“This girl has got to make it. If she doesn’t, something’s very wrong.” This was Freddie Green, speaking of Teri Thornton when this album was made. For the longest time, the prediction seemed amiss: dropped by Riverside after two albums, decades of obscurity, cancer – many things got in the way of the dream. But it never ended: in September of 1998, with Norman Simmons at the keys, Teri Thornton won the vocal competition of the Thelonious Monk Institute, at once gaining recognition denied her for ages. In light of this triumph, her first album has been reissued, and it shows a full-throated emotional voice, full of power and dripping with passion. It takes a moment to see in her what Freddie did.
The backing is impressive: eight pieces with the force of a big band. Simmons did the charts: he met her in Chicago and became a life-long friend. The sound comes strong with Freddie more prominent than normal – nice. With warm vibrato and caramel tone Teri launches into “Lullaby of the Leaves” – this will not put you to sleep! It’s a worldly sound (she says “that Southland” with great resonance) with tons of experience – the sweet thing on the cover had a voice older than she was!
She takes things like “Devil May Care” with great relish – hear “I live and I die – devil may care!” and try to doubt she means it. She takes heavy tunes like “Detour Ahead” and “Left Alone” with a strong dramatic sense – Shirley Bassey without the histrionics. The charts glow – Simmons manages to use all the group’s sound while leaving lots of open space for Teri. There’s a great burnished sound on “The Song is You”, and Selden Powell contrasts the sadness of “Detour Ahead” with a dancing flute (he also gets a late-night tenor on “My Old Flame”.) She clearly belongs in such company, and the big sound fits her big voice.
While her tastes lean to sad ballads, when the music picks up Teri’s there with it. “Dancing in the Dark” comes at the top of her range; the band starts with a flurry. Teri starts slow and begins to add speed. She remains stately up-tempo, but her song is simpler, less vibrato and more shout. It works, though the weepers leave a greater impression. “Left Alone” (a Billie Holiday tune never recorded by her) has all of Billie’s sadness and some of her intonation. Powell’s solo reminds us of Ben Webster, and the horns rise in full orchestral glory. Teri soars above this with ease, helped at the end by a cavernous echo. (We get the point she’s alone, but it’s a little gimmicky.)
“I Feel a Song Comin’ On”, Teri declares as the horns riff deleriously behind her. This has more spirit than “Dancing in the Dark”, and Teri really takes it when the verse is repeated. Her high note at the end is a thrill – the arrangement no less. “What’s New?” is deliciously torrid; the line “Gee, but it’s nice to see you again” lights a fire. For an instant she pops her fingers; the band charges mellow with a tear in its eyes. Wynton Kelly has a blink of a solo; hear it while you can. “Blue Skies” gets its rare verse, and Teri’s mood caps it nicely.
It’s a rich album, rewarding listeners in many ways. Many, knowing her story, will pick this up and not be disappointed. In his original notes, producer Orrin Keepnews talks about “a most appealing young singer, destined for real stardom.” It would be nice if, after all this time, that prediction finally came true.