The late Chris Connor remains one of my favorite singers. Unfairly likened to June Christy, Chris had a lower, huskier sound and greater vocal control. Both sang with Stan Kenton and, while Christy was West Coast and Chris was East Coast, both had a bruised, slick-chick sound—the ache of being jilted. Chris was a songsmith. She told me she often spent downtime at music stores leafing through sheet music in search of songs other singers had missed. Back then, you were hip when you sang great songs everyone else had missed. They called that taste.
When I interviewed Chris in 2008, she told me one of her favorite albums was Chris Connor Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song for Atlantic. Interestingly, her recording in February 1957 came two years before Ella Fitzgerald's own Gershwin album—though in all fairness Fitzgerald had already started her songbook series in '56 with Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart albums.
Yesterday I spent hours listening to the Gershwin album and fell in love again with Chris's voice and vocal savvy. On the album, Chris wound up with two different arrangers—always a challenge when such a switch occurs midway through a recording project. [Photo above of Chris Connor in St. Louis by Bernie Thrasher, c. 1957]
Said Chris in 2008...
"[Pianist] Ralph Sharon was with me for eight years, before I signed with Atlantic and while I was there. But he left suddenly for Tony Bennett, who offered him much more money. Ralph left me in the middle of my Sings the Gershwin Almanac album. Ray Ellis came in and arranged the rest of it. I love this album. Actually, I love all my Atlantic records. And they're still selling more than 50 years later."
These sessions were recorded with the very best East Coast jazz musicians—including Al Cohn, Herbie Mann, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Cleveland, Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith, Mundell Lowe and two dozen others on different dates. The Sharon-arranged tracks are mostly quartet and quintet sessions while the Ellis tracks are brassy, with an emphasis on trombones.
As you listen to Chris, dig how deftly she slides up and down the song's chord changes, how she lingers and how she takes risks, choosing unusual notes only to resolve them perfectly. All while pouring breath into that tenor sax of a voice of hers. Nearly six years after our chats, I still remember Chris as gracious, shy and fun.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Chris Connor Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song here.
JazzWax clips: Here are four songs from the album to give you a sense of how gorgeous Chris's voice was in 1957...