Portrait of Carmen
Part of the new Warner Jazz Japanese 1000 Yen 24-bit remastered mid-price release series and released for the first time on CD in the UK, Carmen McRae’s Portrait of Carmen, recorded in Los Angeles in 1967 and released the following year, only has the titles in English and Japanese inside but on the back of the CD box if you peer closely at the tiny print there you'll find the original notes written by Gene “Quiet Nights” Lees no less. The sound quality hits you in the face, and on CD it’s as immediate as listening on vinyl. Produced by Nesuhi Ertegun and arranged and conducted by Benny Carter (who Carmen played piano for in his big band in the 40s), Gene Di Novi, Oliver Nelson, and Shorty Rogers, the 11 songs here begin with the Tommy Wolf song ‘I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco’ which has a bluesy vintage feel to it and kicks the album off nicely. Bob Lind’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’ is more of a country number (covered a few years earlier by Val Doonican) and while the strings arrangement, one of the three Shorty Rogers arrangements here, might not be to everyone's taste, ‘Day By Day’ the Sammy Cahn song next up is a big improvement. You can feel McRae really establishing herself here. ‘When You Get Around To Me’ has a kind of Anthony Newley quality to it although it’s not his song but the strings arrangement, again Shorty Rogers' work, doesn’t do it too many favours.
McRae, who died in 1994, is a hugely significant jazz singer even now in the music and clearly belongs in the pantheon along with Sarah, and Betty Carter. ‘Walking Happy’, another Sammy Cahn song with music by Jimmy van Heusen is a classic swinger with not an ounce or aroma of cheese anywhere to it and the big band smashes it behind McRae, the Nelson touch here very evident. While some of the songs have their quirky touches and I suppose chief among them is the slightly gimmicky opening to ‘Ask Any Woman’ the chorus is so very powerful it makes you go back to just work out what’s gone on, especially the way Carmen sings at the end “don’t ask her why”. Gene Lees says directly in the notes “Carmen is one of our great singers”, and nearly 20 years after the singer's death her records including this still more than prove his claim. Head straight for ‘Boy Do I Have A Surprise For You', again a bit showbizzy, but McRae gives it weight no show singer or jazz singer for that matter could ever realistically provide. Love the horns intro to ‘Loads of Love’ (Nelson again in the chair), and Carmen responds brilliantly as she also does on Sammy Cahn’s ‘Wonder Why’, swinging like it's nobody’s business but hers. SG