Although not in the same class as innovators like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Harold Arlen, the composer Jimmy McHugh (1894-1969) achieved, by any standard, the songwriting trifecta. His songs were of exceeding musical merit, they enjoyed huge commercial success, and they have endured the test of time. In his seminal book, American Popular Song
, Alec Wilder observed that Mr. McHugh “wrote a great many songs, among them some of the best pop songs ever written.” In The Unsung Songwriters
, his survey of Tin Pan Alley songwriters published last year, Warren W. Vaché noted that Mr. McHugh’s songs “have become fixtures in the jazz catalog . . . and will probably remain an integral segment of our musical heritage.” Yet, for all that, Mr. McHugh’s songs are rarely associated with him. The singer Wesla Whitfield seeks to remedy that situation on her latest recording, Let’s Get Lost: The Songs of Jimmy McHugh
At the beginning of the new century, Wesla Whitfield has emerged as one of the finest living interpreters of songs from the beginning of the last century. Like Rosemary Clooney and Sylvia Syms, Ms. Whitfield is a jazz-influenced storyteller rather than an improviser. Her dry, acidic voice has a way of sharpening the edges of a song. Never content to simply define a song by its tempo, Ms. Whitfield extracts meaning from every word. She focuses the listener’s attention on lyrics in a way that can make you think you are hearing the words to a warhorse like “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” for the first time. She mines all the wit from Johnny Mercer’s lyric for “You’re the One for Me” without ever sounding like she is trying to be witty. Ms. Whitfield also has the gift of taking antiquated expressions like “You’re a Sweetheart” or “that doggone moon above” (from “Don’t Blame Me”) and making them sound natural and even poignant. With her tendency to hold long, sustained notes with no vibrato and her clear-eyed approach to lyrics, Ms. Whitfield’s ballad singing strongly recalls the late Irene Kral.
As always, anchoring this collection is Ms. Whitfield’s pianist, arranger and husband, Mike Greensill. Both as an accompanist and an arranger, Mr. Greensill seems to have a deep understanding of exactly the kind of support his wife requires. He plays with a light touch and an attentive ear. His smart, superbly crafted arrangements make good use of not only the reeds but also the rest of the excellent rhythm section. Mr. Greensill also explores the many gradations of tempo that exist between slow and fast on this generally well-paced CD.
Like all of Ms. Whitfield’s recordings, Let’s Get Lost is a mixture of the familiar and the forgotten. Even veteran song hounds will be surprised by the three beautiful and obscure ballads unearthed here: “Warm and Willing,” “They Really Don’t Know You” and “It’s Me, Remember.” There are also a number of rarely heard verses reunited with their more often encountered choruses. Throughout his long career, Mr. McHugh wrote with some very talented lyricists including Frank Loesser, Ted Koehler, Harold Adamson, and his most prominent partner, Dorothy Fields. The album allows the composer’s unique “voice” to be heard by not drawing too heavily from any one of these collaborations.
Let’s Get Lost is not by any means ground breaking or revelatory. However, it is a thoughtful and satisfying examination of the music of a songwriter whose best work surprisingly reflects Tin Pan Alley’s vision of itself: bright, optimistic and, most importantly, hummable.