Carmen McRae - vocals; Norman Simmons - piano; Paul Breslin - bass; Frank Severino - drums
Highly regarded among musicians for her clear articulation, driving sense of swing, and all-knowing sense of hipness, Carmen McRae was a direct link to jazz vocal greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. Her appearance at the '65 Newport Jazz Festival with the Norman Simmons piano trio (Paul Breslin on bass, Frank Severino on drums) was a warm-up for her month-long residency in New York at the Village Gate, which resulted in her acclaimed live recording, Woman Talk: Live at the Village Gate.
They opened their July 2nd set with a buoyantly swinging take on the Rodgers & Hart number, "I Wish I Were In Love Again," which finds McRae in fine voice with her trademark slippery, behind-the-beat phrasing intact as she delivers the clever lyrics with a sly sardonic touch. From there they go into a slowed-down, bluesy rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," which includes the seldom-heard intro verse, played as a duet with pianist Simmons. Carmen exhibits incredibly soulful, alluring phrasing on this down home version of the oft-recorded tune as Simmons provides gospel-flavored comping behind her. The waltz time swinger "Haven't We Met?" is an effervescent ditty written by Ruth Batchelor and Kenny Rankin and was the title track of McRae's 1965 recording on the Mainstream label.
Her stirring take on the Edward Heyman-Victor Young standard "When I Fall in Love" is a perfect example of McRae's ability to interpret a ballad from the inside out. "Sunday" is a jauntily swinging number that Carmen had previously recorded on 1963's Live at Sugar Hall, San Francisco and would also include on other recordings in the '70s and '80s. Her dramatic version of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," which she first recorded on 1961's In London, is a highlight of this set. And they close it out in high-flying fashion with "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," a Billie Holiday staple which Carmen recorded on her 1961 album, Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics, and later included on her 1983 Billie Holiday tribute album, For Lady Day.
Born in Harlem on April 8, 1920 to Jamaican parents, McRae began studying piano at age eight. The music of jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington filled her home, helping to develop her appreciation for jazz at an early age. At age 17, she met singer Billie Holiday, a primary influence on her career. In her late teens, McRae played piano at Minton's Playhouse, a Harlem jazz club that was a magnet for players on the burgeoning bebop scene, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Kenny Clarke (whom she married and divorced) and pianist Thelonoius Monk. In 1944, she played with Benny Carter's big band and later played with Count Basie before making her first recording as pianist in 1946 with Mercer Ellington Band. Shortly thereafter came to the attention of Decca's Milt Gabler. During her five-year association with Decca, McRae made 12 recordings with the label and in 1954 was voted best new female vocalist by Down Beat magazine.
McRae continued to lead bands and record steadily up to 1989, when a bout with emphysema forced her to retire. Her discography, which numbers over 60 recordings, includes collaborations with Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Cal Tjader, and George Shearing, a brilliant album of duets with fellow jazz diva Betty Carter and heartfelt tributes to Thelonious Monk (1990's Carmen Sings Monk) and Sarah Vaughan (1991's Sarah: Dedicated to You). She died on November 10, 1994. (Milkowski)