Before & After: Helen Merrill

© Larry Appelbaum

Vocalist Helen Merrill has always surrounded herself with top musicians, from her first jazz recordings with Quincy Jones and Clifford Brown, to her modernist sessions with Gil Evans and Steve Lacy. Merrill was one of the first American jazz stars to live and teach in Japan in the 1960s, and she made time for this listening session in New York on the eve of another trip to Tokyo. Three of Merrill’s finest recordings, Casa Forte and The Helen Merrill-Dick Katz Sessions, have been recently reissued by Mosaic Records.

1. Sarah Vaughan

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” from The Divine Sarah Vaughan, Columbia. Vaughan, vocal; Jimmy Jones, piano; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Benny Green, trombone; Tony Scott, clarinet; Miles Davis, trumpet; Freddie Green, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1950.

Before: It’s early Sarah. Wonderful. What year was this made? It’s interesting–she had an edge to her voice that she lost later on. Now she’s sounding more like Sarah. The musicality is there; her way of phrasing and improvising on the melody was perfect. I loved hearing that. She was my idol from day one when I heard her singing “Signing Off.” I love her sound and her ability to phrase the way a musician plays. She sang like a horn player with good taste.

After: Jimmy sounded good. I thought it was Miles. Tony was around here a lot. He liked singers, and he was a real character. I used to see him at Leonard Feather’s parties and at a little place uptown where Baby Laurence used to come dance. It was amazing to be a New Yorker then. There was so much talent around.

2. Dee Dee Bridgewater

Mother’s Son-in-Law from Eleanora Fagan: To Billie With Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater, Emarcy. Bridgewater, vocal; Christian McBride, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Edsel Gomez, piano; James Carter, saxophones. Recorded in 2009.

Before: [laughter] She’s good: her time, her sense of humor, her ability to speak a song, to tell the story without having to worry about whether her notes are perfect. She’s wonderful. Good bass player. That’s Christian McBride? I always loved bass players. She’s cute.

After: That’s Dee Dee? Oh, tell her I loved it! I knew Dee Dee from Paris. She’s very, very good. What I loved about this is that she didn’t try to sound like Billie [Holiday]. She sounds like herself, which is quite good enough. I didn’t realize what a great sense of humor she has. This broke me up. And Christian is ridiculously good.

3. Gil Evans

“The Barbara Song” from The Individualism of Gil Evans, Verve. Frank Rehak, trombone; Ray Alonge, Julius Watkins, French horn; Bill Barber, tuba; Wayne Shorter, Al Block; Andy Fitzgerald, George Marge, Bob Tricarico, reeds, woodwinds; Bob Maxwell, harp; Gary Peacock, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.

Before: Sounds like Gil. I’ve never heard this. It’s very dark. He was a wonderful man, original, very brave. I would have loved to hear Miles play above this. My god, he took that to a very dark place. He was able to be very free with what he heard. And he placed the instruments in ways that other arrangers wouldn’t have thought of.  He got peculiarly human sounds out of the instruments. In this case it’s very dark and haunting.

When you recorded with him, did he write for your voice?

Not all the time. I would have liked him to write more like this for my voice. He never understood that I resonated in darkness, I really do. There’s nothing phony about Gil’s writing. I like honesty in music.

4. Nancy King

“By Myself” from Impending Bloom, Justice. King, vocal. Recorded in 1991.

Before: She’s good. Anyone who can sing acapella like this is a great musician. It’s amazing. She’s certainly a jazz singer, I’ll tell you that. I know I should know her. She’s very, very good. How could she do that? I’m totally jealous [laughter].

After: Really? Wait a minute. I know her. But I had no idea she could sing this well. That’s amazing. I loved it. She’s a really nice person too. She was here with another singer, Karrin Allyson. And I have the record she made with Fred Hersch. It’s a beautiful record. I’m happy to hear this.

5. Shirley Horn

“You Won’t Forget Me” from You Won’t Forget Me, Verve. Horn, piano, vocal; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Miles Davis, trumpet. Recorded in 1990.

I love this song. Oh, that’s Shirley. Her phrasing is magnificent. That’s Miles, right? This is perfect music. The first time Torrie [Zito] heard her play piano he said everything she played could be orchestrated beautifully. I love her. That’s the honesty thing again. This arrangement is such an interesting way to do it. The time is perfect, who’s playing drums? I first heard this song on the Arthur Godfrey Show. Great lyric. Miles always loved her. He learned a lot from her. Shirley and I were in Paris and we passed by a bar called Slow Bar. She said she had to buy that place some day because she liked to sing very slow. And she liked good cognac.

6. Mark Murphy

“This Could Be The Start of Something Big” from Five Corners Quintet: Chasin’ The Jazz Gone By, R.T. Records. Murphy, vocal; Jukka Eskola, trumpet; Timo Lassy, tenor saxophone; Severi Pyysalo, vibes; Mikael Jakobsson, piano; Antti Lotjonen, bass; Teppo Makynen, drums, Abdissa Assefa, percussion. Recorded in 2005.

Is this Mark? I love Mark. We grew up together in the business. I’m crazy about him. He’s wonderful, one of the good guys. I think the arrangement was a little ambitious, a little overwhelming. Mark started out as a singer’s singer. Then little by little he started to really find himself. He leaves a lot of room for you to put your own thoughts into something. That’s a rare gift. I saw him recently at the Kitano. He has no fear because he knows what he’s doing.

7. Norma Winstone

“Every Time We Say Goodbye” from Distances, ECM. Winstone, vocal; Glauco Venier, piano; Klaus Gesing, soprano saxophone. Recorded in 2007.

Before: Good singer, very interesting arrangement, too. This saxophonist knows the tune very well, without even touching the melody. Where was this recorded? This is a very good sounding record. The construction of this is beautiful and well done. Do you know how hard it is to get that kind of sensitivity, where the pianist doesn’t have to fill in every space and ruin everything? This was done very well.

After: She’s wonderful. I like her. That’s a very tricky thing she did. It could have been annoying but she did it perfectly. It was interesting to the end.  Her accompanists were very sensitive with her. And the recording quality was very nice.

8. Lester Young

“Two To Tango” from The Jazz Singers, Smithsonian Press. Young, tenor saxophone, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1952.

Before: [laughter] You brought some interesting records I’ve never heard before. That’s the singer playing the saxophone? You have to tell me who that was.

After: Are you kidding? Lester Young singing? You are putting me on. I love Lester’s phrasing. Lester and Ben Webster knew all the songs. They taught me about color. Lester was always melodic and his harmonies were beautiful. We rode the train to Washington where we worked. He had a silver flask and he was kind of an elegant guy. He stayed every night with his woman, who was beautiful and very statuesque. That was a wonderful time. Sometimes I wonder why? I mean there are great musicians now. But there weren’t a lot of us back then. We knew who everyone was. Now there are so many styles of jazz and so many gifted musicians and singers. It’s hard to keep up. There are great musicians around today, but they’re so into technique. They go to school. Dinah Washington didn’t have to go to school. Neither did Billie Holiday.

Nor did you.

I wanted to. I wanted to learn how to play the piano but we didn’t have a piano at home. I had to learn everything by osmosis. Is that Lester’s only record singing? It’s very cute.

Name some recordings that changed your life.

The thing that changed my life wasn’t a recording. It was my mother’s singing. She wasn’t a professional and she would never have wanted me to be a professional, but she died when I was 9. When she sang, it came from a very deep place.  And I loved Jo Stafford and her record of folk songs. One thing that stopped me cold was hearing Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” at Café Society. I was so moved by that, I can’t tell you. And I loved hearing Ethel Waters singing “Supper Time.”


This B&A was recorded in NYC on March 10, 2010.


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