One of the finest jazz vocal albums of the 1950s is Helen Merrill's Dream of You. Recorded over the course of three days in July 1956 for EmArcy, the session paired Helen with arranger Gil Evans nearly a year before his first majestic session with trumpeter Miles Davis. Helen's Dream of You isn't a typical jazz-vocal recording of the period, where a singer belts out a set of American Songbook tunes backed by a bouncy band. Instead, what you have here is a true artistic duet—with Helen delivering deeply passionate readings of offbeat songs as Evans' jagged orchestrations lap at the lyrics and at times wash right over them.
What I love most about this recording is Helen's phrasing. To me, Helen sounds as though she's singing while lying in a grassy field, pulling out blades aimlessly as she tries to make sense of her life and feelings. In many cases in the '50s, big bands functioned as male counterparts to female vocals. But here, Evans' approach is decidedly feminine in its sophistication and sensitivity. His charts play the role of best friend, empathizing with Helen's wonderment, adding a flute affirmation here and violin shoulder to cry on there.
Evans truly is at the top of his arranging game here before he was brought to Columbia by producer George Avakian. Combined, Helen and Evans make you think and feel, and they don't take no for an answer. Dig Andy Razaf and Eubie Blake's You're Lucky to Me. Helen is at first girlishly shy before letting loose with adulation over her good fortune in love. Or the exotic quality of Elthea Peale, Harold Courlander and John Benson Brooks' Where Flamingos Fly. Or Duke Ellington and Mack David's haughty I'm Just a Lucky So and So.
What's special about this album are its impositions. This isn't pop material. Each song is an artistic commitment, and both Helen and Evans work hard to engage you with every note and lyric line. As with Billie Holiday, Helen's voice is an instrument offering a hidden message—where the breaths are taken and how forceful or tender the expression. [Photo by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
The more you listen to Dream of You, the more you marvel at the way Helen holds back, opens up and interacts with Evans' clouds-across-the-moon orchestrations. There's a lot of emotion here and you can't help but be sympathetic and swayed.
When I interviewed Helen in early 2009, here's what she told me about this session:
JazzWax: How did you come to the attention of Gil Evans?
Helen Merrill: It goes back to being in music circles in New York then. I had known Gil for some time. He was the talk of the underground music world for years, you know. He was always The Man. People would meet at his apartment to talk about music and socialize. It was a very warm scene.
JW: But whose brilliant idea was it pairing your voice with his breakthrough orchestrations in 1956?
HM: Actually, it was mine. Gil was so gifted. I had remembered his beautiful music for Claude Thornhill, and I thought his music would be beautiful to sing against. When I mentioned Gil's name to [EmArcy producer] Bob Shad, I thought Bob was going to have a heart attack. At first Bob said, “No,” firmly.
HM: Because Gil was so particular. He was famous for keeping orchestras overtime. Studio time and musicians were very expensive. Bob said “No” again, but I said, “You have to.” Eventually Bob gave in.
JW: How did you ever sing with those Gil Evans arrangements?
HM: Don’t ask [laughs]. They were tough but so beautiful. A year later I tried to take the arrangements on the road but the performances were a disaster. The band sounded like a freight train instead of music. That's when I realized you can’t do those arrangements live. Only Gil could make them work.
JW: You don’t read music. How did you remember those complex melodies?
HM: Gil helped me on the session. I didn’t work with him beforehand. The session was like any other—like falling off a cliff and learning to fly. I came in and we did it.
JW: One run through and you had it down?
HM: Yeah, I’m afraid so. Down, I don’t know. But I had it. I had this ability to hear things once and remember everything in detail.
JW: Did Gil complete the arrangements on time?
HM: [Laughs] As I recall, he was a little late. He was a wonderful man.
JW: Your phrasing on that session sounds like the basis for Miles Davis' approach with Gil a year later in 1957 on Miles Ahead.
HM: I have no idea. 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.
JW: Do you think Miles learned from your whisper technique?
HM: Miles learned from everyone. He was incredible. He took the best from everyone and threw away the rest. He was brilliant. One of the things he told me he loved about my voice was how I used space—both in music and between my voice and the mike.
Helen and Evans came together again in August 1987 to reprise their earlier meeting, adding a few other songs as well, including Summertime. The album, Collaboration, can be found at iTunes or here.
If after you read this post you've fallen head over heels in love with Helen's voice, you will surely enjoy another one of my favorite albums by Helen: Parole e Musica (1960) which was recorded in Rome with the Piero Umiliani quartet and sextet. The concept was to have a voice speaking in Italian about lost love sandwiched in between Helen's vocals. The narration is charming, but the real thrill is Helen's vocals, which will knock you out. This recording is super rare but it is available on CD as an import here.
JazzWax interview: For my five-part interview with Helen Merrill in 2009, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the title track of Dream of You, which perfectly demonstrates Helen's whisper technique...
How good is Helen's Parole e Musica? Here's a clip of These Foolish Things. If you want to skip the Italian narration, slide the bar up to 1:43...