Carmen McRae: Whisky Sour

Taste in Jazz Singers is often, I think, like taste in fine Scottish Single Malt. Some people love it, others hate it. Some understand that it’s a fine product and understand its appeal, but yet care not to indulge. Some want to enjoy it and gradually get around to appreciating it in later life. Some love it, but show preference for a lighter, sweeter malt, over a darkier, peatier dram.

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Carmen McRae is very like a fine single malt, in as much as she is either a taste you thrill to from the very first drop, or find yourself gradually appreciating over the years. Let’s just say I’ve always loved fine malts, and I took to drinking them a LONG time ago.

I first heard her on Humphrey Littleton’s radio programme when I was aged around 17, and I stood and stared at the radio as this voice that seemed to be the very definition of swing oozed out of it. I was beginning to really understand what “swing” as a feeling is, and here was a living, singing definition of it.

Here was a singer who was simultaneously cool and cutting-edge, relaxed and swinging. Unlike Sarah and Ella, who could often loose sense of a lyric, Carmen immersed herself in a song so much, that her improvisations made the lyrics all the more poignant, especially in her singing of ballads. And no singer has ever used sarcasm and cynicism the way that Carmen did.

Born in Harlem in 1920, jazz called to Carmen from the off, and as a teenager she came to the attention of a giant of jazz piano, Teddy Wilson. He was so impressed with her ability as a pianist and as a songwriter, that he made sure one of her early songs, “Dream of Life“, was recorded by her idol, Billie Holiday.

By the late Forties Carmen was house singer and pianist at one of New York’s most famous jazz clubs, Minton’s Playhouse, and her fans included Charlie Parker, and her first husband, drummer Kenny Clarke. After a brief stint with Count Basie, she came to the attention of Decca records, who set out to make her a singing star and in doing so would create one of the greatest series of vocal jazz recordings of all time.

But advancing years and illness were unkind to Carmen’s voice and her looks and her health, and I detect a world-weariness in her later work where there was previously a sharp tang and a biting wit.

Since her death in 1994, Carmen is revered amongst jazz instrumentalists and singers. Her approach to words, melody, harmony and scat singing made her one of the most complete artists jazz has ever known. If Ella was the First lady of Song, then Carmen is the Secretary of State. It’s not the glamour job, but you sure need a sharp tongue in your head. So pour a Scotch and let Carmen help you put the world to rights. It’ll do you the power of good. You might just find you enjoyed it.

Suggested listening:
Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics
Carmen McRae live in Sugar Hill, 1962
Carmen sings Monk
Dream of Life – Carmen McRae and the WDR Big Band