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Carmen McRae: At Ratso’s, Volume 1

Newly unearthed, these sessions are a testament to the state of live jazz in the mid-’70s, especially for big-name vocalists. At a time in her career when Carmen McRae should have been filling enormous music halls, she found herself in an obscure Chicago club, playing for an aptly appreciative yet nonetheless tiny audience. Though so nominal a booking must have been somewhat disheartening for an artist of her caliber, it is a special treat for those of us who appreciate that McRae always sounded her best in hushed, intimate settings.

Recorded over two nights in early 1976, this 12-track set ably demonstrates her ability to handle youth-oriented pop tunes and robust jazz standards with equal esteem. McRae wasn’t the first singer of her generation to cover contemporary top-40 material, but she was arguably the best and most experimental. (For proof, simply turn to her recently reissued series of late-’60s Atlantic albums and listen to her tackle the likes of “Carry That Weight,” “MacArthur Park” and “The Sound of Silence.”) Here, she opens with James Taylor’s generically reverent “Music” then segues into a soft, delicate treatment of Stevie Wonder’s “You and I.” McRae also works her inimitable magic on Kenny Rankin’s gorgeously romantic “Lost Up Loving You” and Eric Carmen’s starkly reflective “All By Myself,” on which she skillfully sidesteps the lyric’s inherent self-pity. She soars through Bob Lind’s featherweight “Elusive Butterfly,” which, by this point, had become almost a McRae staple, and delivers a bouncy, boisterous, bear hug of a version of Blossom Dearie’s “Hey John.”

Jazz purists who prefer to let the Hit Parade pass them by will still find much to savor, including a 13-minute Ellington medley, an appropriately peppy “Them There Eyes” and a singularly exquisite interpretation of Cy Coleman’s “Would You Believe.”

Originally Published