Several years ago Blossom Dearie said that of all her recordings, this on-location session from 1966 was her personal favorite. Although artists are notoriously unreliable critics of their own work, it's hard to quarrel with the singer/pianist's preference given the evidence on this reissue. Anyone who has yet to discover the inimitable, Lolita-like voice of this worldly-wise, genuinely hip, surprisingly versatile performer can be assured of making her acquaintance under optimal musical circumstances.
Even devoted fans seem unaware of the girlish-sounding singer's past travels. After performing with Woody Herman as a member of a vocal group, the Blue Flames, she appeared on King Pleasure's quasi-classic recording of "Moody's Mood for Love," made an album limited to piano solos, went to Paris to form a new vocal group, the Blue Stars, and produced a hit recording (in French) of "Lullaby of Birdland." Next, Norman Granz contracted her for Verve records, and she married the highly-regarded Belgian tenor saxophonist/flutist Bobby Jaspar. But her run at Ronnie Scott's in London in 1966 was what cemented her place as a premier cabaret-supper club attraction.
The set gets underway with a rhythmically complex yet feathery-light, smooth-as-glass treatment of "On Broadway," where Dearie and bassist Jeff Clyne half-time the challenging vocal line before catching up with drummer Johnny Butts' crisp brush work on the instrumental chorus. An exquisite ballad, "When the World Was Young," follows immediatelyhalf elegiac recitative and half warm, nostalgic reveriewith an interpretation by the vocalist that's a trifle sadder but no less wiser than Peggy Lee's memorable version on Black Coffee (Decca, 1953).
Listeners who think they know Cy Coleman's "When in Rome" because of the first Tony Bennett/Bill Evans meeting will discover there are many sides to the Eternal City which, as Dearie's reading of the song suggests, is equal parts humor, sadness and undeniable drama. The range of emotions in the pianist's understated singing stems from two primary sources: first, scaled-down textures that permit the tiniest sliver of light to illuminate an entire scene; and second, the ironies set in play by a guileless, innocent little voice that can afford to ignore adult inhibitions and conventions. There's rarely a hint of torchiness, sultriness or even seductiveness here: she's all candor and refreshing clarity, leaving it to the listener to supply any ironical subtexts.
The singer can take on "I'm Hip," a Frishberg/Dorough parody of countercultural self-congratulation, without regendering lines like "I even read Playboy magazine," "I even call my girlfriend 'Man'" and "I don't wear a beard." Whatever you choose to call ithipness, honesty, objectivitythat's Blossom Dearie, too faithful to her material to be an "act, too detached from its emotions to be merely sincere, too unselfconscious, really, to be one of the cultural elite's pop "sophisticates.
Among musicians it's become debatable over the years whether Ellington/Strayhorn's "Satin Doll" is a song or a cliché. When Blossom Dearie closes the set with this tune, it's a composition reborn, but played and sung with such disarming innocence and unflinching directness that even the most jaded listener couldn't be blamed for pronouncing it the best new song of the present millennium.