Kurt Elling sat for this JazzTimes B&A one winter afternoon just before his 2004 New Year’s Eve show at the Kennedy Center. We began by listening to one of his favorite singers.
1. Mark Murphy
“Charleston Alley” (from Jazz Standards, 32 Jazz). Murphy, vocal; David Braham, piano;
Harry Leahy, guitar; Gerry Niewood, sax; Ted Curson, trumpet; Ed Caccavale, drums; Larry Killian, percussion. Recorded 1984, reissued 1998.
I love everything about the way Mark approaches all this Lambert, Hendricks & Ross stuff, and I know this recording really well. The thing about vocalese is that by its nature it has a tendency to be re-creative in a way. I mean, you’ve copped somebody’s solo or arrangement or whatever. But Mark comes on with his personality and his own musical identity so strong that it recreates a vocalese in a way that is totally Mark, and in a way that I have a real hard time imagining anybody else really accomplishing. It’s a completely unique artistic thumbprint. I mean, Jon [Hendricks] writes the grand lyric and performs with such a stately and magnificent representation of that which he’s apprehended. Then Mark comes on and he doesn’t need three people or a choir or whatever to do it–it’s just Mark and it’s totally whack, and it’s a totally new experience again. I’ve always thought that’s one of the greatest ways that Mark displays his ingenuity. Because he’s not hindered by the intricacies of somebody’s solo, and he can even recreate that and cast it in his own image.
Have you ever talked with him about this?
Mark doesn’t really take compliments very easily. You have to catch him in the right mood and be in the right place. And this [interview] is an ideal opportunity because I think he probably takes a lot more stuff in from what he reads. We’re friends and I know he’s been very generous about my thing and coming on the road with me and trusting me. It humbles me and makes me want to live up to that trust. I love talking about great singers. I hope you don’t give me any tragic ones [laughter].
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.
I was scheduled to do a Before & After piece for JazzTimes with the Chicago pianist, vocalist and songwriter Patricia Barber at the Portland Jazz Festival in Feb. of 2009. At the last minute, she told me that she wanted to save her voice for her performance and asked if she could give her responses to the recordings on her laptop instead of speaking. We tried but it didn’t quite work for the magazine, so this piece never ran. As with her music, Barber’s responses are clever, unguarded and insightful. She had recently released her Cole Porter record, which is one reason I sprinkled some Porter songs throughout.
1. Shirley Horn
“You Won’t Forget Me” (from You Won’t Forget Me, Verve). Horn, vocal; Miles Davis, trumpet; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums. Recorded in 1990.
Before: It sounds like Miles,…it IS Miles but with Shirley Horn. I think they did a session together. It’s beautiful . The drum stick on the snare sounds like maybe a producer’s decision. Who’s the drummer? Who produced this CD?
After: Shirley Horn is one of my biggest influences so I know her voice well. I’ve also traded sets with her at the North Seat Jazz Festival many, many times and I would go out into the audience to listen. I love her economy of phrasing, her confidence. Its a piano player’s confidence…..the singer-pianists don’t sing too much.