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Peggy Lee/June Christy: The Complete Peggy Lee & June Christy Capitol Transcription Sessions

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Mosaic’s first all-vocal release, The Complete Peggy Lee & June Christy Capitol Transcription Sessions, makes available obscure early material by these jazz-oriented singers. Transcriptions were 16″ disks containing about a dozen songs specifically produced for radio broadcast and not sold in music stores. Their contents tended to be more informal and less jukebox-driven than commercial singles. As Lee recently observed, “We made these transcriptions for radio play only, and I have been hesitant to have them released. They were recorded very quickly, and if we were making a record album we would have done things quite differently. However, if you listen with this in mind, I think you will enjoy what we were doing.”

June Christy had just turned 20 in December 1945 when she cut the first 15 tracks in this collection. Nine months earlier, she had replaced Anita O’Day as vocalist with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, and had sung on only three Kenton recordings before making these transcriptions. Credited to “June Christy and the Kentones,” these performances featured the singer backed by a septet combining Kenton sidemen (saxophonist Boots Mussulli, trombonist Gene Roland) with several ringers, notably guitarist Dave Barbour who, at the time, was married to Peggy Lee, and who appears on all 99 tracks of this five-CD set.

Christy’s greenness is unmistakably evident on these early solo efforts. Her singing is marked by deadpan delivery of lyrics, weird elocution (peculiar vowel sounds that almost suggest she had learned the songs phonetically), pitch problems, and a plodding tendency to phrase dead on the beat. One senses only a few faint glimmers of her artistic potential. The musical value on these tracks comes from the instrumentalists’ efforts, notably Barbour’s and bassist Eddie Safranski’s.

A quick study, Christy returns the following July to record a dozen more transcriptions with another Kenton-derived ensemble (including her soon-to-be-husband, saxophonist Bob Cooper.) She’s begun investing some thought and feeling in her lyric interpretations (even a slight Billie Holiday moan in “Lover Man”), and has worked on her diction, intonation and time problems. On the effervescent “Get Happy”, the obscure Vernon Duke ballad “This Is Romance” and the bluesy “Supper Time,” one can hear emerging the distinctive, warmly remembered singer whose adventurous ’50s album collaborations with arranger Pete Rugolo have been successfully revived on CD and continue to inspire neophyte jazz singers.

Five years Christy’s senior, Peggy Lee had toured and recorded with Benny Goodman’s band, retired from performing to raise a daughter, then changed her mind and resumed her career by the time she cut her first Capitol transcriptions. Of her 72 tracks in the Mosaic set recorded between 1946 and 1949, Barbour’s guitar/keyboards/bass/drums combo backs all but nine. (On the final 1949 sessions, master guitarist George Van Eps expands this quartet to a quintet. The remaining tunes feature a strings-and-brass studio orchestra playing deft Frank DeVol arrangements.) The preponderance of percussion-based, small group settings leads to a sonic sameness offset by Barbour’s inventive solos and responsiveness to his wife’s musical and expressive needs.

These unearthed transcriptions prove eye-openers, even for listeners who regard Lee as one of the premier musical talents of our fading century. Her singing combines qualities one finds separately in other vocalists: a strikingly individual sound, polished musicianship, rhythmic assurance, versatility, intelligence, sensitivity, wit. By the late ’50s, she had become “Miss” Peggy Lee, a glamorous, somewhat distant celebrity whose heartfelt singing was counterbalanced by a rather aloof, perfectionist stage presence. The Lee of the Capitol transcriptions has yet to become an icon.

Having just liberated herself from housework, she’s spontaneous, playful, sometimes even kittenish, more “Peggy” than the imposing, slightly intimidating Miss Lee of her heyday.

Her singing on these sides is so consistently polished as to preclude the necessity of a session-by-session commentary. Of the orchestral tracks, I was especially taken by a vivacious version of the Goodman-associated “All The Cats Join In,” the torchy “A Nightingale Can Sing The Blues” and the cheeky “My Sugar Is So Refined.” The small group sessions interweave delicately wrought interpretations of familiar material-a shimmering ” I Only Have Eyes For You”, a pensive ” Lonesome Road,” a time-stands-still reading of “The Way You Look Tonight”-with some forgotten gems long overdue for revival: Benny Carter’s brooding “Melancholy Lullaby,” Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s reflective ballad “I’ve Had My Moments” and Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s wistful “As Long As I’m Dreaming.”

Although I’d hardly recommend The Complete Peggy Lee & June Christy Capitol Transcription Sessions as an introduction to the work of these two songstre-sses, their fans will surely find it an irresistible indulgence.