McRae – The Great American Songbook – Atlantic (1972)/ Pure Pleasure (2017) – double vinyl

McRae – The Great American Songbook – Atlantic SD 2-904 (1972)/Pure Pleasure (2017) stereo double vinyl, 71:17 ****:

Jazz chanteuse delivers a versatile set on a vinyl re-mastering of a 1972 concert.

(Carmen McRae – vocals, piano; Joe Pass – guitar; Jimmy Rowles – piano; Chuck Domanico – doublebass; Chuck Flores – drums)

Pure Pleasure Records has released a remastered 180-gram vinyl of Carmen McRaeThe Great American Songbook. The album (Atlantic 1972) was recorded live at Dante’s restaurant/cafe/jazz club in Los Angeles over four nights. As described, McRae and a top-notch ensemble (Joe Pass/guitar; Chuck Domanico/double bass; Jimmy Rowles/piano; Chuck Flores/drums) deliver artistic jazz interpretations of diverse musical standards. After some glib band introductions, Domanico lays down a vampy double bass line to open Duke Ellington’s immortal “Satin Doll”. McRae joins in a duet for two verses with saucy phrasing. The band finishes as Pass executes a trademark fluid solo. Switching to finger-snapping medium swing, McRae loosens up on Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love”. It is short and sweet (just under two-and-a-half minutes). McRae just gets better with each number. Her maturity and vibrato shine on the languid “If The Moon Turns Green”. She adapts to up tempo on “Day By Day”, and nails the clever Sammy Cahn lyrics. But she unleashes her soulful resonance on the Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman masterpiece “What Are You Doing For The Rest Of Your Life”. In a stellar duo with Pass, all of this song’s haunting imagery and lyrics are given a worthy jazz treatment. McRae explores lower-register vocals with unflinching commitment.

McRae takes on “I Only Have Eyes For You” with a saucy, jazz/blues shading. She interacts with the band in a more pronounced way as a vocalist. Of course, there is the dreaded “medley”. McRae even jokes about it in her intro. “Easy Living” is personal and Joe Pass contributes more dynamic guitar licks. On “The Days Of Wine And Roses” (can’t go wrong with material from Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer), McRae’s softer tone and peerless elocution showcase her artistic range, The transition to a samba/bossa nova arrangement of “It’s Impossible” brings a near ten-minute medley to a satisfying close. McRae and her band hit a jaunty groove on the under appreciated “Sunday”. This song is an ebullient antidote to “Stormy Monday.”

Most of the setlist is chosen well. McRae utilizes a deliberate phrasing on Leon Russell’s brilliant “A Song For You”. Rowles’ soulful piano and Domanico’s bowed double bass are transcendent. Heading back in time, “I Cried For You, Now It’s Your Time To Cry Over Me” is unadulterated high energy swing and may be the best group performance on the album. McRae does a pair (or as she pits it “two groovy tunes”) of Rowles’ compositions. Her verbal patter is sublimely hip like Sinatra. The second opus is a country and western tribute (no joke!) to Monk (“The Ballad Of Thelonious Monk”) that is funny and wildly creative. Not all of the material works. Anthony Newley’s “There’s No Such Thing As Love” feels like a derivative of “For Once In My Life”. Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s pop ditty “They Long to Be Close To You” isn’t suited to this band. There are many other songs from this terrific songwriting duo that would have sounded better. However corny works on the old standard “Three Little Words”, which includes a deft up tempo transition. A certain highlight is McCrae accompanying herself on piano for “Mr. Ugly”. With superior compositions, the band finishes strong with “It’s Like Reaching For The Moon” and “I Thought About You.”

The audio quality of this album is excellent. There is distinct stereo separation and the mix volumes adjust to the band appropriately. For vinyl lovers, the sight of the familiar red and green (with a white stripe through the middle) Atlantic label is nostalgic. The high-gloss gatefold packaging is superior. Carmen McRaeThe Great American Songbook is a very good jazz album. In 1972, the commercial viability of jazz was not optimal. Now, it can be fully appreciated.

Side One: Introduction; Satin Doll; At Long Last love; If The Moon Turns Green; Day By Day; What Are You Doing For The Rest Of Your Life
Side Two: I Only Have Eyes For You; Medley (Introduction: Easy Living/The Days Of Wine And Roses/It’s Impossible); Sunday
Side Three: Introduction; A Song For You; I Cried For You, Now It’s Your Turn To Cry Over Me; Introduction; Behind The Face; Introduction; The Ballad Of Thelonious Monk; There’s No Such Thing As Love
Side Four: Introduction; They Long To Be Close To You; Three Little Words; Introduction; Mr. Ugly; It’s Like Reaching For The Moon; I Thought About You

—Robbie Gerson

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