Thursday, February 5, 2009

Carmen McRae: Live at the Flamingo

Acrobat Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: Live at the Flamingo

Acrobat Music has produced a series of “reissue” albums that feature well-known jazz artists; this one presents Carmen McRae in a concert she did in 1961, at London's famous Flamingo Jazz Club. It was her first live appearance outside the United States, and initially was released on Ember Records in 1962.

I became familiar with McRae in the latter stages of her five-decade career, when she was better known for her jazz-oriented performances of pop tunes than as a pure jazz vocalist. But, as this concert clearly reveals, the lady was a genuine swinger.

She began as a pianist in Harlem in the 1920s, and played with luminaries such as Benny Carter and Count Basie. Because she was hindered by asthma, she didn't perform as a vocalist until 1953, when she was a guest artist at Harlem's famous Milton's Playhouse. Proprietor Teddy Hill hired her on the spot as a club regular, and McRae was on her way.

For this Flamingo concert, she was backed by a trio led by pianist Don Abney; they supported her beautifully. She performed almost a dozen jazz standards, including “I Could Write a Book,” “Body And Soul,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Stardust.”

I can't remember an album where these wonderful tunes have been done better.

Despite the asthma, McRae was a heavy smoker and developed emphysema; she was forced to retire in 1991 and passed away in '94. This album clearly illustrates that she was one of the finest vocalists who ever graced the world of jazz.

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