In 2003 View Video put out a DVD of one of cabaret singer Mabel Mercer's last performances. She was in the twilight of her life, and every minute of her advanced age was reflected in her loving, yet passionless and cursory delivery of songs she must have sung thousands of times each. The audience was wrapped around her little finger in bittersweet attention, witnessing the denouement of a legend who once defined her art and was now grasping for one more moment of glory. It was all too clear that what was being heard on the video was the palest shadow of what had once been.
Now, in listening to Anita O'Day's first recording in thirteen years, comes the same nagging feeling that, after a while, it just might be better to call it quits. It's undeniable that Ms. O'Day was one of jazz' prime voices four or five decades ago, a star of high caliber whose life took a drastic turn. Without question, her legacy and recovery from hardship deserve the utmost respect. Now in her mid-eighties, she is preparing to issue Indestructible! on the Kayo label. Recorded in 2004-05, the two sessions feature excellent supporting musicians, including Joe Wilder on trumpet, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Chip Jackson, drummer Eddie Locke, saxophonist Tommy Morimoto and pianists Lafayette Harris, Jr. and John Colianni.
So what does the album sound like? Probably what you'd expect from an octogenarian singer who has been through the wringer many, many times in her life. Listening to the results, it's hard to connect it to the classic recordings and images of a lovely young lady in feathers and hat, less difficult to recall the later tales of her trolling for recognition in bicoastal streets and storefronts. A bit of the familiar O'Day flair has remained, but by and large it's reminiscent of Estelle Reiner's recordings: well-loved, well-worn tunes, shakily sung and sometimes shakily produced. Compared to O'Day's classic performance in the film "Jazz on a Summer's Day," this can only be considered "Jazz in the Twilight of Life."
"Is You Is" and "Them There Eyes" are as permanently associated with Anita as "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" is with Ella. On these new interpretations, like much of the material, she merely sounds as if she's grown weary of them. "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "The Nearness of You" have a lot more character, and her interaction with Morimoto on "Pennies from Heaven" is blissful. She even tosses out a happy "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" at the end. "Gimme A Pigfoot" is almost an embarrassment by comparison, as if she felt some duty to include this venerable chestnut. It's downright painful to hear her slur and slog her way through it, unable to deliver the kind of rip-roaring interpretation it calls for. The bands give her everything she needs in the way of supportHarris, Locke and Wilder make a great teambut the hoped-for magic remains elusive.
Aside from intonation and enunciation problems, uncertainty about lyrics and the simple ravages of age on the human voice, some of the album's flaws lie in the production. For one thing, Ms. O'Day's vocals sound detached from the rest of the musicians; she is too closely miked and clearly louder than the band. This might have been seen as a necessity for her aged voice, but her tracks could have been technologically tweaked to produce a more uniform sound. Instead, it just sounds like she came into the studio and laid down a batch of first takes over some previously recorded band tracks. The annoying, heavy reverb applied to the horns on "A Slip of the Lip" is more distraction than flair. That's a shame, because Anita's performance here is one of her most enjoyable on the disc.
O'Day's devoted fans will probably find a lot to enjoy in this album which, if nothing else, should serve as a testimony to her survival skills in the fickle world of music. Few of her peers have made it so far through so much. Indestructible! might be a most appropriate title, indeed.
Tracks: Blue Skies; This Can't Be Love; Is You Is; All of Me; A Slip of the Lip; Pennies From Heaven; Gimme a Pigfoot; Them There Eyes; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; My Little Suede Shoes (instrumental); The Nearness of You.
Personnel: Tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8-11: Joe Wilder, trumpet; Tommy Morimoto, tenor sax; Lafayette Harris, Jr., piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Eddie Locke, drums. Tracks 3, 5, 7: Roswell Rudd, trombone; Steve Fishwick, trumpet; John Colianni, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Matt Fishwick, drums.
Blue Skies; This Can't Be Love; Is You Is; All of Me; A Slip of the Lip; Pennies From Heaven;
Gimme a Pigfoot; Them There Eyes; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; My Little Suede
Shoes (instrumental); The Nearness of You.
Tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8-11: Joe Wilder, trumpet; Tommy Morimoto, tenor sax; Lafayette Harris,
Jr., piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Eddie Locke, drums. Tracks 3, 5, 7: Roswell Rudd, trombone;
Steve Fishwick, trumpet; John Colianni, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Matt Fishwick, drums.
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