Okay, Miles has totally lost it this time —
He’s going to give his most super-secret high-intensity recommendation to a set he hasn’t listened to all the way through. And it includes a couple dozen tracks he’s never heard! So he’s doddering now …
But you’d be a sucker not to listen. I’m plugging the most superlative jazz singer you’ve never heard (heard enough, at least), because she has never been more than a cult figure since 1954, when the first album on
Helen Merrill, Seven Classic Albums (Real Gone Jazz)
came out. One of the most knockout debuts ever featuring the tragically short-lived legend Clifford Brown on trumpet, Milt Hinton on bass, and Oscar Pettiford on some tracks. Produced by Quincy Jones at his most incisive and refined.
But here’s the thing with Helen Merrill, she’s not a super-swinger or drenched in the blues but she’s a jazz singer down to the proverbial bone. And she enchants you with her skill at bringing out the wit and irony and zest of every lyric she sings. Or making the music give them more of all those qualities.
I promise: you put on Dream of You from 1957 and play “Lucky To Me” (a song that meant nothing until I heard her sing it) and it will sound like the cleverest obscurity in the world; followed up by “Where Flamingos Fly,” a strange, almost freaky song that Merrill conquers and absorbs like it was a nursery rhyme. It’s my favorite version of the haunting number.
You will be a convert.
The final, most uncharacteristic for me, hosanna to Merrill is that I think she excels at ballads (usually I think everybody should pick up the flippin’ pace), the slower the better, and whole albums of them are fine. Strings? No problem (helps if Gil Evans is doing them). Dreamy beyond time and space and mawk and mewl.
Hey, it even works when she does it in French and Italian.
And the point of this collection, which includes I believe all of her Emarcy sides from 1954 to 1960, is that they were damned hard to find used and even reissued on a consistent basis. Indeed, I haven’t heard a couple of these myself.
But I have no fear commanding you to open your chest and let Helen Merrill inside.