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Jeri Southern: Blue Note, Chicago, March 1956

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It’s a shame that pianist and vocalist Jeri Southern’s self-truncated career has left her a mere footnote in the history of jazz singing-for she ranked among the most gifted and compelling artists of the 1950s, blending the cool-school sangfroid of Chris Connor with the purr of Peggy Lee and the sophisticated sultriness of Julie London. (All the while she proved equally impressive behind a Steinway, with shades of Nat Cole, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.) Southern released a dozen albums, all for major labels-Decca, Capitol, Roulette-before her chronic stage fright got the better of her and she retired from performing in 1962, still in her mid-30s. Her slim but stellar output included just one live LP, 1959’s At the Crescendo.

At last, a quarter-century after her death, comes this 70-minute session, captured with stunning quality at Chicago’s Blue Note in early 1956. Alongside a pair of house-band stalwarts-bassist Al Bruno and drummer Dominic Simonetta-she navigates a sterling playlist: Noël Coward, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Burton Lane, Alan Jay Lerner, the Gershwins and a stunning, a cappella “Scarlet Ribbons.” Across her career’s dozen years, Southern also carved a unique niche, specializing in vaguely scandalous romantic mini-sagas. That enticing peculiarity is winningly exercised here, as she sketches the angst-driven drama of “Miss Johnson Phoned Again Today,” “One Day I Wrote His Name Upon the Sand,” “I’m in Love With the Honorable Mr. So and So” and her sole signature hit, the edge-of-sin “You Better Go Now.”

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