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Anita O'Day: The Complete Anita O'Day Verve/Clef Sessions

C. Andrew Hovan By

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In the world of song, there are clearly stylists and then there are true jazz vocalists. To the latter category, Anita O'Day has to be counted as one of the few who have built a recorded legacy as important as that of any jazz instrumentalist. A discriminating artist with a solid musical background, word has it that there's no easier way to put off O'Day than to hand her a lead sheet with just the printed lyrics, as she wants to see the entire score in relation to how her part fits within the arrangement. This attention to detail pervades every note put on tape over the course of the 198 performances (spanning the years 1952 to1962) preserved on this 9-CD boxed set.

A delectable embarrassment of riches, the majority of the performances collected here have been in and out of print over the last decade, yet this is the first time that all of them have been assembled in roughly chronological order and with the best possible sound. This point becomes even more consequential when one considers that O'Day's Clef/Verve material really forms the cornerstone of her recorded legacy, equivalent, if you will, to Armstrong's Hot Five's and Seven's or John Coltrane's Impulse albums.

The first disc and a quarter documents O'Day with small groups on sessions cut out on the West coast. Unpretentious affairs, with such names as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and Jimmy Rowles on hand, these dates focus on popular standards and O'Day's modest surroundings give one a fetching chance to take note of the many particular qualities of her singular style. She has a way of playing with syllables in a word that shifts the emphasis away from the usually- stressed beats, giving the listener the impression that her range is wider than it actually is.

Over the course of the next disc or so, the first of the big band recordings make an appearance with Buddy Bregman leading the charge. His band charts are nothing out of the ordinary, yet his writing for strings is particularly striking in its avoidance of all the usual clichés that make jazz and strings a deadly combination. In between these dates, you'll find the six cuts from Gene Krupa's Drummer Man that feature O'Day. Then, things take a bold turn for the first of what would be many quintessential small group albums to come. 1957's Anita Sings the Most lets O'Day loose with the Oscar Peterson quartet on a dozen standards that get turned inside out, the two partners clearly inspired by each other and taking chances that pay off big time. In the same league, Anita O'Day at Mister Kelly's boasts a less-notable rhythm section, but the results are no less satisfying as heard on a live recording from the spring of 1958.

Fast forward one year, to April of 1959, and we get the unusual match-up of O'Day and Jimmy Giuffre. A more contrasting combination it would hard to contemplate, Anita being as extroverted and rambunctious as Giuffre is collected and sober, O'Day sings a characteristic set of standards with Giuffre alternating groupings of reeds and brass with an economical amount of harmonic accompaniment being provided in a few spots by guitarist Jim Hall. Keeping in mind how much of a challenge this can be for a lesser talent, it's to her credit that O'Day pulls it all off with aplomb and creates an album that is as unique to her catalog as it is to Giuffre's schizophrenic oeuvre.

As if to balance the more esoteric qualities of her previous date with Giuffre, O'Day hits the Great American Songbook for the 1959 and 1960 sessions with the Billy May Orchestra released as Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May and Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart. These too are superior classics that rank head and shoulders above the scores of other like-minded records that were the norm at the time. The same can be said for Waiter, Make Mine Blues, a bit more diverse program with Russ Garcia's charts and two basic ensembles, one consisting of woodwinds and strings and the other a small rhythm section with a five-trombone front line.

The final three big band recordings are arguably the finest of O'Day's later period work. For Incomparable it's a taste of Bill Holman's writing at a time when he was in his ascendancy. Taken in tandem with his Great Big Band album from the same period (see Mosaic's Kenton Presents Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, and Frank Rosolino set for a listen), this stuff forms the foundation of his quintessential early work. Johnny Mandel's charts for Trav'lin' Light, a selection of songs associated with and presented as a tribute to Billie Holiday, are also radical and prevent O'Day from pandering to any possible attempt to merely copy Holliday's style verbatim. Not that she really would have considered that an option, as distinct as her style was by comparison.

A sorely-neglected talent who by the early '60s had developed an appealing, yet idiosyncratic method of arranging, Gary McFarland was gleaning the rewards of his contract with Verve records under the supervision of producer Creed Taylor. His charts for small band with pianist Bill Evans as featured guest are a marvel as are those he crafted for a big band fronted by O'Day. To add to the veneration, McFarland cut the backing tracks at Van Gelder's in New Jersey and then shipped the tapes to Los Angeles where O'Day threw on a set of headphones and overdubbed her vocals. "Boogie Blues" and "Up State" are just two of the gems that come from this noteworthy magnum opus.

As the end of O'Day's tenure with Verve approached in 1962, Creed Taylor decided to put her into new settings not previously explored while on the label. One of these records would be a humble achievement, while the other was clearly a miss. A curious pairing with vibraphonist Cal Tjader actually works quite well. A quirky set of tunes, including the best version ever cut of the usually languorous "Mister Sandman," features a sexy take on "Peel Me A Grape" that's worth the price of admission. O'Day's sharing of the bill with Gene Harris and The Three Sounds is as lazy and lackluster as the Tjader date is incendiary, however a revamp of "Let Me Off Uptown" with visitor Roy Eldridge is undeniably palatable.

There's so much to contemplate here that this set is sure to provide new revelations for years to come. Sound quality is the best yet available, which comes to no surprise, and a 32-page booklet includes essays and a session-by- session breakdown by writer Will Friedwald. As a bonus, numerous photos from the eminent catalogs of Bob Parent, Williams Claxton, and Herman Leonard include some exceptional shots from the 1960 sessions with Bill Holman. Limited to 7,500 copies worldwide, you can only get this set by writing Mosaic Records at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut, 06902. Ordering on the web is also possible at


Personnel: Collective Anita O'Day- vocals, Roy Eldridge, Conte Condoli, Jack Sheldon, Andy Secrest, and others- trumpet; Bill Harris, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Frank Rosolino, Bob Brookmeyer, and others- trombone; Stan Getz, Jimmy Giuffre, Budd Johnson, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca, Cecil Payne, and others- saxophones; Ralph Burns, Roy Krall, Arnold Ross, Bud Lavin, Jimmy Rowles, Paul Smith, Claude Williamson, Dave McKenna, Oscar Peterson, Joe Masters, Jess Stacy, Al Pellegrini, Lou Levy, Hank Jones, Lonnie Hewitt, Bob Corwin, Gene Harris, and others- piano; Earl Backus, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Tony Rizzi, Tommy Tedesco, Al Hendrickson, Barry Galbraith, Jim Hall, and others- guitar; Al McKibbon, Johnny Frigo, Monty Budwig, George Morrow, Ralph Pena, Al McKibbon, George Duvivier, Buddy Clark, Freddy Schreiber, Andy Simpkins, Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Joe Mondragon, and others- bass; Don Lamond, Alvin Stoller, Robert Lionberg, Jackie Mills, John Poole, Mel Lewis, Gene Krupa, and others- drums; Jim Wilson- bongos, Larry Bunker, Cal Tjader- vibes; Larry Russell, Marty Paich, Russ Garcia, Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Gary McFarland- arranger/conductor

Title: The Complete Anita O'Day Verve/Clef Sessions | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Mosaic Records


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