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Lee Wiley: Music of Manhattan, 1951

These 1951 selections come from transcription discs and live appearances at Storyville, a Town Hall Concert, and the Rustic Lodge. Wiley was a great vocalist, often associated with Chicago Dixieland musicians. Her primary influence was Ethel Waters, and she had much in common with Billie Holiday as well. Both had rather raw, “whiskey soaked” timbres and laid-back attacks, and made up for limited ranges and power with excellent taste, sensitivity and the ability to freshen melodies by improvising on them. She was known for her sensitive ballad performances, but sang blues convincingly as well. Her accompanists here include some fine trumpeters, Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Muggsy Spanier, and Red Allen, and pianist Joe Bushkin.

She’s very relaxed and sure of herself. And she’s wonderfully unpretentious. Pianist Stan Freeman, who worked with her, said Wiley “didn’t know what she was singing half the time.” Maybe, but she interprets lyrics meaningfully, accenting words and syllables astutely. Though her vocals have a weary quality, she never gets maudlin, and there are times when she’s buoyant.

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