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Carmen McRae: Carmen McRae: Live at Sugar Hill - San Francisco

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This overlooked on-location session from 1963 reveals, perhaps more than any other recording, why Carmen McRae at the time deserved to complete the dominating triumvirate in which Ella Fitzgerald's and Sarah Vaughan's places were always secure. In the 1970s the marketplace would often hamstring her choice of material and settings, and in the 1980s the years of smoking began to have a noticeable effect on the breath-stream that once sustained her enviable instrument. On this occasion, however, she retains the warm and supple vocal quality of her 1950s Bethlehem and Decca recordings while realizing all of the dramatic potential that always made her second to none as an interpreter of lyrics.

For an immediate demonstration of McRae's strong suit go right to Rodgers and Hart's poignant meditation on loneliness, "It Never Entered My Mind." Listen to her phrasing and elocution, especially the second time around on the bridge—"And now I even have to scratch my back myself." No singer can mine a word like "scratch" for its full onomatopoeic value like McRae, clawing her way right into the listener's defenseless psyche. And on "Thou Swell" she makes the song's last word—"grand"—sound like an Art Blakey press roll launching the first instrumental solo.

But juxtaposed with the phonetic abrasives and incisive attacks is a soft and seductive quality capable of taking a "man's song" like Gordon Jenkins' haunting "This Is All I Ask" and making it incontrovertibly her own: "soft-spoken men, speak a little softer..." She growls and scratches, then suddenly allows her tones to melt into a warm, purring vibrato (which would later desert her), while taking full advantage of a full-throated vocal range extending from low C to the second G above middle C.

The program is exemplary in terms of content and pacing—flag-wavers taken at blazing speed ("Thou Swell," "Foggy Day"), mid-tempo scat ("Sunday," "Let There Be Love") and, above all, ballads inviting the kinds of acting skills that Sinatra always brought to what he called "suicide songs." Besides poetic insights, the program elicits sheer visceral reactions to an irresistible groove stemming as much from the featured soloist's instincts about time and phrasing as the rhythm section's firepower.

Whether a song qualifies as a standard or not, McRae demonstrates how even lesser material, when interpreted by a performer who is both a complete musician and a gifted dramatic actress, can be raised to the level of timeless art. The pristine audio of this 2008 Spanish import, moreover, allows the listener to catch the subtle rhythmic and harmonic communication between the singer and her responsive bassist, Victor Sproles.

It's a short set (35 minutes) and no doubt some listeners will balk at the cover charge. In that case, take a look at one of several fine anthologies or at another 2008 reissue that's almost as good as Sugar Hill—the misleadingly titled Carmen McRae: The Great American Songbook (Warner Special Markets UK)—or at a surprisingly strong late session including tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, Any Old Time (Denon, 1986).


Track Listing: Sunday; What Kind of Fool Am I; A Foggy Day; I Left My Heart in San Francisco; I Didn't Know What Time It Was; Let There Be Love; This Is All I Ask; Thou Swell; It Never Entered My Mind; Make Someone Happy.

Personnel: Carmen McRae: vocals; Norman Simmons: piano; Victor Sproles: bass; Stu Martin: drums.

Title: Carmen McRae: Live at Sugar Hill - San Francisco | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Fresh Sound Records

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