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Review: Carmen McRae, “I Am Music”

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Carmen McRae - I Am Music“Life is just too much for me to bear…I guess nobody ever really cared…do you?” Carmen McRae poses that question some four minutes into “A Letter for Anna-Lee,” the Benard Ighner song that opens her 1975 Blue Note album I Am Music. It’s a startling moment of direct address in this sad tale of a man for whom “the business of the day won’t let me be,” adding that “this life’s not meant for me.” The song, its accompaniment led by Dave Grusin’s burbling electric piano, shifts from its third-person narration to a reading of the titular letter, then reveals itself as a first-person account. As McRae’s pain and anguish come to the fore, the smooth backing builds to a dramatic crescendo, strings slashing through the gentility. McRae naturally brings a jazz singer’s vocabulary and phrasing to the song, elongating syllables and thoughts, indulging in the kind of melodic improvisation and exploration only she could do. (Its portrait of the strife lurking under the veil of domesticity actually recalls one of Barry Manilow’s finest songs, “Sandra,” so memorably recorded by another legendarily soulful voice: Dusty Springfield.) Carmen McRae was always among the more burnished and precise, yet bluesy, voices of the American songbook. With I Am Music, she created a hybrid of R&B, soul, and contemporary jazz that set it apart from most other titles in her deep catalogue. Its new reissue from Cherry Red’s Big Break Records label (CDBBR 0205) sheds some welcome light on this rare gem.

Big Break has previously reissued 1976’s Would You Believe, with its roster of songs from the worlds of R&B (Bill Withers, Skip Scarborough), modern jazz (Chick Corea), Broadway (Cy Coleman, George Gershwin) and pop-rock (James Taylor). The repertoire on I Am Music takes a different approach, avoiding standards. The songs are less familiar, some newly-written, with five coming from the lyrical pens of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (with various composers), two from Benard Ighner and two from Jelsa Palao. The album is rounded out by a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song. And though Blue Note was aggressively courting the modern market, the album is more than just a one-note exercise in updating a legendary chanteuse’s sound for a rock crowd more interested in, say, Alice Cooper than “Alice Blue Gown.” (Though it has its own considerable merits, Would You Believe is more explicitly “contemporary” in feel and material than I Am Music. And Carmen actually covered an Alice Cooper song to good effect on that disc!) Roger Kellaway, once Bobby Darin’s accompanist and a talented composer-arranger in his own right, produced the album after Benard Ighner became indisposed. Kellaway arranged the lion’s share of the disc himself, bringing in Dave Grusin and Byron Olson as well.

There’s more after the jump!

The cover photograph of McRae, cheerfully ready to party with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, might seem a contradiction when considering the dramatic songs on I Am Music. In addition to the restless soul portrayed in “A Letter to Anna-Lee,” she embodies a grieving widow in “Who Gave You Permission” from the Bergmans and the underrated composer Billy Goldenberg. The song was written for the television film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, which the team later adapted into the Broadway musical Ballroom under the aegis of visionary director Michael Bennett. It’s an odd fit for the album – for any album, really – as it’s essentially a monologue spoken over orchestral accompaniment. The Bergmans and Goldenberg would more fully musicalize their touching story in Ballroom the musical. But McRae finds both the humor and the pathos in “Permission,” verbalizing sentiments familiar to anyone who’s lost a loved one: who gave you permission to go? It’s honest and heartbreaking, and another portrayal of turmoil amidst the mundane.

With just a slightly different sequence, the Bergmans’ songs could have formed a mini-suite on love and loss, sung by someone who had been down that road before. “I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before” (the only one of their offerings written expressly for McRae) finds the singer in a reflective mood. Kellaway, its composer and arranger, provides a baroque string arrangement to support McRae’s subtle, controlled performance of a low-key composition (“I’ve seen the magic disappear before/I’ve missed the boat and shed the tear before/The only news when you’ve been here before/Is who will say goodbye”). She’s deliberate and cool in her interpretation, and the song boasts some of the most expressive vocals on the entire album. In a similar vein is “The Trouble with Hello is Goodbye.” Co-written by Dave Grusin but arranged by Roger Kellaway for I Am Music, it was introduced by Sergio Mendes just months earlier. Kellaway gives the song a dreamy arrangement with a slick, male/female chorus, quite atypical for an R&B-oriented effort.

Like “The Trouble with Hello,” The Bergmans’ and Dori Caymmi’s “Like a Lover” was first recorded by Sergio Mendes. It’s slowed down as a languid, sensual ballad rather than as the effervescent bossa of the original by Brasil ’66. But even a dramatically-altered tempo can’t obscure the beguiling melody, matched by a sweet lyric finding the romance in nature (“Oh, how I dream/I might be like the riverwind to you”) as well as the everyday (“How I envy a cup that knows your lips…and a table that feels your fingertips”). The singer’s smoky vocals make the sentimental nature of the song all the more affecting.

“I Ain’t Here” showcases McRae’s lighter side. She needs nothing more than a jazzy piano and some percussion to bring this swinging little number by Leiber and Stoller to life. It’s a sassy character song for a housekeeper, the kind of expressly theatrical material that the duo had taken to writing later in their career. McRae delivers the song originated by Peggy Lee with a sly wink. The same sass comes to the fore, too, on Ighner’s second contribution to I Am Music. On “You Know Who You Are,” a feisty McRae chastises her subject with fire, while The Morgan Ames Singers bring a churchy, gospel quality to their backing vocals.

Two songs by Jelsa Palao close out the album. Championed by Roger Kellaway, singer-songwriter Palao submitted two very different pieces for McRae. “I Never Lied to You” is a dark and haunting meditation; “I Am Music” is a variation on the theme that “I Write the Songs” (written by Bruce Johnston in 1975) later popularized. The understated and poetic “I Am Music” is tenderly and gracefully put forth: “I was here before life began/In the wind and on the waves of the seas…I am music, I am ageless – I am love.”

Like music, Carmen McRae did seem ageless. In reality, she was already in her thirties when she began recording, a late bloomer among her group of musical peers. Many years later, she amusingly commented that she was “older than the Pope.” Big Break’s handsome reissue of this album from an overlooked period in her long career, produced by Wayne Dickson, has been newly remastered by Nick Robbins. Christian John Wikane has written an exhaustive, entertaining essay touching not only on the making of the album but on McRae’s life and influence. Contributions from Alan Bergman, Mike Stoller, Jelsa Palao, Roger Kellaway and Benard Ighner make Wikane’s notes a definitive appreciation of the album and its merits. I Am Music is a rare chance to hear the jazz vocalist par excellence in an unusual setting. Emotional and frequently melancholy, I Am Music may not be the last word on her artistry; her most enduring milieu is still the jazz-classic pop territory of her own musical idol, Billie Holiday. But the album proves her remarkable adaptability, fearlessness and belief that there was another chapter yet to be written of the Great American Songbook.

You can order I Am Music here!

Written by Joe Marchese

February 22, 2013 at 11:15

Posted in Carmen McRae, News, Reissues, Reviews

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One Response

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  1. Thank you for your excellent review. I hope you are able to feature more reissues of jazz vocalists (and “near-jazz” for that matter). There are so many reissues from Europe and Japan that are hard to learn about.


    February 25, 2013 at 08:55

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