There has never been a jazz vocal record quite like Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill.
It is obvious from the very first track as the Lado Folk Dance and Music Ensemble of Croatia intone a movement from the liturgical cantata "Telo Kristusevo" against the backdrop of Terry Clarke's thundering drums. It is a prayer sung to God that resonates with all the beauty and mystery of an ancient Eastern European people. It is with the music of her ancestral homeland that Helen Merrill begins this remarkable disc. Merrill has made some fascinating and unconventional albums over the last 46 years. However, this very well may be the most ambitious and deeply personal recording of the 71-year old singer's career.
The American daughter of immigrants from the Croatian Isle of Krk, Merrill has drawn on the popular and traditional folk music of the land of her birth and the music of the land of her descent and filtered them through the lens of jazz. This is no random collection of songs, but, instead, a suite of music almost Ellingtonian in its conception and structure. It is an album awash in the haze of memory and the passage of time. The music aches with a profound longing for the home, the family and the loves abandoned in the foolish days of youth. While a project like this cannot avoid the air of pretension, Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill has the weight and substance of genuine emotion.
Merrill hardly conforms to the hip, finger snapping, scat happy image that the public has of a jazz singer. She sings with a measured intensity that might be described as deliberate spontaneity. Her formidable understanding of harmony is often overlooked by listeners mesmerized by the haunting quality of her voice. She shapes her phrases to accomplish musical goals while still paying close attention to the words. Merrill does not have the traditional storyteller approach to lyrics. Instead, she treats songs as psychological monologues in which the emotions expressed at a particular moment of the lyric are more important than the overall narrative framework.
The five 19th Century American ballads that serve as the core of the album provide unexpectedly strong material. But however unorthodox the songs may be, this is still most definitely a jazz record. Four of the tracks feature a quartet led by Gil Goldstein and highlighted by Steve Lacy's soprano sax. The always creative Mr. Lacy makes his presence strongly felt on this disc whether filling in behind Merrill's vocal line or soloing. He moves to the center stage for the Croatian folk song "Tanac" playing against a recording by two sopila players. Sir Roland Hanna leads a trio on a lightly swinging "Among by Souvenirs" and, along with the discrete bowed bass of George Mraz, duets with Merrill on a spellbinding "Sometimes I Feel Like Motherless Child." Torrie Zito conducts the three chamber orchestra pieces and accompanies his wife on piano for a starkly beautiful "Nobody Knows.
Personnel: Helen Merrill: vocals; Steve Lacy: soprano saxophone; Gil Goldstein: piano and accordion; Torrie Zito: piano and Fender Rhodes; Sir Roland Hanna: piano; Terry Clarke: drums; George Mraz: double bass; Dennis Anderson: oboe and english horn; Dominic Cortese: accordion; Gloria Agostini: harp; Jeff Mironov: guitar; Jesse Levy: cello; Steve Kroon: percussion; Lado Folk and Dance Music Ensemble of Croatia; two unidentified Croatian sopila players.