See and hear Carmen
NY Times Obit
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…
- 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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