described her as “the preeminent jazz vocalist of her generation” and “an incomparable original”--but also, by major pop stars such as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow. Streisand enthused: “I am a great admirer of Shirley Horn's artistry. She understands how to communicate with a listener…When Shirley whispers a lyric, she speaks volumes." Manilow was equally enthusiastic, saying: “Shirley Horn is one of the finest song stylists in music today. When you listen to her, you are listening to the angels sing. I have every CD she's ever recorded, and there's always one on my CD player. She is the personification of the word 'cool'."
The New Yorker said of Horn: “Nobody does it better, or at least more discreetly. The doyenne of female jazz singers never has to raise her voice to command total attention, extracting the big emotions from a near whisper . . . Horn remains the model of controlled swing: unimpeachable and inimitable.” And Vanity Fair wrote: “Horn’s taste is impeccable, her conviction contagious, and when she sings a lyric . . . we accept it as pure gospel.”
May the Music Never End is a departure from her previous Verve releases in that she doesn’t play any piano at all on this album; her role is strictly that of a singer, not a singer/pianist. Horn leaves the album’s piano playing to two very capable and talented musicians: the Washington, DC-based George Mesterhazy and the great, world-renowned Ahmad Jamal. While Mesterhazy is heard on nine of the album’s eleven selections, special guest Jamal is featured on two tracks: Ray Evans’ “Maybe September” and Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask.” Jamal’s appearances on May the Music Never End are truly historic; this is the first time that the veteran pianist has backed a female vocalist in the studio. For many years, Horn had been hoping to feature Jamal on one of her albums—and she finally got her wish.
“The musicians were wonderful,” asserts Horn, who has lived in the Washington DC area her entire life. “George Mesterhazy is a doll, and Ahmad Jamal has been my favorite pianist for a long time. Ahmad is very special to me, and I told him, ‘You’re going to play on this album even if I have to throw a net over you.’ Ahmad recorded ‘Maybe September’ on one of his own albums, Heat Wave, in 1966, and all these years, I’ve been wanting him to play that song with me.”
One of the most moving performances on May the Music Never End is Horn’s interpretation of “Yesterday,” which was written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney but becomes a soulful, haunting jazz ballad in Horn’s hands. Reflecting on her version of “Yesterday,” Horn recalls: “When the Beatles first came out, I didn’t really pay attention to them. But more recently, I heard ‘Yesterday’ and said to myself, ‘This is nice music. It’s saying something.’ A very close friend of mine starts to cry every time I sing ‘Yesterday.’”
The opener “Forget Me” was written by the late Washington, DC-based singer/poet Valerie Parks Brown, who taught at Howard University and was among Horn’s close friends. Horn, in fact, recorded “Forget Me” for her first studio album, Embers and Ashes, back in the early 1960s--and by revisiting “Forget Me” in the early 2000s, Horn is remembering someone who meant a lot to her over the years.
Horn, who hopes to resume her piano playing at some point in the future, has complete confidence in Mesterhazy’s skills as an accompanist. Whether Horn is embracing Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” (which receives a bossa nova makeover) or performing the album’s contemplative title track (written by Norman Martin and Artie Butler), Mesterhazy shows himself to be a skilled accompanist--as do bassist Ed Howard and drummer Steve Williams (who has been with her for 22 years).
Most of the time, Horn is joined by a traditional piano trio on May the Music Never End. However, she oversees a quartet when trumpeter Roy Hargrove makes special guest appearances on Duke Ellington’s “Take Love Easy” (one of the Duke’s lesser known melodies) and the Harold Arlen standard “Ill Wind.” Horn comments: “That Roy Hargrove is so talented. He’s soulful, and he has such a feeling for the melody.”
Born in Washington, DC, Horn began studying the piano at the age of four and was in her late teens when she attended Howard University. In 1954, Horn formed her first trio, but her recording career didn’t actually start until the early 1960s. It was during that period that she provided her first studio album, Embers and Ashes, and her first live recording, Live at the Village Vanguard.
Back then, Horn had two very passionate supporters in trumpeter Miles Davis and bandleader/arranger Quincy Jones. Davis, in fact, was so enthusiastic about her singing and playing that he refused to perform at the Village Vanguard (one of New York’s most famous jazz clubs) unless owner Max Gordon agreed to let Horn perform there as well; Davis got his way, and Horn’s Live at the Village Vanguard LP was the result.
“Miles was always good to me and was very protective of me,” Horn says of the influential trumpeter, who died in 1991. “It was almost like having an uncle. Miles was a caring man. Some people thought he was rude because he turned his back to the audience, but after all was said and done, Miles was really a powder puff inside.”
It isn’t hard to see why Davis, who became Horn’s mentor as well as a close friend, was so enamored of her approach--stylistically, they had a great deal in common. In contrast to aggressive, big-toned trumpeters like Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan, Davis was known for a much more subtle, spare, understated style of trumpet playing--and similarly, Horn’s singing has always been the essence of subtlety and restraint. Horn has never been a forceful belter à la Marlena Shaw or Dee Dee Bridgewater; like Davis on his trumpet, Horn has favored economy. And that approach worked well for the singer/pianist whether she was recording for Mercury and ABC-Paramount in the 1960s or the Danish Steeple Chase label in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Horn’s association with Verve began in 1986; her first Verve release, I Thought About You, was recorded live at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood, California the following year. I Thought About You earned her a lot of new fans, and she went on to provide many more critically acclaimed albums for Verve--including 1988’s Close Enough for Love, 1990’s You Won’t Forget Me (which featured Miles Davis) and 1991’s Here’s to Life (which was arranged by the prolific Johnny Mandel). The following year, Verve released Horn’s live album, I Love You, Paris (recorded in Paris, France), and after that, Horn saluted an R&B legend on 1993’s Light Out of Darkness: A Tribute to Ray Charles. In the 1990s, she was nominated for one GRAMMY® after another.
1995’s The Main Ingredient and 1997’s Loving You were also impressive sellers for Verve, as were 1998’s GRAMMY® award-winning I Remember Miles (Horn’s tribute to Miles Davis) and 2001’s You’re My Thrill (which reunited her with Johnny Mandel). That brings us to the most recent chapter in Horn’s long career as a recording artist: May the Music Never End.
“I’m just trying to tell my story, and I want people to be with me and feel what I feel,” Horn asserts. “I’m telling the truth when I sing.”♦
May the Music Never End [314 076028-2] available on CD June 24th, 2003.
By Alex Henderson
When it comes to having a vast and extensive knowledge of American popular songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, few jazz vocalists can rival Susannah McCorkle. After dedicating entire albums to the music of great composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, McCorkle turns her attention to George Gershwin’s legacy on her most recent Concord Jazz release Someone To Watch Over Me: The Songs Of George Gershwin.
“When I first started recording over 20 years ago, I purposely avoided really well known songwriters like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter because there had already been so many albums of their work,” McCorkle explains. “I really wanted to pay attention to lesser known ones such as Harry Warren and Yip Harburg. But now, there’s such a huge interest in standards--and a whole new audience is getting into them. And also, I just felt that I had a lot more to say than when I started out in the 1970s. I’ve lived a lot of life, and I felt that I had something to give to the songs that I didn’t have when I was in my 20s.”
One of McCorkle’s goals when she recorded Someone To Watch Over Me (her eighth album for Concord and fifteenth overall) was to bring attention to some of Gershwin’s lesser known material. Many listeners will be quite familiar with “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “I Got Rhythm” (which was the basis for countless bebop songs) as well as four classics from the musical Porgy And Bess: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Got Plenty Of Nothin’.” But even some of the more seasoned and knowledgeable jazz fans may not be familiar with “They All Laughed” or “Who Cares.” And although “I Was Doing All Right” was recorded by Louis Armstrong, it’s far from well known.
“I chose some really rare songs because I think it’s always nice to give people a few surprises,” McCorkle notes. “I wanted to appeal to people who are just now getting into Gershwin as well as people who already know a lot about him and are hoping for something rare that they haven’t heard before.”
With Gershwin’s output having been so prolific, how did McCorkle and her pianist/arranger Allen Farnham narrow it down to only a single CD worth of material? “It was very hard,” replies the singer, who is also joined by guitarist Howard Alden, trumpeter Randy Sandke, trombonist Conrad Herwig and others who comprise the octet that joins her on Someone To Watch Over Me. “I really don’t know how I did it. I wrote down a list of out-and-out standards I was interested in doing and narrowed it down from that list. And then, I made a list of songs I was considering doing that weren’t that well known, and I just kept narrowing it down. I’m still brokenhearted about some of the songs I didn’t have room for.
“I started this album by reading the complete lyrics of George Gershwin’s brother and musical partner Ira Gershwin. I went through rare lyrics, some alternate lyrics and also, some rare songs I’d never heard before. And then, when I got the music and sat down with Allen Farnham to play through things, we were both struck by what beautiful melodies George Gershwin wrote.”
From standards to obscurities, this album illustrates how well Gershwin’s music continues to hold up no less than 60 years after his death. McCorkle finds that although these songs were written before she was even born, they don’t sound dated in the 1990s.
“The greatness of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter is their timelessness,” McCorkle asserts. “There are songs from the 1950s that sound so much more dated than songs Gershwin wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. That was such a great period for songs. In the past couple of years, I’ve been doing more and more workshops on American popular songs--and I find that high school students and even elementary school students are very responsive to their music.”
And quite often, McCorkle finds that she and her students have no problem relating to the Gershwin Brothers’ subject matter. “These songs were written for a specific situation, but people still relate to them long after they were written,” she points out. “‘Who Cares’ was written during The Great Depression to cheer audiences up. We keep having recessions, and people relate to it in the 1990s when they’re feeling the pinch. ‘Who Cares’ is a song that could have been written yesterday because the situation that it addresses is something that people can still relate to. It’s a song that has a universal message about getting on with your life.”
McCorkle continues: “Another song I felt very deeply was ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’ It’s about the sexual pull of a man who’s not good for you, which is something every woman I know can identify with. At one point or another, we’ve all been obsessed with men we knew were bad for us. Again, that’s just the timeless nature of George Gershwin’s songs. Every woman has felt that--what am I doing with this man? Yet, when he puts his arms around you, you just can’t resist him.”
Born in Berkeley, California on January 1, 1946, McCorkle had her first exposure to the music of Broadway when she was a child and her mother played records containing theatrical songs. But it wasn’t until after moving to Europe in 1971 that she really discovered jazz. After working as an interpreter, McCorkle changed careers and set out to earn her living as a jazz singer. In the mid-1970s, she was featured on albums by pianist Keith Ingham, and in 1976, she debuted as a solo artist with The Songs Of Harry Warren. McCorkle, who now lives in New York, followed that debut up with other songbook albums that included The Songs Of Johnny Mercer in 1977, Over The Rainbow: The Songs Of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg in 1980 and Thanks For The Memory: Songs Of Leo Robin in 1983. By the time she signed with Concord in 1988, McCorkle had recorded seven albums for the now defunct Inner City and PA/USA labels. Concord’s Jazz Alliance label has acquired most of her pre-Concord output and has so far reissued The Songs Of Johnny Mercer and Over The Rainbow as well as 1981’s The People That You Never Get To Love.
McCorkle joined Concord with 1988’s No More Blues and went on to record projects ranging from the Brazilian-oriented Sabia in 1990 to From Bessie To Brazil in 1993 and From Broadway To Bebop in 1994. The latter two titles served as a reminder of McCorkle’s diversity and underscored her willingness to turn to a variety of sources for inspiration (the Bessie in From Bessie To Brazil was the great 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith). McCorkle turned her attention to Cole Porter on 1995’s Easy To Love: The Songs Of Cole Porter and to Irving Berlin on 1997’s Let’s Face The Music: The Songs Of Irving Berlin. On stage, McCorkle’s forthcoming projects include a tribute to guitarist Charlie Byrd and a set of Brazilian songs that she is scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops in 1998.
“I’m fascinated by songs and the history behind them and how they got written,” McCorkle stresses. “When I record an album, I always choose the songs very carefully. My albums are like my children--they’re what I leave behind in the world. For me, Someone To Watch Over Me is another opportunity to remind listeners of the greatness of the American popular song.”♦
By Alex Henderson
Over the years, Helen Merrill has never been shy about taking risks and challenging herself. But with Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill, the veteran jazz singer has delivered a CD that is ambitious even by her high standards. Those who are used to hearing Merrill sing straight-ahead jazz exclusively are in for a surprise; drawing on jazz, pop and folk as well as traditional Croatian music, Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill is an unpredictable effort that she describes as a “mini-autobiography.” It is a CD that reflects her American upbringing as well as her affection for the culture that her immigrant parents brought with them from Eastern Europe.
To fully appreciate just how personal an album Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill is, one should know some things about the singer’s history. Since the 1940s, the jazz world has known her as Helen Merrill--which is an Americanized version of Jelena Ana Milcetic, the name that her Croatian parents gave her when she was born on July 21, 1930. While Merrill was born and raised in New York, her parents Antoinette and Frank Milcetic were immigrants from the island of Krk in the Adriatic Sea. Merrill grew up appreciating the jazz, standards and pre-rock pop that she heard on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and thanks to her parents, she also developed an appreciation of traditional Croatian music. With Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill, she celebrates her American upbringing as well as her Croatian heritage.
“My mother loved Croatian music, but she also loved Cole Porter,” recalls Merrill, who is now 69. “So I was brought up on Croatian songs as well as American songs, and this album reflects that.”
When Merrill was recording and co-producing Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill over a five-month period in 1999, she enjoyed a great deal of encouragement from the French jazz expert Jean-Philippe Allard (who is among the album’s executive producers). From the beginning, Allard was enthusiastic about this project--so enthusiastic that he encouraged her to visit the island of Krk and absorb as much Croatian music as she could. One of the traditional Croatian outfits she heard was the Lado Folk Dance & Music Ensemble of Croatia, which is employed on the album’s opener “Kirje.”
“When I visited Krk, I realized that I wouldn’t do an album of nothing but Croatian folk,” Merrill asserts. “But I wanted to acknowledge that part of my heritage as well as my jazz background, and when I got into recording the album, it became sort of a mini-autobiography. I wanted to include some songs that I learned from my parents as a child as well as songs that I have learned since then.”
After getting off to a very Croatian start with “Kirje”--which unites the Lado Ensemble with Canadian jazz drummer Terry Clarke--Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill turns its attention to a variety of jazz, pop, folk and Croatian songs that have touched Merrill over the years. During the course of this CD, Merrill interprets everything from Judy Collins’ “My Father” and the standard “Lost in the Stars” to the African-American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” the traditional Croatian song “Ti Si Rajski Cvijet” (“You Are A Flower from Paradise” in English) and the 19th Century folk classic “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
But as eclectic and unpredictable as Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill is, the album never comes across as erratic, confused or unfocused. Everything fits together, and the CD ends up making a cohesive musical statement.
“A good song can take on a very universal meaning,” Merrill explains. “‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is a Negro spiritual, but it has a message that people all over the world relate to. And ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’ is a song that my mother really identified with. When I was a child and I heard my mother singing the lyrics ‘I will take you back, Kathleen, to where your heart can feel no pain,’ I knew that she was thinking about herself. I knew that she really missed her homeland.”
Equally compelling is Merrill’s interpretation of “My Father,” a ballad that folk-pop singer Judy Collins made famous in the late 1960s. Not all of the song’s lyrics are consistent with events in the lives of Merrill or her parents--nonetheless, her interpretation is so personal that Collins’ lyrics end up sounding like an ode to Merrill’s late father Frank Milcetic.
“When Judy Collins wrote ‘My Father,’ she was reflecting on her own experiences,” Merrill notes. “But when I sang it, I was thinking about my own father. Unlike the father that Judy Collins wrote about, my father never lived in Ohio and was never a coal miner. When Judy Collins wrote those lyrics in the 1960s, it was very fashionable for folk singers to write about people working in the mines--it became a metaphor for dues-paying, which is how I interpreted those lyrics. When my parents came to the United States to better their lives, they gave up a lot. And that was true of a lot of immigrants, whether they came from Poland or Ireland. They knew what it meant to sacrifice.”
Merrill herself was no stranger to dues-paying along the way. But she also had a lot of encouragement--not only from her parents, but also, from major jazz legends like Bud Powell and Al Haig. And thankfully, her talent didn’t go unrecognized.
The New Yorker was only in her teens when she started singing jazz professionally in the 1940s. Merrill was hired as a featured vocalist for Reggie Childs’ big band in 1946 (when she was 16), and the 1940s also found her sitting in with bebop heavyweights like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Miles Davis.
“When I started singing in New York, many of the great jazz musicians were living there,” Merrill recalls. “I got into jazz because it was a place I could be spontaneous. Spontaneity is very important to me.”
In 1952, Merrill spent three months as a featured vocalist for pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, and by 1954, she was signed to EmArcy/Mercury Records as a solo artist. Arranged by Quincy Jones, her self-titled debut album of 1954 prominently featured the influential trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was only 25 when he died in a car crash in 1956.
Because of the subtlety of her singing, Merrill was often described as a member of jazz’s Cool School--like June Christy, Julie London and Chris Connor, Merrill was among the vocalists who defined cool jazz in the 1950s. Cool jazz was essentially bebop, but bebop played with subtlety and restraint rather than aggression. Merrill, of course, didn’t limit herself to any one style of jazz--whether she was embracing cool jazz, bop, swing or post-bop, the vocalist insisted on keeping an open mind.
Merrill went on to build a huge catalogue, recording more than 50 albums over the years and recording for labels that ranged from Milestone to Storyville to Antilles. The list of jazz greats who have worked with Merrill is a long one--along the way, she employed everyone from Gil Evans, Charlie Byrd and Kenny Dorham to Stan Getz, Jim Hall, Bill Evans, John Lewis, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones.
On Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill, she continues to work with the cream of the jazz crop--soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist George Mraz (a native of Czechoslovakia) and pianist Sir Roland Hanna are only a few of the first-class jazzmen who are employed on this album. But while some parts of the disc are very jazz-minded, other parts of it fall outside of jazz. On Jelena Ana Milcetic, a.k.a. Helen Merrill, jazz is only one of the styles that Merrill uses to tell her story--and it’s a story that she tells in a most convincing way.♦
Concord Jazz, 1997 (Susannah McCorkle)
Verve Music Group, 2000 (Helen Merrill)
Verve Music Group, 2002 (Diana Krall)
Verve Music Group, 2003 (Shirley Horn)