The great Carmen McRae’s tenure at Columbia lasted only two years (1961-1962). Most of her work for the label involved collaborations with pianist Dave Brubeck (her Take Five
and his Tonight Only
and The Real Ambassadors
). In fact, she recorded only two LPs and a few singles that featured material not written by Brubeck. Her first album for the label, Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics
, was a Lady Day tribute with a sextet featuring Norman Simmons on piano, Nat Adderly on cornet and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor saxophone. Her last project for Columbia, Something Wonderful
, was a collection of Broadway show tunes backed by an anonymous large ensemble conducted by Buddy Bregman. In comparing these two albums, it can be said that Ms. McRae’s Columbia recordings covered the spectrum from the utterly sublime to the ridiculous.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Broadway was still a relevant part of the pop culture mainstream. Whereas in the ‘20s and ‘30s individual songs had an identity and reach far greater than the shows and singers that spawned them, the integrated book musicals of the subsequent decades reversed that focus. The American musical theater developed a distinct, marketable identity, and it was not uncommon for jazz musicians and singers to try to tap into that market by recording Broadway-themed LPs. Occasionally, these projects produced significant artistic dividends as with Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady and Mel Torme’s Swings Shubert Alley. Unfortunately, Something Wonderful cannot be added to that list.
This CD reissue brings back perhaps the era’s strangest variation on the Jazz Meets Broadway formula. Clearly the product of Columbia’s A&R department, the album consists mostly of medleys saluting the performances of prominent musical comedy stars in particular roles (Ella Logan in Finian’s Rainbow, Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I, etc.). While this concept would have made perfect sense for a theater singer like Julie Andrews, having a jazz singer like Carmen McRae pay “tribute” to Ethel Merman and company had to have felt painfully contrived even back in 1962.
Unfortunately, the record’s problems are more than conceptual. Ms. McRae was always a singer who needed room to work, and the sadly unimaginative charts by Mr. Bregman give her precious little space. The string arrangemets are insipid and the big band pieces sound fussy and dated. Most of the tracks are barely two minutes in length, and even with the bonus tracks, the CD’s playing time is only about 36 minutes.
Still, Ms. McRae was simply too good a singer not to take advantage of the album’s mostly strong material. She places her own inemitable stamp on too brief versions of “Just in Time,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Don’t Cry.” However, you can’t help but think what she could have done with a tune like “Anything Goes” under more amenable circumstances.
Personnel: Carmen McRae: vocals; unidentified studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman.