What is it about the jazz standard that makes it so affecting? Jazz fans can be moved to tears, shouts, and everything in-between by exceptional renditions of their favorite "classics." Generations of people have attached memories and significance to songs such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Mood Indigo." The ability to produce such a song, one that lends itself to endless reinterpretation without becoming stale or trite, is a rare talent indeed. Verve, that champion of the reissue, has over the last few years released a series of songbook albums highlighting the contributions of many of jazz's great songwriters. The latest, and a most worthy, addition to that series, highlights the work of the great Southern gentleman of song, Mr. Johnny Mercer.
Born near Savannah in 1909, Johnny Mercer would in his lifetime conquer the mediums of the jazz standard, the popular song, the Broadway show stopper, and the motion picture theme. Blessed with a seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary, Mercer's talent as a lyricist and collaborator made him popular with several composers, all of whom he would work with several times. Yet, even though the music for his"signature" tunes was composed by several different men, there is a unique quality to these songs that makes them utterly Mercer. Perhaps it is the breadth of his words, or the quality of his rhymes, or perhaps as the sleeve to this compact disc notes "Johnny Mercer absorbed effortlessly the sights, sounds, and speech patterns of everyday life - and handed them right back again, in heightened and memorable form."
The selections on the first volume of Mercer's work (the liner notes make reference to being continued on an as of yet unreleased volume 2) are as varied as his wonderful lyrics. The title tune, "Blues In The Night" leads off the album with perhaps the definitive version by Pops Armstrong himself. Other highlights include two selections from Lady Day, "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" and "I Thought About You." Sorely under recorded Margaret Whiting offers a softly swinging version of "Come Rain Or Come Shine," and Helen Merrill croons the seductively free "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home."
A few curious selections are also included, such as Buddy Rich's sappy vocal treatment of the appropriately named "Goody Goody," and Mel Torme's Mel Tones little-too-syruppy "Hit The Road To Dreamland." However, interspursted between great selections by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Bing Croby, these curious selections come off as quirky and quite harmless.
For the ardent fan of Mercer and his work, this album is a worthy tribute to perhaps the greatest lyricist of our time. For the uninitiated, this album serves as an excellent introduction to the art of the great song. And for the rest of us in the middle? Well, Blues In The Night will do what Mercer songs do best : bring us countless moments of pleasure by infectiously embedding themselves into not only our memories, but our consciousness and our hearts.