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RECORDINGS - OVERVIEW
From "The Woman We Loved: Of Sass, Class and Carmen McRae"
by James Gavin in the Village Voice, January 3, 1995

Carmen McRae seemed drawn to songs in which love was full of conflict and doubt: "But Beautiful," "My Foolish Heart," "Imagination." One phrase would come out tender and yearning, the next would be etched in acid, as if her own vulnerability scared her. When she sang Paul Williams’s "With One More Look at You," about a love strong enough to "overcome the anger that I’ve learned to know," it gave the sense of a battle won…She said to a Down Beat writer who asked her about her notoriously barbed tongue, "That’s bullshit…Now, how much can you do with words?"

Plenty, if you were Carmen McRae. Her recordings prove it. "Autumn Nocturne," a ballad she cut in 1953 for the Stardust label, captures a young, creamy-voiced McRae at that time an intermission pianist in a strip joint. Even then she had immaculate diction and control, elegant phrasing, and a deep instinct for drama—qualities she explored in a series of albums for Decca and Kapp.

By the mid ‘60s, when she made her outstanding orchestral albums for Mainstream, Haven’t We Met and Second To None (anthologized on the Sony CD The Ultimate Carmen McRae), her familiar reediness had set in, bringing with it endless color and nuance. Who else could make a swingfest out of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" while giving every phrase a bitingly sardonic edge? For her, "Blame It on My Youth" was no sob story but an unsparing self-examination, shared without bitterness. Her profound musicianship, rooted at the piano, gave her work much of its authority. She heard all the possibilities in a chord, then chose the one that best enhanced the story…
  
But for all the unevenness of her later records, most of the available titles are worth owning.
Try Alive!, a Sony reissue of two 1965 Village Gate performances, and The Great American Songbook, a 1971 live date on Atlantic, as well as two Decca and Kapp collections, Here To Stay and Sings Great American Songwriters. Her last two albums, issued in the ‘90s, are less satisfying: Carmen Sings Monk, which weds great music to inane lyrics; and Sarah—Dedicated to You, a strangely uninspired salute to her friend and early influence….
  
McRae’s records will always be there as a reminder not to fall in love too easily. She never claimed that doing so resulted in any less pain, but she did make a convincing argument that the hard truth is the only truth to live by.

- James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002) and has written for numerous publications, including The Village Voice.





 
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