Helen Merrill With Strings

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Between 1954 and 1957, singer Helen Merrill recorded five albums for Mercury's EmArcy division. Yesterday, while writing, I spent the day listening to all of them as well as a bunch of assorted tracks she recorded for the label. Perhaps the best known album of the bunch is Helen Merrill, which she made in December 1954 accompanied by the Clifford Brown Sextet. The second most popular EmArcy album is probably Dream of You, arranged by Gil Evans and recorded between July 1956 and February 1957. I last posted about this one in 2010 (go here).

After my listening session, I've come to the conclusion that the one that tops them all is the lesser known Helen Merrill With Strings. Recorded over three days in October 1955, Helen was accompanied by Hank Jones (p), Barry Galbraith (g), Milt Hinton (b) and Sol Gubin (d) plus a string section. The album was arranged by Richard Hayman, who would go on to become chief music arranger for the Boston Pops for more than 50 years. His string writing here envelops Helen perfectly, making this album impossibly beautiful.

Admittedly, Helen's jazz voice is unusual. Avoiding superficiality at all costs, Helen always found a way to travel deep into songs, more so than any other singer. She wasn't just experiencing the lyrics, she seemed to be simultaneously tormented and dazzled by them. There's a unique passion and sadness to her voice, but she's never maudlin. Instead, her vocal approach was in the European ballad tradition, sifting tragedy with ecstasy.

You do have to reset your expectations with Helen. She's a heavier trip. Most pop and jazz singing has a way of making you want something light and swinging. That's not Helen. She's experiencing songs on so many emotional levels. There's sadness, gloom, relief, regret and yearning, but she isn't acting out a lyric. That would be cheap and hammy. She's feeling them, trying them on and seducing them. Once you let Helen in, you'll find yourself enraptured by her voice.

On Helen With Strings, she sings Lilac Wine; Anything Goes; Mountain High, Valley Low; Beautiful Love; Comes Love; The End of a Love Affair; When I Fall in Love, (I'm Afraid) the Masquerade Is Over; Just You, Just Me; Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year; You Won't Forget Me and Wait Till You Seem Him. On each song, Hayman's arrangements are tailor-made for Helen's distinct vocal style. When I listen to this album, I imagine arranger Ray Ellis asking Billie Holiday in 1958 for an album she liked that might serve as a good model for Lady in Satin. Billie surely mentioned this one.

JazzWax clips: Here's (I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over...



And here's Kermit Goell and Fred Spielman's You Won't Forget Me...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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