322

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

Samuel Chell By

Sign in to view read count
Carmen McRae: Carmen McRae: Live at Sugar Hill - San Francisco 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.

Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Fresh Sound Records | Style: Vocal


Shop

More Articles

Read Disappeared Behind the Sun CD/LP/Track Review Disappeared Behind the Sun
by Karl Ackermann
Published: March 29, 2017
Read Innate CD/LP/Track Review Innate
by Bruce Lindsay
Published: March 29, 2017
Read The Seasons CD/LP/Track Review The Seasons
by Edward Blanco
Published: March 29, 2017
Read Planets + Persona CD/LP/Track Review Planets + Persona
by Glenn Astarita
Published: March 29, 2017
Read avantNOIR CD/LP/Track Review avantNOIR
by Nicola Negri
Published: March 29, 2017
Read Peace and Love: A Tribute to Will Connell CD/LP/Track Review Peace and Love: A Tribute to Will Connell
by Troy Dostert
Published: March 28, 2017
Read "La vie commence ici" CD/LP/Track Review La vie commence ici
by Tyran Grillo
Published: April 20, 2016
Read "Father Figure" CD/LP/Track Review Father Figure
by Dan Bilawsky
Published: April 3, 2016
Read "Ida Y Vuelta" CD/LP/Track Review Ida Y Vuelta
by James Nadal
Published: December 30, 2016
Read "Lost Signals" CD/LP/Track Review Lost Signals
by Mark Corroto
Published: July 25, 2016
Read "Iceland" CD/LP/Track Review Iceland
by Dave Wayne
Published: May 21, 2016
Read "Magic Light" CD/LP/Track Review Magic Light
by Dan McClenaghan
Published: April 25, 2016

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!