Rita Reys: Collected: Europe’s First Lady of Jazz (Universal)

Review of three-disc best-of collection by the late Dutch singer

Cover of Rita Reys album Collected: Europe's First Lady of Jazz
Cover of Rita Reys album Collected: Europe’s First Lady of Jazz

Although she was one of Europe’s preeminent jazz vocalists throughout the latter half of the 20th century, with a discography that includes more than 30 albums, Rita Reys remains largely unfamiliar to American listeners. This comprehensive, three-disc, 65-track compilation provides a solid, career-spanning introduction.

The Rotterdam-born Reys, who died in 2013 at age 88, began singing in the 1940s, fronting a sextet formed by her husband, drummer Wessel Ilcken. She scored her debut hit in 1955 with Collected’s lead track, “My Funny Valentine,” recorded with Ilcken’s combo. Her style owed a strong debt to Sarah Vaughan, with subtler hints of June Christy and Helen Merrill. The following year, American producer George Avakian invited her to New York, where she cut six sides with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; their “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” is included here. “Valentine,” the Blakey tracks, and five more with Ilcken shaped her first album, 1957’s The Cool Voice of Rita Reys. That same year, Ilcken died in a car crash. Reys began performing with pianist Pim Jacobs; they wed in 1960, their professional and personal bonds remaining strong until his death in 1996. Their Marriage in Modern Jazz (1960) paved the way for more than a dozen more joint albums. A concurrent performance at Juan les Pins earned her the sobriquet “Europe’s First Lady of Jazz.”

The set’s first two discs chronologically survey Reys’ studio albums through her final release in 2004. Remarkably, she recorded almost exclusively in English, favoring the Great American Songbook and the sort of mainstream pop also explored by the likes of Sinatra and Peggy Lee. While rarely adventurous—no scatting and little coloring outside lines—she sings (and swings) beautifully, elegantly capturing any mood, her tone and phrasing immaculate. The Vaughan influences never faded, occasionally blending in her middle-to-late years with Shirley Bassey-esque verve. Between 1971 and 1998, following Ella’s lead, Reys undertook a series of five songbook projects. These salutes to Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Gershwins, and Henry Mancini, all well represented, rank among the finest albums in her canon. As exquisite is 1965’s Rita Reys Meets Oliver Nelson, featuring Jacobs, Art Farmer, and Barney Kessel, here heard on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

Collected’s third disc is an intriguing melange of live recordings, singles, and rarities. There are three tracks from a terrific 1961 club date with Kenny Clarke, captured at Holland’s Singer Concert Hall; four with Jacobs, including a hypnotic “A Day in the Life of a Fool” from 1967’s Rita a Go-Go;  and a dazzling, hard-swinging “I Cried for You” from 1985. She dips into the Lennon-McCartney oeuvre for a lovely “All My Lovin’.” There’s also the set’s sole Dutch track, “Zon in Scheveningen” (recorded with Jacobs in 1959), and four tracks crafted in 2000 with pianist/conductor Lex Jasper for the retrospective Songs of a Lifetime. Most delightful among them: a sweet duet with daughter Leila Jacobs on “When I Take My Sugar to Tea.”

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