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Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs

By Published: November 6, 2006

AAJ: Following Helen Merrill you recorded Dream of You (Emarcy, 1956), with Gil Evans, which helped bringing him out of retirement and then work with Miles Davis. Who picked Gil? Was it your decision?

HM: It was my decision and [producer] Bob Shad was horrified because Gil was famous for using lots of studio time. I still wanted Gil and Gil never forgot my loyalty to him. He was a living treasure and we all loved him. Miles and Gil had a very caring relationship. I think he saw Gil as a super father figure. Yes, I told Miles about my recording and he said simply: "I think I will call Gil and record with him again..."

AAJ: Although the record with Clifford Brown was quite important, some say this one "shows off more of your expressive vocal talents" and thirty years after you worked again with him on Collaboration (Emarcy, 1987), which is regarded as one of your best albums. How different was this experience from the very first one?

HM: Kyoshi Koyama was my producer on that album with Gil and Gil accepted the assignment. Gil was a very careful writer and very, very slow. He was not very well at that time and so we decided to redo the old and add "Summertime."

AAJ: Talking about collaborations, in 1989 you recorded Just Friends (Emarcy, 1989), a beautiful album with [saxophonist] Stan Getz where your voices matched so perfectly being both smooth and cool. How did that opportunity to record together happen?

HM: Stan and I were old friends. We worked together in Scandinavia for a long while.

Helen MerrillAAJ: Why did you move to Europe, Italy, by the end of the '50s? Were you having trouble with finding work in the US?

HM: There was always trouble finding work for jazz artists in the US, but my reason was rather a commonplace one. I was escaping from a very bad romance. I went to England with [jazz critic] Leonard Feather to sing on the BBC with Dudley Moore (who was a very good pianist) and from there to Belgium and The Comblain La-Tour Festival. There I met [pianist] Romano Mussolini, who invited me to Italy to sing with him and his various groups. I had quite a lot of success there doing Festivals, TV and even movie music. From there I was invited by the Hot Club of Japan to sing in that country. This was in 1960.

AAJ: What was that experience like?

HM: It was a fantastic experience. Dreamlike. I did not live in Japan I went there to work. In the late '60s I met a gentleman there whom I married. He was in charge of UPI for all of Asia. They were exciting days of hard travel but I was forced to discontinue my career somewhat.

AAJ: Did you really expect to become so popular in Japan as you were fortunate to be?

HM: Fortune had little to do with it. I worked very hard and for very little money. My musicianship made me popular with the public and musicians as it did in Italy, and France. Japan is a country of diversified tastes and interests. There is a loyal group of jazz followers and they remain loyal. My longtime popularity has to do in part with my sincere interest in that country and its culture and in part, as [pianist] Roland Hanna would say, "You have a magical way of touching people's hearts." So that even though I sing in English, it does not seem to matter. Same in France.

AAJ: Japan has always been a very important market for jazz and jazz musicians. Having lived and recorded there, how do you explain this phenomenon?

HM: The Japanese people have many interests and are avid hobbyists. When I first went to Japan I met some of the greatest musicians both jazz and classical and pop. The classical musicians such as [composer] Toru Takemitsu, [conductor Seiji] Ozawa and so on, already had a great knowledge of western classical music. The young jazz musicians were very eager to learn and I tried to impart what knowledge I had. Today, Japanese jazz musicians have risen to a very high level. They also have very sophisticated taste in their selection of music and musicians and so continue to enjoy jazz music.

AAJ: Why did you decide to go back to the US in the '70s?

HM: As I stated, my career in Japan kind of ended when I married. So living there was more of a puzzle to the Japanese fans than an asset. I came back to the USA because my husband did.

AAJ: Back home you recorded two very successful albums with pianist Dick Katz and musicians like [trumpter] Thad Jones, [saxophonist]Gary Bartz, [guitarist]Jim Hall, [bassist] Ron Carter and [drummer] Elvin Jones: The Feeling is Mutual (Milestone, 1967) and A Shade of Difference (Landmark, 1968). How important were they in your career?

HM: The recordings I did with Dick Katz remain fresh and rather wonderful. I do not say this for myself, but the caliber of musicians on those dates could only create amazing music. Dick was and is an interesting arranger and his music sounds very contemporary. The recording was "live" and it has a sound that is amazingly good.

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