John Loves Carmen

Rifftides Washington, DC, correspondent John Birchard recently renewed his enthusiasm for a great singer.He checks in with a review. 
By John Birchard

According to Netflix, the DVD Carmen McRae: Live is valued at three stars. Don’t believe it. I watched it last night and was transported by the woman’s artistry. The Tokyo concert was recorded in 1986 and released by Image Entertainment. 

Accompanied by a superb rhythm section 

Carmen McRae.jpg

(Pat Coil, piano; Bob Bowman, bass; Frank Felice, drums), Carmen cruises through some of the best of The Great American Songbook, opening with “That Old Black Magic” and “I Get 
Along Without You Very Well.” By the time she gets to “I Concentrate on You”, her pipes are thoroughly warmed and she’s taking chances with the melody, going down the scale when you expect her to go up, growling, sliding into a note the choice of which leaves one laughing with delight. 

Now, about scatting: I’m not a big fan of the technique, but Carmen McRae reminded me that certain people can handle it. First, she didn’t overdo it, running out of ideas before exhausting her enthusiasm. Her scatting was musicianly, sometime funny and always inventive. Aspiring jazz singers would benefit from watching this disc. 

Her technique with the hand microphone was a lesson in the art of dynamics. Depending on the effect she was going for, the mic would be close to her lips at one moment, then pulled away to accomplish a fade effect. That’s what experience does for an artist. 

Carmen’s concert was an exercise in what Whitney Balliett had in mind when he called jazz, “the sound of surprise.” On a turbocharged “Thou Swell”, when one would expect a racehorse gallop into scat-land and a long, noisy drum solo, the whole thing was over in not much more than a minute – fast, tightly arranged, no scat, no drum solo. Just a breath-taking display of musicianship. 

During this one-hour-21-minute concert, she reminded me how few singers really pay attention to lyrics. Carmen told stories, emphasized words in a way that, no matter how familiar the song, brought fresh attention to the story it told. With her, words meant something. By altering her volume from a belt to a whisper and tinkering with the melody, a song she might have sung a thousand times became new again.
Besides the familiar standards, she salted the program with lesser-known tunes such as “Getting Some Fun Out of Life”, “Love Came On Stealthy Fingers” and “As Long As I Live”, the latter featuring her own accompaniment on acoustic piano. She took it at a walking tempo and the way she used the left hand in her solo reminded me of Jimmy Rowles.

There is so much to like on this DVD, from her sly use of musical humor to a hardly noticeable tapping of her finger on the edge of the piano to signal Pat Coil the tempo she wanted to slip into after beginning the Brazilian song “Dindi” a cappella.
The word diva is tossed around with reckless abandon these days, applied to practically any teen-age phenom who has two hits in a row. Carmen McRae was a diva – not that easy to work for, demanding high standards from her musicians and herself. When she took the stage, SHE TOOK THE STAGE. There was no question this lady was in charge and she delivered with professionalism and artistry. 

Carmen McRae’s death left a huge hole that remains to be filled.
If Netflix believes this DVD is worth only three stars, I would like to experience a singer whose work is rated at five.

Those interested in owning, rather than renting, the McRae DVD will find it by clicking here.
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  1. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    Drummer is “Mark Pulice” not Frank Felice, and I, too, love this concert – Bob Dorough’s “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers” being a classic… (and isn’t there a surprising and great version of Brasilian star Djavan’s “Flor de Lis” here too?)
    RED (Ireland).