Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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AAJ: Who among the new generation of trumpet players can best continue the voice of Clifford?

HM: Well, no one I know of personally. Tom Harrell at his best is wonderful. There are many very fine trumpet players.

AAJ: By the way, do you usually listen to your records at home?

HM: No, I do not listen to my records very much but when I do, it is like listening to a stranger and I am usually very surprised at how good some of those recordings can be.

AAJ: What do you listen to nowadays?

HM: I am looking for new material for my next CD and am listening to all kinds of music to be inspired. So far, I have a couple of songs I like.

AAJ: Do you have any favorite singers among the new generation of jazz female singers?

HM: I do not have any favorite singers, but sometimes I will hear a performance that moves me very deeply. I love Shirley Horne, mostly before she became more popular. Her music is beautiful and I miss her very much. New generation singers—well, I have not been listening but I am starting to.

AAJ: What do you think will be your legacy to jazz?

HM: My legacy, well, I have tried to make interesting music all my life, I have had the honor of working with great musicians. People for whom I have the greatest respect. I find it inspiring to work with creative musicians. Unlike a lot of singers, I prefer to become a voice within the music rather than being accompanied.

AAJ: If you could start all over again, would you still want to be a jazz singer?

HM: I would be a jazz singer yes, because of my need to interact with the musicians. It is not an easy life and I would not recommend [it]. However, you make lifelong friends and that is fun.

AAJ: From all the jazz musicians you have played and recorded with which ones impressed you most?

HM: There are so many musicians that have impressed me... Working with [pianist] Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Clifford Brown, [bassist] George Mraz, [arranger] Torrie Zito, Elvin Jones, [composer/arranger] Masahiko Satoh, [composer] Masaaki Kikuchi, [composer] Ennio Morricone, Dick Katz., Thad Jones, [bassist] Oscar Pettiford—there are so many. They all have very deep feelings sensitivity and an original way of expressing music. Almost all the musicians I have recorded with are fabulous players.

AAJ: What is jazz to you and what can it bring to people, namely young people?

HM: Jazz permits expression of feelings that can be universal in nature. It can be deeply sad or very funny. The part that is not available to all artists is the ability to project these feelings to your listeners. Young people have a great need for expressing feelings and I think that jazz music, from blues to avant-garde, can be an interesting way to find what makes them feel.

AAJ: How do you think it will change through this new century?

HM: I think world music is rapidly changing jazz and we can expect wonderful new sounds from all over the world affecting our music. I also find that jazz is a wonderful form of diplomacy. The freedom in our music is universal and appealing to young people.

Helen MerrillAAJ: Do you still go out to clubs and jazz shows?

HM: Yes, I go to jazz clubs when there is something interesting. I just returned from a concert tour of Japan with George Mraz, [pianist] Ted Rosenthal, [trumpeter] Bryan Lynch and [drummer] Terry Clarke. We had a great tour and lots of fun.

AAJ: Talking about the Big Apple, how is it living in a post -9/11 New York?

HM: New Yorkers are very resilient people... We are doing fine and hoping that the tomorrow holds peace for our future generations. The terrible vision of two young people holding hands and jumping from a burning building remains forever in my mind.

AAJ: The human side of Helen Merrill in not so known as the artistic one. At the height of your age and experience what have you to say to the world?

HM: My life has been very rich filled with curiosity and love of humanity. I have always been a traveler in my mind and continue to be that. The best way to remain young is to continue to work. Never give up your dreams.

Selected Discography

Helen Merrill, Lilac Wine (Sunnyside, 2004)
Helen Merrill, Jelena Ana Milcetic aka Helen Merrill (Polygram, 2000)
Helen Merrill, Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown (Polygram, 1994)
Helen Merrill, Clear Out of This World (Antilles, 1991)
Helen Merrill, Alone Together (Emarcy, 1989)
Helen Merrill with Stan Getz, Just Friends (Emarcy, 1989)
Helen Merrill with Ron Carter, Duets (Emarcy, 1988)
Helen Merrill with Gil Evans, Collaboration (Emarcy, 1987)
Helen Merrill, Music Makers (Owl, 1986)
Helen Merrill, Casa Forte (Inner City, 1980)
Helen Merrill, Chasin' the Bird (Inner City, 1979)
Helen Merrill, Sposin' (Storyville, 1971)
Helen Merrill, A Shade of Difference (Landmark, 1968)
Helen Merrill, The Feeling is Mutual (Milestone, 1967)
Helen Merrill, You've Got a Date With the Blues (Verve, 1959)
Helen Merrill, Dream of You (Emarcy, 1956)
Helen Merrill, Helen Merrill With Clifford Brown (Emarcy, 1954)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Helen Merrill

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