Cat Conner: Cat Tales
One of the greatest jazz performance challenges is playing and singing ballads slow...sometimes called "calendar slow." The trick is playing slowly without dragging or stalling. It is simple physics, the difference between velocity and momentum. Simple tempo may be understood in terms of speed (or velocity) but swing, swing has the added element of musical weight about it, ensuring that once motion is started, no matter how slow, it is properly maintained by the spirit of the delivery.
The mistress of the slow ballad was the late Shirley Horn, who trumpeter Miles Davis, after hearing her debut, Embers and Ashes (Stereo-Craft Records, 1960), told Horn he like her music, but ..."she played awfully slow." This was no dig at Horn as Davis himself, inspired by Ahmad Jamal's "less is more" approach to piano playing, preferred a lot of "space" within which to play. Horn calmly blazed a trail in this most demanding performance form. But, while Horn was a slow ballad beacon, she was far from the last of them. Vocalists Rebecca Parris and Patti Wicks have also mastered this mercurial method and produced many fine recordings of the same.
Add to this school a voice that has been a long time coming. West Coast vocalist Cat Conner has been performing the better part of her adult life as part of her rather impressive collection of creative talents that include body art and performance art. After enduring a considerable amount of encouragement from her friends in the music industry, Conner brings her light from beneath the basket on her long overdue debut, Cat Tails. This recording is a collection of mostly 1930s and '40s standards performed with a minimum of instrumentation and haste.
Conner's slow ballad prowess is amply illustrated on the quartet center of the disc: Billy Eckstein's "I Want to Talk About You," Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" and the Gershwins' "Embraceable You." "I Want to Talk about You" takes the familiar mid-tempo ballad to a liquid nitrogen slowness where Conner and pianist George Mesterhazy strip the song of all pretense and veneer cuteness, revealing the beautiful grain beneath. It is a study in ballad dynamics.
Of these four songs, the most revelatory is Conner's and Mesterhazy's treatment of "If You could See Me Now." Again, the song is slowed to the point where its subatomic compositional mechanics can be nakedly seen. Conner delivers the lament languidly with a relaxed intent, one with equal amounts of regret and gratitude. She exercises all sub-ranges of her sturdy and muscular alto voice, singing with perfect poise and delivery. Conner is a student of the song rather than its melodic interpretation. She captures the composers' and lyricists' intentions faithfully without being boring.
Conner includes two Duke Ellington compositions preformed in vastly different ways. "In A Mellow Tone" employs her "largest" band of Mesterhazy, bassist Jim Hughart and tenor saxophonist Gene Cipriano. Each party is allowed solo space, each dispatches elegantly, Mesterhazy with a Count Basie brevity, Hughart with a probing dynamism and Cipriano with a compact, well-calibrated solo that would have been comfortable coming from Stan Getz's horn. On "Caravan," Conner duets with Cipriano on clarinet in a most satisfying performance of the Ellington masterpiece. It seems no trick for Conner to sing without a timekeeper. She maintains a perfect metre while Cipriano provides the bare minimum of harmonic support with the proper notes insinuating themselves into the proper places. This "Caravan" is immersed in an Eastern Indian vibe as dry and shifting as sand.
Cat Tails compares only with Rebecca Parris' phenomenal My Foolish Heart for sheer ballad performance. Conner's well-structured voice and delivery beg the question of what took so long for this talent to be recorded. Thankfully, that question is moot.
Tracks: Hello Ma baby; I Want to Talk About You; Them There Eyes; If You Could See Me Now; In A Mellow Tone; Some Other Time; Caravan; Embraceable You; I Hear A Rhapsody.
Personnel: Cat Conner: vocals; George Mesterhazy: piano (1-6, 8, 9); Gene Cipriano: tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass oboe (1, 3, 5-7); Jim Hughart: bass (1, 4, 5).