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Nana Mouskouri: Nana Mouskouri in New York

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What a difference four decades, a superb producer and a savvy sound engineer make. Greek superstar Nana Mouskouri was already a well-established, multilingual success across most of continental Europe when, in 1962, Mercury invited her to New York to record her first full-length foray into American standards. The objective was clear: to see if Mouskouri’s tremendous overseas appeal could reverberate as strongly in the lucrative U.S. market.

Mercury honcho Irving Green sensibly placed her in the hugely capable hands of Quincy Jones, then the hippest young producer in the business. As luck would have it, the soundman on the sessions was another budding genius, Phil Ramone. Mouskouri’s spectacular, classically trained voiced presented no problem for Jones and Ramone. Though no jazz singer, she’d already proven herself handily dexterous with French, German and Greek pop tunes. The biggest hurdle was getting Mouskouri, whose English was rudimentary at best, inside the lyrics. As she reveals in the liner notes, “Quincy would correct my pronunciation very carefully. ‘Only if you pronounce the words correctly can you express real emotion.'” And, indeed, she is letter perfect. (Only on “I Get a Kick Out of You,” added here as a bonus track but not included on the original album, does she stumble, dramatically changing Cole Porter’s meaning when she misreads the first line as “I get a kick from champagne.”)

The result of Jones’ touch? Fifteen well-chosen tunes, extending from Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s decades-old “Love Me or Leave Me” to the relatively contemporary “Till There Was You,” that ably showcase the magnificence of Mouskouri’s instrument but are obviously sung more from head than heart. As such, the album remains a far greater testament to the brilliant production skills of Jones and Ramone than to Mouskouri’s musicality.

Almost precisely 40 years after the release of Nana Mouskouri in New York (which was actually titled The Girl From Greece Sings in the U.S. then altered for European distribution), Mouskouri accepted an invitation to perform at Stuttgart’s Jazzopen Festival. For whatever reason, she opted to perform her entire 18-song set (including no fewer than five tunes from the New York sessions) in English. Sadly, on the resultant live disc Nana Swings (also available on DVD), the brass-heavy Berlin Radio Big Band tends to overwhelm her delicately aging voice. Sadder still, there’s no Quincy Jones on hand to help guide her through the lyrics. The errors are too numerous and often too glaring to be ignored: the oddly, repeatedly pluralized “whoopees” (which comes out sounding like “whoopas”) on “Makin’ Whoopee,” the comical reversal of “passing fancies” in “Our Love Is Here to Stay” to “fancy passes” and the precise mistake from four decades earlier on the opening line of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” to cite just a few. It would, of course, be cruel to judge such hiccups as major sins. They do, however, illustrate the tenuousness of her emotional connection to the lyrics’ genuine meanings. As on New York, she demonstrates plenty of musical smarts (Mouskouri didn’t become the biggest-selling female artist on the planet without those), but nothing that really swings and little with truly believable heart.