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Anita O’Day: The Complete Anita O’Day Verve/Clef Sessions

illustration of Anita O'Day

A critic once advised Anita O’Day to clear her throat before singing; another characterized her sound as “strangulated.” As she candidly observed in her 1981 memoir, High Times Hard Times, “I knew I didn’t have any chops, but I also knew I had a lot of heart.”

Despite its keen edge and vivacious sparkle, O’Day’s grainy voice lacks richness and power. Her strength stems from her harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness. She relates that, when she was seven, a careless doctor sliced off her uvula while performing a tonsillectomy. As a consequence, she has difficulty sustaining long notes, for which she compensates by breaking extended tones into strings of eighth and sixteenth notes. (Typically, she sings “love” as “la-ah-ah-ah-ah-ve” and, instead of simply repeating the melody note, employs these syllables to navigate the chord structure underpinning the melodic line.) Forced to break long phrases into discrete units, O’Day, who was also a competent drummer, evolved a supple, dynamic sense of time that served her well when bebop supplanted swing. No singer in jazz history has played with the beat so daringly, or swung so consistently, even on ballads.

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