When vocal jazz aficionados speak of the all-time great female practitioners, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are, quite aptly, typically identified as the holy troika. But I’d argue that the summit should include four thrones, the added space reserved for Carmen McRae.
Though McRae’s recording output, across a solo career that spanned five decades, was substantial, collecting McRae on CD has not been easy. Part of the problem is that she recorded for so many different labels, including, among others, Bethlehem, Decca, Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream, Atlantic, Blue Note, Concord and Denon. Almost all of her outstanding Decca/Kapp albums from the 1950s have drifted in and out of print, but mostly as pricey Japanese imports or hard-to-find import twofers. Some of the Columbia work – notably 1961’s Take Five with Dave Brubeck, and Something Wonderful, her pop-oriented salute to Broadway’s leading ladies – is around, though you’ll now have to search for a used copy (or settle for the iTunes version) of Lover Man, her classic ’61 salute to Holiday. Also available is most of the Concord material, including her unions with George Shearing and Cal Tjader. The rest has been hit-and-miss.