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Lilac Wine: Helen Merrill, Part One

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This past week, I discovered one of the remaining records on my wish list of almost impossible-to-find music: Helen Merrill’s American Country Songs, from 1959. My find wasn’t on vinyl, though, but that’s still fine by me. I’ll take what I can get. Worn copies of this never re-issued LP have appeared occasionally on eBay in the last decade, going for fifty bucks or more, and I’ve never managed to come out on top of the bidding.  I have found the occasional Helen Merrill disc at my local used record store, but American Country Songs has eluded me.  (A few months ago, I came across another one on my list, the triple-LP version of Keith Jarrett’s 1979 Concerts, so it’s been a pretty good year for the collection.) Atco WEA-Japan put out American Country Songs on CD in mid-January, and iTunes followed suit with a download. And there the music finally was, widely accessible again after more than fifty years of relative obscurity.
         This record’s a peculiar genre hybrid, and it’s certainly not Helen Merrill’s best album. But its rarity has made it hugely alluring for me, and anything, anything, by Helen Merrill is going to be revelatory, never short of pretty much excellent, so I’m happy to have access to it, and to hear it. Helen Merrill has defined herself for more than half a century as a quintessential jazz singer, so country-and-western isn’t going to be her forte. A few country-jazz hybrids were emerging at the turn of the sixties, notably guitarist Hank Garland’s recordings with Gary Burton; Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (with its famous William Claxton cover photo and its versions of “Wagon Wheels” and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand”) had appeared in 1957. But I’m not aware of any vocalists melding idioms; Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” had been a country-pop crossover hit in 1957, and the arrangements for strings (by Chuck Sagle) on American Country Songs draw overtly on contemporary country-pop style. Guitarist Mundell Lowe, who had notable associations with Sarah Vaughan and recorded third-streamish arrangementsof Alec Wilder, performs on the album, along with George DuVivier, Milt Hinton and Jo Jones, lending the music an artful legitimacy, although there are no searching improvisations; as the title suggests, the record aims to link jazz and country as forms of Americana, styles rooted in the same musical loam.
The record starts off with a string-rich arrangement of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with Merrill’s smoky lines overdubbed in stereo harmony.  (“Devoted to You” gets a similar vocal duo treatment later in the set, but with a small backing band – vibes, guitar, bass, drums – instead) The effect is to draw a light but palpable resonance from Merrill’s voice: a barely breathy, gently grained texture that had become a hallmark of her own style. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” stands out, with its half-speed vocal (“when time goes crawlin’ by”) set against warbling electric guitar and a double-time steam train shuffle, the drum-line falling somewhere between Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (no kidding) and a C&W version of “Cherokee.” She works with and against time, threading it like tensile gold, attenuating its viscosities like taffy. On the whole, the album sound is playful, the arrangements mostly commercial and a little kitschy (“I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” is plain goofy, but cute): a bouquet of late 50s MOR, mostly sweet and lonely ballads swaddled in strings. But Helen Merrill’s syllable-by-syllable melodic craft, feeling her way along the purr and pull of each note, makes this music work.
         The string section also gestures back (though not formally, merely as a kind of auditory trope) to her more sophisticated Mercury albums, particularly Helen Merrill With Strings(1955) and her collaboration with Gil Evans, Dream of You (1956). The opening track on the 1955 record is “Lilac Wine” – a song she was still performing when I saw her live in 1990 (which she described as “unusual”) and which was the title track of her 2004 album (which, unusually, also includes a cover of Radiohead’s “You”).  The lyrics describe lilac wine as  “sweet and heady, / like my love,” which also suggests about the timbre of her voice, its veiled headiness, its honeyed closeness. In an interview with Marc Myers for his Jazz Wax blog, in 2009, she recalls working with Gil Evans in July, 1956:
JW: Your phrasing on that session sounds like the basis for Miles Davis’ approach with Gil a year later in 1957 on Miles Ahead.
HM: I have no idea. Miles used to love my sound and always came to hear me sing. We were dear friends. He told me he loved my whisper sounds. That’s a technique Iused by getting up real close to the microphone. I’d sing almost in a whisper, which created a very intimate sound. I developed this by listening to my voice and trying different things with the mikes.
JW: Do you think Miles learned from your whisper technique?
HM: Miles learned from everyone. He was incredible. He took the best from everyone and threw away the rest. He was brilliant. One of the things he told me he loved about my voice was how I used space—both in music and between my voice and the mike.
This is a pretty big claim, and it seems a little suspicious to call Miles Davis a “dear friend.” But the comparison of their articulations is also deeply apt; their ballad styles are strikingly similar, with an attention to the delicate surges, the intimate breath-pressures within each note. And while American Country Songs can’t achieve the layered depths of a Gil Evans record (or of a Gil Evans-Helen Merrill record), the seductively undulant sound-space that Helen Merrill can and does create makes it an album so worth hearing.


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