Hanging with Helen Merrill
“I moderated my panel at the L.A. Jazz Institute Festival Saturday morning, with singers Annie Ross, Tierney Sutton, Helen Merrill and Pinky Winters. With the exception of a 45 minute speech I made in phonetic Japanese in Tokyo a couple of years ago, I don’t think I have ever before engaged in any extensive public speaking. Kind of unsettling to me. But when Institute director Ken Poston rang me up and asked me to do it, I answered “YES!” before he had even finished the question. I was especially jazzed by the idea of working (so to speak) with one of my desert island favorites, Helen Merrill. Afterwards, I even got to spend a bit of time with her before she had to catch a plane back to NYC. The panel participants also performed concerts at the Festival, singing, variously, the works of Kern (and his lyricists), Berlin, Porter, the Gershwins, and Lerner and Loewe.
My friend (and I would go so far as to say mentor), the late Nat Shapiro, once told me that Merrill was one of the few truly intelligent singers he had ever met (no other names, please). I can see now why he was so impressed. She was great fun to be with. For much of the time we traded off comments about all the things we love about Japan and its people. In case you arent’t aware, Merrill, for a number of years, lived in that country where she very simply is considered the pluperfect personification of a jazz singer. It should also be noted that her 1955 Emarcy album with Clifford Brown is the largest selling jazz album ever in that country.
I had the pleasure of introducing Ms. Merrill to Hajime Sato of Eastwind Imports, a dealer who was selling CDs at the Fest. They began chatting in Japanese and continued to do so for quite some time. The fan in me can die happy now that I, also, have been spoken to in Japanese by Helen Merrill!
Sato san has only lived in the U.S. for eight years (born in Kobe, Japan), but his English strikes me as verging on perfect. He and I developed a running gag over the four days of the Fest. I would pass by his display without breaking stride and throw somewhat muzukashii English words at him as a test, i.e.
HAJIME: “I KNOW THAT ONE! TO BE ESPECIALLY AMAZED OR SURPRISED!”
And so on and so forth. . ..
Here are a couple of quotes I threw at the panel to get the collective juices flowing:
“THE MOST POPULAR DEFINITION OF A JAZZ SINGER IS THAT THERE IS NO DEFINITION. BUT THERE IS,” WROTE THE LATE JAZZ CRITIC WHITNEY BALLIETT. “A JAZZ SINGER SIMPLY MAKES WHATEVER HE OR SHE SINGS. . .SWING. ETHEL MERMAN IS NOT A JAZZ SINGER. DORIS DAY IS.”
A CERTAIN JAZZ CRITIC—-I THINK IT WAS IRA GITLER—ONCE WROTE THAT “ONE PERSON’S JAZZ SINGER IS ANOTHER’S ROBERT GOULET.”
I think I did okay moderating the panel, which was filmed for a documentary about the Great American Songbook, and didn’t disgrace myself too much.
Sometime soon, I will post a transcription of some of the remarks and comments made by these four wonderful artists.
A great four days filled with terrific music and wonderful memories.”
posted by Bill Reed
Helen Merrill’s debut recording, ‘A Cigarette For Company’, was recorded on December 15, 1952 with the Earl Hines band. More important to her legacy are the 1953 recordings of ‘The More I See You’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’ on the Roost label (Roost 575). These recordings led to her signing in 1954 with the newly launched Emarcy label of Mercury Records.
“Helen Merrill” (Emarcy MG 36006), her self-titled debut album on Emarcy Records was recorded in December, 1954. It is a classic jazz recording with Clifford Brown, Danny Bank, Jimmy Jones, Barry Galbraith, Milton Hinton, and Osie Johnson. The album was arranged by Quincy Jones. This debut set many of the standards that she has maintained in her recordings throughout her career: collaborating with quality musicians, choosing great songs to sing; taking creative risks, assuring sensitivity to the lyrics; and unquestioning musicality. In all, she recorded five albums for Emarcy from 1954-1958. Each shows different strengths of her musicianship and her continuing growth as an artist. She ended the decade with the 1959 Metrojazz album “You’ve got a Date with the Blues” (Metrojazz E1010). Accompanying her on this album are Frank Wess, Barry Galbraith, Johnny Cresci, Milton Hinton, Kenny Dorham, Jerome Richardson, Al Hall, and Jimmy Jones. It is a thematic album. It is beautifully sung. The interpretations have a timelessness that rests very much on Miss Merrill’s sensitivity to the music.
As the 1960s began, Miss Merrill was a vagabond, roaming the world. For both professional and personal reasons she lived abroad in Italy and Japan for a good part of the decade. This period exposed her to a world view, and she incorporated this into her music. Mid-decade, 1965 and 1968, respectively, she recorded the albums, “The Feeling Is Mutual” (Milestone 9003) and “A Shade of Difference” (Milestone 9019). Her collaborator on both albums is pianist Dick Katz. Accompanying her on “The Feeling Is Mutual” along with Mr. Katz are Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Arnie Wise, and Pete LaRosa. The musicians playing on “A Shade of Difference” are Thad Jones, Hubert Laws, Gary Bartz, Jim Hall, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, and again, Mr. Katz. These musicians create two gems. “The Feeling Is Mutual” sets a very high standard for the period. It was not widely marketed at the time of its released. It receives more attention when re-released thirteen years later as “Something Special” (Inner City 1060). Both albums are artistic statements, vocally and musically, reflecting the creative impulses of all. By no means do these two albums mark the high point of Ms. Merrill’s recordings, as some of her most sensitive singing is still in the future.
The 1970s were challenging, creative, and full of risk-taking for Miss Merrill. As the decade began she was still living in Japan. She hosted a show for a Tokyo radio station. By the end of the decade she had produced albums for pianists Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, and Sir Roland Hanna, as well as for vocalist Ann Burton. It is her recordings made in the seventies that are most revealing. “Sposin'” (Victor SMJX-10132), with the Gary Peacock Trio recorded in 1971, is a modern statement. This album commands attention. It is as creatively imposing today as it must have been in 1970. Miss Merrill’s vocals play around and through the music which is teeming with an atonal influence. It has a jarring version of ‘My Man’ juxtaposed with an entrancing version of ‘If You Could See Me Now’. The essence of ‘My Man’ has never been communicated in this way, with the dissonance the lyrics foster, played out in both the vocal and the music. The trio is composed of Gary Peacock, Masahiko Satoh, and Motohiki Hino.
In 1972 she moved back to the United States. In 1976 she produced and recorded the album “Helen Merrill/John Lewis” (Trio Pap 9050). It is a recording of understated romanticism. Both singer and pianist are responsive to the mood and to each other, creating music that transcends both. Accompanying Miss Merrill and Mr. Lewis on the non-duet tracks are Richard Davis, Hubert Laws, and Connie Kay.
The 1980s was a decade of much activity for Miss Merrill. Early in the decade she recorded albums in Japan. Other recording sessions during the decade include a composer series, albums of the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rogers & Oscar Hammerstein. Mid-decade she recorded two albums for the Owl label in France. By the end of the decade she was again recording on the Emarcy label, by then a part of Polygram.
The 1987 Emarcy album, “Collaboration” (Emarcy 834-205-2CD), is a masterpiece. It is a revisiting of her 1956 album, “Dream of You”. Her collaborator on both these recordings was arranger Gil Evans.
“Collaboration” is fresh, full of rewards for the listener. Miss Merrill re-interprets songs with the intervening thirty years weighing in, giving her interpretations of the lyrics greater meaning, with a maturity that captures the richness of the orchestrations. This can be attributed to the richness that life brings the longer it is actively lived. “Collaboration” is an orchestral album including the following musician: Steve Lacy, Gil Goldstein, Mel Lewis, Danny Bank, Phil Bodner, Jerry Dodgion, Chris Hunter, Wally Kane, Roger Rosenberg, Jimmy Knepper, Joe Beck, Buster Williams, Lew Soloff, Shunzo Ono, Dave Taylor, Harry Lookofsky, Lamar Alsop, Theodore Israel, Harold Colletta, Jessy Levy, and Jay Berliner.
From all appearances the rekindled relationship with the Emarcy label (now Universal) in the late 1980s gives Miss Merrill great freedom. Her recordings in the 1990s for the label are consistent, artistic expressions and achievements. The track, ‘Young and Foolish’, from the 1996 album “You and the Night and the Music” (Gitanes 537 087-2CD), underscores what her maturity has brought to her interpretive skills. This track is spell-binding. If any comparison can be made with the recordings of this period, it may well be with the meritorious albums the late Sarah Vaughan made for the Pablo label from 1978-1982.
Two of Miss Merrill’s albums from the 1990s that will surely endure are “Clear out Of This World” (Antilles 314 512 654-2CD) and “Brownie–Homage to Clifford Brown” (Gitanes 314 522 363-2CD). “Clear out Of This World” is exquisite. It is an intimate and sensual recording. The music is for adults, conveying the meanings of love, life, and living. The musicians that work with Miss Merrill to bring this about are Roger Kellaway, Red Mitchell, Terry Clarke, Tom Harrell, and Wayne Shorter.
“Brownie–Homage to Clifford Brown” is a recording of high merit, both musically and artistically. Once again, as with “Collaboration”, Miss Merrill looks backward, this time to her 1954 debut, “Helen Merrill”, to create a recording for the present. “Brownie” is poignant. It allows the musicians to express their appreciation for Clifford Brown who is part of their artistic heritage. At the same time, they reveal their own strengths and the lessons learned from this heritage. It is a tribute to musicianship. The players are Lew Soloff, Roy Hargrove, Tom Harrell, Wallce Roney, Kenny Baron, Rufus Reid, Victor Lewis, and Torrie Zito.
The new century begins and Miss Merrill continues to make music that excites challenges, provokes, and satisfies. Her artistry requires attention. It is subtle and complex at the same time. It must be listened to actively. Each album is best heard in its entirety as a total piece. This provides the listener with the emotional rewards that all great art provides. Her best works are collaborative efforts. She works off her fellow musicians and they, in turn, work off her.
During her career Miss Merrill has also recorded albums outside of jazz that are worthy in themselves and add dimensions to her music. These show her ability to challenge herself and deepen her artistry. For example, in the 1963 album “The Artistry of Helen Merrill” (Fontana Tl 5270), she reveals her sensitivity to folk music. While living in Japan she again reveals her affinity for folk music, though this time the music is recorded with the accompanists playing traditional Japanese instruments. The album recorded in 1966 is “Sings Folk” (King KICJ 8383CD) with Hozan Yamamoto on the bamboo flute (shakuhatchi). Her 1970 album, “sings Beatles” (Victor VICJ-23172CD), at first thought, seems a questionable project. This is pop-rock music.
Listening to this album today, one is taken by the creative interpretations and the nuances she brings to the music. Two later albums to sample outside the jazz tradition are “Carrousel” (Finlandia 0603-14914-2CD) and “Jelena Ana Milcetic aka Helen Merrill” (Gitanes 543 089 2CD). “Carrousel” is her 1996 recording of songs by the Finnish composer Heikki Sarmanto. This is a song cycle of very polished pop music. It is light and lyrical. “Jelena Ana Milcetic aka Helen Merrill” recorded in 1999 reflects the intertwining of her Croatian heritage with her musical history. Its concept and execution shows a deep appreciation of how her life experiences and art are woven together.
Helen Merrill’s legacy does not rest on one or two recordings. She has consistently recorded during these past fifty years, having recorded over 40 albums. At the same time, she has extensively toured worldwide, performing at jazz festivals and a variety of venues. Like all great artists her every effort has not always been successful. It is her ability to continually learn, grow and move forward that has produced aural works of lasting beauty. Her musicality, high standards, and creativity have resulted in recordings that help define what vocal performances should be. Time and again, from that debut recording in 1952 until today, she has recorded albums that compel and challenge the listener, and most importantly, give great pleasure. These noteworthy albums, “Helen Merrill”, “You’ve Got A Date With The Blues”, “The Feeling Is Mutual”, A Shade of Difference”, “Sposin'”, “Helen Merrill/John Lewis”, “Collaboration”, “Clear Out Of This World”, and “Brownie”, do not grow tiresome. These remain fresh and alive with each listening. Like Billie Holiday, she sounds like no one but herself. She is a singular artist with a truly individual style. Over the past fifty years, Helen Merrill has recorded extraordinary albums in each decade that stand the test of time. This is the definition of a great–Music Maker.