Back in 1960, singer Helen Merrill had a bad romantic breakup and escaped to Rome. She was invited to record there by pianist Romano Mussolini, whom she had met at a jazz festival in Belgium. So she broke her Atlantic contract and moved to Italy, where she became a "little star." But, as Helen told me during an interview in 2009, she didn't know what to do with the stardom. During this two-year period of emotional grief and recuperation, Helen recorded one of her finest albums that's easily on par with her recordings with Clifford Brown (Helen Merrill and the Clifford Brown Sextet) and Gil Evans (Dream of You).
The 1960 album—Parole e Musica—has just been reissued by Rearward, an Italian label, and features standards arranged by pianist Piero Umiliani. But Words and Music, as it's known in English, has an interesting twist. Ballads like Autumn in New York, These Foolish Things and When Your Lover Is Gone are preceded by about a minute of eager, romantic Italian narration by Fernando Cajati followed by Helen's glorious, breathy vocal. It's as if Cajati's voice is whispering something in Helen's ear at a cafe and the songs are her response. Or that Cajati's voice is more of an echo—a romantic reminder of better times, which prompts Helen to sing out her heartbreak.
Helen's voice here is at its absolute peak, delivered with soaring grace and her signature whisper technique. There's such vulnerability and tenderness that you feel as if she's singing just for you. In 2009, during our conversation, I asked Helen about any connection between her breathy phrasing and Miles Davis's trumpet:
"Miles used to love my sound and always came to hear me sing. We were dear friends. He told me he loved my whisper sounds. That's a technique I used by getting up real close to the microphone. I'd sing almost in a whisper, which created a very intimate sound. I developed this by listening to my voice and trying different things with the mikes."
The beauty of Helen's voice rests in her soul and feeling. Unlike most singers of the era who harbored pop ambitions or were corralled into recording pop albums by producers, Helen always remained a pure jazz singer, and her voice was considered a jazz instrument by all of the legends who recorded with her. Parole e Musica captures Helen at a fragile time, singing her heart out on familiar songs just as her heart was breaking and mending.
JazzWax note: To read my five-part interview with Helen, go here. This will take you to Part 1. For additional parts, scroll up above the red date for the link.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Helen Merrill's Parole e Musica here. Past versions of this release bundled Cajati's narration with Helen's vocal on the same track. Here, they are separated, which gives you the option of listening all the way through or just jumping to the vocal. Personally, I never listen to this album without Cajati's voice tracks. The other albums recorded include tracks for the movie Smog (go here) and assorted projects that are now out of print.
JazzWax clip: Here's When Your Lover Has Gone, with Fernando Cajati narrating and Helen Merrill singing, with Nino Rosso on trumpet...
Here's These Foolish Things—a vocal masterpiece. Dig Helen's breath control and phrasing...