Friday, April 26, 2013

The Lady Carmen

Few fans today know that Carmen McRae was a gifted pianist as well as singer. Here she
emotes from the keyboard during a late '50s gig. Photo from the NEA

I never liked Carmen McRae. Her hoarse, whisky-soaked voice never struck me as much more than one-dimensional. She seemed to sprechstimme her way through many of the tunes she performed. I much preferred Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter. I only collected McRae records when they came my way gratis. Needless to say, my selection of Carmen material was pretty slim.

But then, my point of reference had always been the Atlantic sides that Carmen did in the '60s and '70s and the several she did for Mainstream afterward. They indeed showcased the later, roughened sound of McRae's voice and were an acquired taste in the way Etta Jones' in-tune/out-of-tune vocalizing is something one has to learn to hear. I never really learned to hear Carmen.

But then I found this record last week at a church thrift store in a town a few miles from where I live in the Catskills. I'm a changed man! This is Carmen McRae from 1959, and she is extraordinary. None of the coarse quality of her later recordings, no spoken lyrics. Carmen's voice here is fluid and lovely, filled with startling embellishments and superbly stated melodies.

Dave Kapp ran his
record label from
1954 to 1967.
She recorded several LPs in the late '50s for Kapp, a label that was started by Dave Kapp, brother of Decca founder Jack Kapp. Kapp lacked the financial depth that Decca had, so its productions tended to have a skimpy, cheap look. But much of the music on the label (jazz-wise) is excellent, and this recording by Carmen McRae is proof. Though Kapp burdens her with conventional string arrangements, she gets sympathetic support from a trio on some of the selections (probably Don Abney on piano) and she navigates the charts with real aplomb. You can clearly hear what a great jazz soloist she was. Check out "I Only Have Eyes for You," one of the trio sides on the album. Carmen demonstrates what a supple and inventive jazz improviser she was.

As always, these tunes were ripped from the original vinyl with only a slight cleaning of the sound. Be forewarned here that there is occasional slight crackle on some of the selections.

When You're Away
Carmen McRae
McRae, v; Luther Henderson Jr. Orchestra; *Frank Hunter Orchestra probably with Don Abney, p; Joe Benjamin, b; Charles Smith, d.
New York, NY; 1959; Kapp KL1135

1. When You're Away
2. The More I See You
3. I Only Have Eyes for You*
4. Willingly*
5. If I Could Be with You*
6. I'll Be Seeing You
7. I Concentrate on You
8. Ain't Misbehavin'*
9. Every Time We Say Goodbye
10. When Your Lover Has Gone
11. I'm Glad There Is You*
12. Two Faces in the Dark*

Find it here:


  1. Thanks for sharing. Carmen McRae was not that bad for me. :) I even found her covers of Monk tunes in a later album inspiring and fun. But when you are collecting for a foregone age, sometimes you collect for aesthetics, sometimes for nostalgia, and sometimes, for the variety. Right? Cheers.

  2. There are many reason to collect the old stuff, Frank -- all of them good. I perhaps overstated my dislike of Ms. McRae. Some of her Atlantic performances were pretty good, even though I didn't much care for the timbre of her voice. But this recording is exemplary and I highly recommend it (obviously, or I wouldn't have posted it!).

  3. I am so loving your blog. so many new discoveries. I am just reading your blog like a novel for escape on hectic days. thak you so much.
    i humbly ask Do you think you could repost this one now that rapidshare is gone?

    1. Well, nedwrat, when you ask like that, how can I refuse? Glad you're enjoying Gems. I have a few more items coming soon, but in the meanwhile, the link's been fixed, and here it is:

  4. I love Carmen McRae soo much! Thanx for sharing this! It's awesome!