Meg Clifton Mitchell and Mary Ellen Desmond
Chris' Jazz Café, A Tribute to Anita O'Day
June 2, 2007
Meg Clifton Mitchell (hereafter referred to as "Clifton," the maiden name familiar her fans) and Mary Ellen Desmond are Philadelphia-based jazz vocalists of the highest caliber. They periodically join forces and have previously done a conjoint tribute to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, which they eventually issued as a CD. All the more fitting they should salute Anita O'Day, not only the "hottest (and coolest) jazz singer in the swing-to-bebop idiom but a definitive interpreter of the American Songbook. So they chose an early summer evening at Chris' Jazz Café to honor her.
Miss O'Day started out with the Gene Krupa Band and wove her way through several big bands, eventually becoming an independent performer with her own small groups as well as large ensembles convened by top West Coast leader-arrangers such as Marty Paich. Stand-outs among her numerous recordings include Anita O'Day Sings the Most (Verve, 1957) with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter (Verve, 1959) with the Billy May Orchestra, and Pick Yourself Up with Anita Day (Verve, 1956). She was one of the few vocalists from the big band era who fully mastered the language of bebop. Ironically, her vibratoless style was helped by a botched tonsillectomy in childhood, leaving her without the ability to subtly vary the sound through her vocal apparatus. Given her exceptional musical gifts, this apparent liability merely led her to compensate by using rhythm, syncopation, punctuation, and phrasing to deliver sexy, heated, ultra-hip interpretations in the style of the beboppers. Despite a rough and tumble, extremely difficult life with intervals of severe drug and alcohol addiction, O'Day not only somehow survived but created a lasting legacy of some of the finest interpretations of jazz standards ever recorded.
Clifton and Desmond's tributes are not attempts to emulate the style of the vocalist they honor. Rather, they do their own interpretations of songs that were important in the singer's repertoire while holding the remembered performer in their consciousness as they sing, so that the meaning and significance of her career filters through the music. For example, Clifton's rendition of "Angel Eyes conveyed the edge of sadness that crept into O'Day's singing as life's hard knocks took their toll on her. And Desmond's up-tempo version of Vernon Duke's "Taking a Chance on Love conveyed the kind of swing and defiant resilience that defined O'Day's musical persona. Desmond, by the way, was in peak form during this event; in fact, her singing was stunning, as though her identification with O'Day's style elevated her to a new level of swinging intensity.
Following an instrumental opener of "You Stepped Out of a Dream by the Victor North Quartet, featuring North's post-Coltrane tenor sax, Clifton came on with a few solo renditions from the O'Day repertoire. Her reading of "Beautiful Love showed how she has matured emotionally as a vocalist, more laid back and thoughtful than her past performances. She took Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose at a surprisingly slow tempo, different from but no less sultry than O'Day's. Following Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes, she and Desmond did a Gershwin medley of "'S Wonderful and "They Can't Take that Away from Me, on which their two voices could occasionally be heard in counterpoint. Desmond then took "Taking a Chance on Love" on her own, throwing in a brief scat section in the O'Day manner.
Next, North played a fine improvised intro to Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things in the bebop style of reinventing the original melody over the tune's chord structure. Bassist Leon Boykins, a young lion who seems to be garnering many awards, took a great solo, as did pianist Steve Myerson, who also provided excellent, well-measured comping throughout. Porter's "Get Out of Town, like "Honeysuckle Rose, was taken at a very slow tempo, in this case by Desmond, and North played a haunting solo reminiscent of Coltrane's playing on the album he made with vocalist Johnny Hartman. Clifton and Desmond completed their part with a lively rendition of "Straighten Up and Fly Right," followed by North and the group performing an instrumental postlude of Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two to close out the set.
Admittedly there were a few "minuses in an otherwise great evening of song. Clifton had some trouble with her high register at times, and seemed a bit subdued to me. Drummer Jim Schade started late due to an earlier commitment, and Matt Margeson filled in capably for him at the beginning, but the shift in style was jarring. And Chris' no longer serves the delicious cheesecake which used to be, along with the music, a personal favorite. They do have a new upscale menu, though, and others may find the exotic desserts to their taste.