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Interviews

Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs

By Published: November 6, 2006

AAJ: In 1976 you recorded with [pianist] John Lewis, mostly a duet album. Then in the '80s you recorded again in duet with [pianist] Gordon Beck (1984) and Ron Carter (1987). Is it challenging and rewarding singing in this environment?

HM: It can be very rewarding to sing in duet but the mood has to be correct and the conversation interesting.. The records I did with Gordon were a very big success in France. We did many concerts in France and we had some magical moments.

AAJ: We have to talk about Brownie (Polygram, 1995). Besides being a great record it is also a tribute to Clifford Brown forty years after your musical encounter in a recording studio. It all started with a memorial for the 35th anniversary of his death, but it took you two years to finally go into studio and record it. Why?

HM: A tribute CD that is very personal to yourself can never be as you feel it should be. That was the case in the making of both of my tribute CD's. You suddenly confront the enormity of your responsibility to represent these very special people. It took a long time for my Brownie CD because of my great respect for Clifford and his beautiful wife Larue. I wrote the lyrics to "Your Eyes" for Larue and she sent me the most moving and beautiful letter about her response to the lyrics. The other was trying to interpret the lives of my parents—an impossible chore. When my mother sang, there was always an underlying message that was her secret. I learned that spaces and the imagination of the listener were as important as the messenger. There are lines in "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" that to this day I feel deeply moved by: "The roses all have left your cheeks, I watched them fade away and die... your voice is sad when e're you speak and tears bedim your loving eyes, Oh I will take you home Kathleen to where your heart will feel no pain," etc.—it was clear to me my mother was singing about herself. My mother missed her homeland and family there.

AAJ: Who among the new generation of trumpet players can best continue the voice of Clifford?

HM: Well, no one I know of personally. Tom Harrell at his best is wonderful. There are many very fine trumpet players.

AAJ: By the way, do you usually listen to your records at home?

HM: No, I do not listen to my records very much but when I do, it is like listening to a stranger and I am usually very surprised at how good some of those recordings can be.

AAJ: What do you listen to nowadays?

HM: I am looking for new material for my next CD and am listening to all kinds of music to be inspired. So far, I have a couple of songs I like.

AAJ: Do you have any favorite singers among the new generation of jazz female singers?

HM: I do not have any favorite singers, but sometimes I will hear a performance that moves me very deeply. I love Shirley Horne, mostly before she became more popular. Her music is beautiful and I miss her very much. New generation singers—well, I have not been listening but I am starting to.

AAJ: What do you think will be your legacy to jazz?

HM: My legacy, well, I have tried to make interesting music all my life, I have had the honor of working with great musicians. People for whom I have the greatest respect. I find it inspiring to work with creative musicians. Unlike a lot of singers, I prefer to become a voice within the music rather than being accompanied.

AAJ: If you could start all over again, would you still want to be a jazz singer?

HM: I would be a jazz singer yes, because of my need to interact with the musicians. It is not an easy life and I would not recommend [it]. However, you make lifelong friends and that is fun.

AAJ: From all the jazz musicians you have played and recorded with which ones impressed you most?

HM: There are so many musicians that have impressed me... Working with [pianist] Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Clifford Brown, [bassist] George Mraz, [arranger] Torrie Zito, Elvin Jones, [composer/arranger] Masahiko Satoh, [composer] Masaaki Kikuchi, [composer] Ennio Morricone, Dick Katz., Thad Jones, [bassist] Oscar Pettiford—there are so many. They all have very deep feelings sensitivity and an original way of expressing music. Almost all the musicians I have recorded with are fabulous players.

AAJ: What is jazz to you and what can it bring to people, namely young people?

HM: Jazz permits expression of feelings that can be universal in nature. It can be deeply sad or very funny. The part that is not available to all artists is the ability to project these feelings to your listeners. Young people have a great need for expressing feelings and I think that jazz music, from blues to avant-garde, can be an interesting way to find what makes them feel.

AAJ: How do you think it will change through this new century?

HM: I think world music is rapidly changing jazz and we can expect wonderful new sounds from all over the world affecting our music. I also find that jazz is a wonderful form of diplomacy. The freedom in our music is universal and appealing to young people.



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