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Helen Merrill has done something very few others have done in the world of jazz for, just with one record, she has come to be considered one of jazz’s greats. Usually a budding new star has to do quite a bit of waiting before he or she can be acclaimed. It all depends on the public’s opinion of the musician’s merits. Sarah Vaughan—amongst the singers —and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley—among the instrumentalists—have had to take their place in the queue awaiting the people’s favourable reaction. In Helen Merrill’s case however, it only needed her 1955 recording with Clifford Brown and Oscar Pettiford—with arrangements by Quincy Jones—for the critics to state that at long last jazz had a fair skinned singer. And yet we cannot exclude June Christy, Anita O’Day or Chris Connor. It was just that Helen seemed to have that certain “je ne sais quoi” which, before her splendid entry into the realm of jazz, seemed to be exclusive right and property of the coloured singers—with Billie Holliday leading the field.
Helen was born in New York thirty years ago. Her “education” in jazz was handled by musicians like Bud Powell, Miles Davis and J. J. Johnson, and then she carried on to her first important musical engagement—Earl Hines and his orchestra. Her style is decisively “instrumental” and her interpretations never set up that old problem of styling which often crops up when we think of the recordings of other modern singers, that is whether it’s really jazz or whether we are listening only ballads to pazz style. Helen uses her voice with intelligente and is deliberately “discret” i.e. she tries to make her voice seem like an added instrument to the orchestra. Her recordings of “Willow Weep for Me” and “Everything Happens to Me” are especially good examples of this ability of hers.
In 1960 Helen Merrill went on a tour round Europe and was the star at the Comblain La Tour Jazz Festival. Later, she came to Italy in order to record a series of concerts for a television programme called “Moderato Swing” with Piero Umiliani and his orchestra. She has also recorded 4 songs in Italian with Armando Trovajoli and his orchestra (a 45 r.p.m. extended play—RCA EPA 30-387). She has even been to sing in Japan…
In this record are gathered the songs that Helen Merrill sung for the Italian TV show I have just mentioned. The Italian words have been kept from the original and they are by Fernando Cajati.
In “Night and Day”, “Everything Happens to Me”, “Autumn in New York”, “These Foolish Things” and “I’ve Got You under My Skin”, Helen Merril is accompained by a sextet made up by Piero Umiliani (piano), Nini Rosso (trumpet), Gino Marinacci (baritone sax), Enzo Grillini (guitar), Berto Pisano (bass) and Sergio Conti (drums). In the other items we hear instead a quartet formed by Piero Umiliani (piano and celesta), Nino Culasso (trumpet), Tonino Ferrelli (bass) and Ralph Ferraro (drums).
S. G. Biamonte