"A Woman Alone With the Blues" features sparse piano, whispering drums, and a mournful trumpet lurking in the background. But it's the vocals that really push it over the edge. Peggy Lee doesn't sing this song; she crawls into it and huddles in the dark spaces, as she does on virtually all of the songs on 1956's Black Coffee
Lee got her start with Benny Goodman churning out hits like "Why Don't You Do Right." She used her superior vocal ability to strike out on her own like many of the big band singers of the time, who quickly emerged as the real attraction. But nobody was really prepared for Black Coffee, a statement that easily stands up next to the best work of Ella, Sarah, and Billie.
The title song is the typical blue flame ballad that one always associates with smoky jazz clubs and perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the album. The original ten-inch release had Lee backed by a quartet on a handful of torch songs and blues. Lee jumps into the river that goes all the way back to Ethel Waters, showing an ability to live through the lyrics normally associated with Billie Holiday. Through the tales of love lost, only "I've Got You Under My Skin" breaks through the clouds, but whoever this fellow may be she's singing about, he didn't last for long.
Four tracks pad out the original release to plump it up to a full length LP. A harp, guitar, and vibes provide a gossamer texture, used to good effect on the virtually tempoless "You're My Thrill" and the music box introduction to "There's A Small Hotel." Like any good album, the strength is in the details, and the group has fashioned clever twists to familiar songs that are strung together as an album that deserves to be heard as a complete statement.
"I'd rather be lonely than happy with somebody else," Lee sings. The melancholy ballads here may make one believe otherwise. Black Coffee proves that thoughtful song selection, intelligent accompaniment, and brilliant singing can combine to create a work of art. Although known more for her pop efforts, Lee has created one of the best examples of jazz singing ever recorded.
Personnel: Peggy Lee - vocals; with (on 1-4 and 7-10) Pete Condoli - trumpet; Jimmy Rowles - piano; Max Wayne
- bass; Ed Shaugnessy - drums; (on 5, 6, 11, and 12) Stella Castellucci - harp; Lou Levy - piano; Bill
Pittman - guitar; Buddy Clark - bass; Larry Bunker - drums, vibraphone, percussion.