If one were to name the greatest female jazz vocalist of all time, that honor would undoubtedly go to Billie Holiday. It was Lady Day who virtually single handedly created the art of genuine jazz singing, as distinct from "pop" vocalization, which became the purview of so many singers who may have had the ability to "swing," but certainly could not be considered jazz singers. And Billie's interpretations of so many standards and her own compositions continue, via recording, to be definitive, and with an unsurpassed depth of emotion and personal meaning, not to mention her uncanny sense of note placement and rapport with her musicians.
But if one were to try to pinpoint who else belongs up there with her among the very best (I will not even think of comparing any other singer with Billie directly), there might be considerable controversy. Sarah Vaughan? Yes, in her own way. Covered the whole repertoire. Extraordinary vocal range, unsurpassed ability to generate excitement. Unique voice and style. Ella Fitzgerald? Phenomenal singer, so comrehensive, so listenable, so timeless. Unsurpassed at "scat". But nothing like the depth of Billie. Anita O'Day. One of the best ever- what technique, what musicianship. Peggy Lee? June Christy? Masterful vocalists, swing-ability, could bring out the most in any tune, but did not cut a wide swath in the jazz literature. Dinah Washington? Carmen McCrae? Betty Carter? Abbey Lincoln? Nancy Wilson? Superb artists, unforgettable in some of their best performances, but not with that certain something called greatness.
Well, to get to the point- my own candidate for one of the greatest female jazz vocalists of all time would have to be Chris Connor. When I first listened to Chris perform in the late ‘50's, all I could hear was her marvelous sense of rhythm and her smokey voice, well attuned to my adolescent libido and the somewhat laconic mood of the decade. But as I have been hearing her perform in concert, at clubs, and on recording over the last several decades, my appreciation has deepened as I have seen her struggle and grow, explore the breadth and depth of the repertoire, swing with her fine and carefully chosen musicians, take a tune and make it new, go for the depths of the emotional meaning inherent in a song- and reach it. I believe that Chris, through what I am sure has been the hardest effort and uncompromising devotion to the music, has achieved a certain immortality among jazz artists. In other words, however unappreciated she has been in some circles- and in my opinion she has been vastly underrated through much of her career- the time has come for her to receive full recognition for her extraordinary gifts and accomplishments.
So one can only thank 32 Jazz for re-releasing forty of the 150 tracks from Connor's wonderful LP's with Atlantic, from the label's inception in 1955 to her moving on in 1963. This was the period of Chris' "coming out" as a singer in her own right, after doing the requisite stint with the Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton big bands, the latter of which had also sired Anita O'Day and June Christy, the seminal influence of Kenton having served all three admirably. In these Atlantic recordings, with a couple of exceptions which one would sooner forget, Chris is in that phase of her career where she sounds both fresh and mature at the same time. Her voice is youthful, enthusiastic, lucid- and at the same time she is learning more and more to go deeply into a ballad and find its meaning, its resonance with life.
Personally, for example, I don't think there is a better rendition of the Burke/Van Heusen tune "Here's that Rainy Day" on disk. From the album, Portrait of Chris, the tune features the likes of super-musicians Clark Terry, Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith, and Milt Hinton. But they fade into the background (knowing their role as "sidemen" here, perhaps) as Ms. Connor sings this tune absolutely perfectly and with a sensitive and reserved portrayal of the feeling of loss that is the song's essence.
Chris' version of Ellington/Strayhorn's "Something to Live For" shows her ability to capture Strayhorn's essential qualities of sadness mixed with ennui. If you compare this track with her much later recording of "Lush Life" on Lover Come Back to Me: Live at Sweet Basil recorded on September 25, 1981 (not related to the present album), you'll confirm that she has been consistently over the years a superb interpreter of Strayhorn. The earlier "Something to Live For" is done in a more restrained, delicate manner, but its bathos is fully felt. The later, "Lush Life" (Ms. Connor's first and definitive recording of this Strayhorn classic was in 1954), shows a wider range of expression, at times reaching that pinnacle where music becomes poetry and the musician becomes a vehicle for the essence of the song rather than a mere performer. What Chris has in common with Billie Holiday is her ability to express the music from her own inner core of emotions, or, as Charlie Parker once said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn."
Warm Cool: The Atlantic Years contains a rich sample from such albums as Chris Connor Sings the Gershwin Almanac of Songs, A Jazz Date with Chris Connor, Chris Connor Sings Ballads of the Sad Cafe, Misty Chris Connor, Chris Craft, and others. The ensembles vary from large ensembles with strings (as on "These Foolish Things") to small groups (as on "I'm Glad There is You"), and it is an understatement to say that the backup musicians are excellent- they read like a Hall of Fame of that era of jazz: Al Cohn, Oscar Pettiford, Willie Dennis, Wayne Andre, Sonny Payne, Ossie Johnson, etc., etc. Ralph Sharon's presence is ubitquitous and his influence beneficent as both pianist and arranger. The sound of both the original recordings and the re-mastering is of high quality.
Ours is a nation not given to a full appreciation of jazz music, which is one of its greatest legacies and cultural/aesthetic achievements. It's time for us to say to Chris Connor, "Thank you for the beauty and depth of your music and the effort you have put in all these years to make it that way."