The music of Mabel Mercer, a gifted cabaret singer of the 1930's - 60's, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity with almost all of it now available on CD. The Art of Mabel Mercer presents her earliest commercial recordings made in her fifties.
Mercer was not blessed with much voice (Late in her career she liked to talk her way through songs as much as singwith equal artistry.), but that did not interfere with her ability to deliver her message. She would alter the way she pronounced a word or she would emphasize a word that is usually unaccented to imply a slightly different meaning. For example the second time through on "Just One Of Those Things" she sings the bridge partly in an irritated stop-time and emphatically finalizes the word "Amen" to give a harsher and faintly bitter sense to a line that is normally sung with good feelings (and implication the door may still be open) toward the singer's ex-lover. Of course other singers attempt the same thing but not as successfully. The audience hears the song through her heart.
Her approach was old fashioned even for the time (She rolled her R's.), and it didn't help that she was often accompanied by swirling twin pianos. (Her best accompanist was Jimmy Lyons who played on her later records and on A Singer's Singer, a marvelous Mercer video). "My Shining Hour" is a wonderful tune often performed by instrumentalists but rarely sung as a ballad (particularly the verse) due to the ripeness of its lyric. Mercer's sensibility allows her to bring the song off without affectation or embarrassment.
She did not embrace what is usually considered a jazz concept, but she was informed by the blues, and her music requires active participation by her listenersthey laugh quietly when they get one of her fearless variations in the same way they smile during a solo by Clifford Brown or Milt Jackson. She was also adept at the usual, more obvious humor triggered by a clever Dorothy Fields lyric. Her unshakeable sense of time (She didn't swing, but she had danced professionally.) allowed her to sing with comfort at all tempos, particularly in extreme slowness.
This CD includes songs written especially for her or introduced by her: "While We're Young," "The End of a Love Affair," "The Riviera," "Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneeden's," many others. Mercer was noted for rescuing forgotten tunes and bringing them into the general consciousness: "Remind Me," "From This Moment On," "Little Girl Blue," "By Myself" (up tempo but cleverly disguised and relaxed in long meter), "Let Me Love You." "Feuilles Mortes" ("Autumn Leaves") is the only tune from her expansive French repertoire she ever recorded in the lyric's original language. A few of these songs are too finicky for my tastethose that mean most are the standards, although Alec Wilder's now forgotten "Is It Always Like This" ranks with the best.
Advice to first-time Mercer listeners: you may not get her the first time or even the second. It took me four years. It helps to listen with Truman-era optimism. She needs a sense of maturity and patience.