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Helen Merrill: ‘S All Wonderful

Listening session with renowned singer

Helen Merrill

Vocalist Helen Merrill has always surrounded herself with top musicians, from her first jazz recordings with Quincy Jones and Clifford Brown to her modernist sessions with Gil Evans and Steve Lacy. Merrill, 80, was one of the first American jazz stars to live and teach in Japan in the 1960s, and she made time for this listening session in New York on the eve of another trip to Tokyo. Three of Merrill’s finest recordings have been reissued on the Mosaic label as Casa Forte and The Helen Merrill-Dick Katz Sessions.

1. Sarah Vaughan

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” (from The Divine Sarah Vaughan, Columbia). Vaughan, vocal; Jimmy Jones, piano; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Benny Green, trombone; Tony Scott, clarinet; Miles Davis, trumpet; Freddie Green, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1950.

BEFORE: It’s early Sarah. Wonderful. What year was this made? It’s interesting: She had an edge to her voice that she lost later on. [listens more] Now she’s sounding more like Sarah. The musicality is there; her way of phrasing and improvising on the melody was perfect. I loved hearing that. She was my idol from day one, when I heard her singing “Signing Off.” I love her sound and her ability to phrase the way a musician plays. She sang like a horn player with good taste.

AFTER: Jimmy sounded good. I thought it was Miles. Tony was around here a lot. He liked singers, and he was a real character. I used to see him at Leonard Feather’s parties and at a little place uptown where Baby Laurence used to come dance. It was amazing to be a New Yorker then. There was so much talent around.

2. Dee Dee Bridgewater

“Mother’s Son-in-Law” (from Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, DDB/Emarcy). Bridgewater, vocal; Christian McBride, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Edsel Gomez, piano; James Carter, saxophones. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [laughs] She’s good: her time, her sense of humor, her ability to speak a song, to tell the story without having to worry about whether her notes are perfect. She’s wonderful. Good bass player. That’s Christian McBride? I always loved bass players. She’s cute.

AFTER: That’s Dee Dee? Oh, tell her I loved it! I knew Dee Dee from Paris. She’s very, very good. What I loved about this is that she didn’t try to sound like Billie. She sounds like herself, which is quite good enough. I didn’t realize what a great sense of humor she has. This broke me up. And Christian is ridiculously good.

3. Gil Evans

“The Barbara Song” (from The Individualism of Gil Evans, Verve). Frank Rehak, trombone; Ray Alonge, Julius Watkins: French horn; Bill Barber, tuba; Wayne Shorter, Al Block, Andy Fitzgerald, George Marge, Bob Tricarico: woodwinds; Bob Maxwell, harp; Gary Peacock, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: Sounds like Gil. I’ve never heard this. It’s very dark. He was a wonderful man-original, very brave. I would have loved to hear Miles play above this. My God, he took that to a very dark place. He was able to be very free with what he heard. And he placed the instruments in ways that other arrangers wouldn’t have thought of. He got peculiarly human sounds out of the instruments. In this case it’s very dark and haunting.

When you recorded with him, did he write for your voice?

Not all the time. I would have liked him to write more like this for my voice. He never understood that I resonated in darkness, I really do. There’s nothing phony about Gil’s writing. I like honesty in music.

4. Nancy King

“By Myself” (from Impending Bloom, Justice). King, vocal. Recorded in 1991.

BEFORE: She’s good. Anyone who can sing a cappella like this is a great musician. It’s amazing. She’s certainly a jazz singer, I’ll tell you that. I know I should know her. She’s very, very good. How could she do that? I’m totally jealous [laughs].

AFTER: Really? Wait a minute. I know her, but I had no idea she could sing this well. That’s amazing. I loved it. She’s a really nice person, too. She was here with another singer, Karrin Allyson. And I have the record she made with Fred Hersch [2006’s Live at Jazz Standard on MaxJazz]. It’s a beautiful record. I’m happy to hear this.

5. Shirley Horn

“You Won’t Forget Me” (from You Won’t Forget Me, Verve). Horn: piano, vocal; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Miles Davis, trumpet. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: I love this song. Oh, that’s Shirley. Her phrasing is magnificent. That’s Miles, right? This is perfect music. The first time Torrie [Zito] heard her play piano he said everything she played could be orchestrated beautifully. I love her. That’s the honesty thing again. This arrangement is such an interesting way to do it. The time is perfect; who’s playing drums? I first heard this song on the Arthur Godfrey Show. Great lyric. Miles always loved her. He learned a lot from her. Shirley and I were in Paris and we passed by a bar called Slow Bar. She said she had to buy that place someday because she liked to sing very slow-and she liked good cognac

The rest of this article appears in the December 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published