Helen Merrill, a few words. My five-part interview series last week with legendary singer Helen Merrill triggered many emails and web-forum comments. A large percentage of readers thought the singer deserves much more credit and recognition than she has received; others had reservations.
For those who aren't moved by Helen's voice, let me urge you to give her a re-listen. Unlike many pop singers of her generation, she wasn't a superficial stylist or pop kitten. She was and remains a jazz singer, which means if she does her job right, she's inside the music interpreting melodies and making listeners feel things. Sometimes you have to give true artists a chance to hear the brilliance of what they're doing. What you hear isn't Helen trying to figure out ways to please or seduce mass markets. Helen's producing art, which demands a few extra seconds to listen, consider and absorb.
Helen's Dream of You with Gil Evans, for example, was recorded a year before Miles Davis' work with the famed arranger. The session was Helen's idea and a fairly courageous concept at that, given the difficulty of the material. Miles didn't come to Gil by accident a year later. Miles, of course, had collaborated with Gil in the late 1940s. But his playing with Gil in 1957 and beyond was different and somewhat influenced by Helen's recording of a year earlier. Listen closely to Helen on Dream of You, and you'll hear traces of what would become Miles' breathy sound with Gil. Or read her remarks in my interview about her friend Miles and the trumpeter's praise of her "whisper tones"—the ability to sing with her mouth almost touching the microphone and then pulling back for different intimate results.
What does all of this have to do with her voice then or in later years? In my opinion, Helen is a much more interesting singer than she's been given credit for. As readers of this blog know, I write only about artists and recordings I'm passionate about. I chose to interview Helen because she matters. Her courage and her determination matter. And her voice matters. If you listen to what she's doing with notes, words and intonation, you should feel openness, honesty and most of all, truth.
Helen's voice was never sticky or processed. Instead, what you hear is phrasing, vulnerability and the struggle to be special. It's a fascinating, evolving sound. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Gil Evans and nearly every other major jazz artist loved and understood Helen's voice. What they heard was art.
Helen Merrill emails. In addition to many emails expressing opinions on Helen's albums, several offered recollections and information:
From Bob VanLangen of Sarasota, FL:
"A few years ago I met Helen Merrill at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's annual May bash (a three-day affair). She reprised the entire Dream of You album with a handpicked orchestra of West Coast musicians. As an aside, the 1956 recording was the only time Gil Evans wrote for strings."
From Andrew Cartmel:
"These four sides (six actually, including alternate takes of Alone Together and How's the World Treating You) were added as bonus tracks to the Dream of You CD, both in its 1992 Polygram release (ASIN: B0000046MJ) and the 2005 Universal issue (ASIN: B000A1IK7Y), which appears to be an import from Hong Kong or Japan.
"With prices starting at $13 and $17 for copies of these, they make for a nice alternative for Johnny Richards nuts (like me). Keep the good work coming."
From Peter Donolo:
[Editor's note: As Peter and many others have known for some time, if you need a hard-to-find album from Japan, the go-to source is Early Records and a fine gentleman named Hiroshi. Here's his email: [email protected]]
From Kurt Kolstad:
Russ and Gina Garcia. On Thursday I received a lovely email from legendary arranger Russ Garcia, who lives in New Zealand with Gina, his songwriter wife. [That's JazzWax reader Liz Kauai, left, with Russ and Gina Garcia two weeks ago in Auckland]. Writes Russ:
Billy Taylor and Dick Hyman. Jazz Video Guy Bret Primack has assembled another wonderful clip, this time featuring Billy Taylor and Dick Hyman. Go here.
Muddy Waters. Ed Leimbacher wrote an excellent roundup of Muddy Waters musts last week for Jazz.com. In addition to offering up his favorite tracks, Ed provides a great deal of history, putting Muddy's recordings in fine perspective.
Joe Mooney. Last week, Terry Teachout had a terrific post at his blog About Last Night on Joe Mooney. As noted in my double-header posts on Mooney here and here, Terry's New York Times article on the hip but then-forgotten accordionist-singer in the late 1990s led to a flurry of Mooney reissues on CD in 2000. Thank you, Terry!
"There's now confirmation that Steve Lacy penned the Monk notes that surfaced a few months ago. Go here to read all about it."
Adam Rudolph. If you're in New York on February 9th, 16th or the 23d (all Mondays), dig percussionist and conductor Adam Rudolph. He will be leading one of the most fascinating experimental orchestras you'll ever hear. I posted on Adam and his music here and here. Also, dig his albums, Moving Pictures and Thought Forms at iTunes. Info on Adam's gigs: Where: Roulette, at 20 Greene St. (between Canal and Grand streets). When: 8:30 pm. Phone: 212-291-8242.
James Moody. By the time you read this, saxophonist James Moody [pictured] may have already won a Grammy for his solo on the Concord release, The Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars. Tonight, Sunday, jazz historian Bill Kirchner will host a radio show on Moody's unusual albums for the Milestone label: Moody and the Brass Figures and The Blues and Other Colors. Time: 11 p.m. to midnight (EST). Where: Go to WBGO's page here and click to listen live.