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What This Thing Is Called Love: Helen Merrill, Part Two

I have heard Helen Merrillperform live twice, on two nights bookending a week-long gig at the Bermuda Onion in Toronto in August, 1990. If I’m remembering right, I was there for the first night of her run, which I think was Monday, August 20. The Bermuda Onion was a pricy dinner club, located upstairs above a few high-end shops, its floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto Bloor (somewhere, I think, near Bay); I believe it had a garish purple neon sign in the shape of an onion flaring out over the street. It had maintained a jazz booking policy, but with only moderate success. On opening night for Helen Merrill, the place was practically deserted. I went with my friend Peter Demas, who lived in the city, and we sat at a table close to the bandstand. There might have been five or six others in the restaurant. I don’t think we ordered much food – the price-point, as they say, was prohibitive – though we might have got a plate of fries, and maybe a drink. But we weren’t there to eat, anyhow.
The Sunday Star had run a picture of her in headscarf and sunglasses, leaning on the restaurant’s piano beside her husband and accompanist, Torrie Zito, “American jazz great Helen Merrill, “ the caption read, “is weaving her wonders at Bermuda Onion until Saturday.” (I clipped it out.) That Monday night I remember her wearing basic black with pearls. Not that it matters too much how she was dressed, but my sense is that she had downplayed appearance, the show-biz aspects of a performance, because music came first, always. To drive this point home, her closer for each of her two sets that night was “Music Makers,” a tribute she had composed with Torrie Zito for her 1986 collaborative album of the same title (on Owl) with Gordon Beck, Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli that speaks directly and with unadorned, faux-naif candour to the affective value of jazz, its weave: “Music makers / thanks so much / for the joy you bring.” 
The other few faces in the restaurant that evening, who I would have assumed were dedicated fans like I was, must actually have been jazz reviewers; brief pieces on Helen Merrill appeared in the Star and The Globe and Mail in the next day or two. Geoff Chapman linked Merrill’s selective audience to the accomplished subtleties of her singing – even after so many years, not everyone had heard her or heard of her:
Helen Who? The one whose 1954 album with Clifford Brown was rated by one magazine the best jazz album ever made? Or is she the one whose recording 35 years later with Stan Getz was voted jazz album of the year?
Right on both counts. And thus it’s a matter of serious wonder that Helen Merrill is so lightly regarded in North America, save by jazz musicians, while European and Japanese fans can’t get enough of her.
[. . .]
Last night, overcoming a late arrival, a bothersome air conditioner and minuscule rehearsal time with the local bass-drums combo of Gary Binstead and John Sumner, la Merrill weaved wonders with a moody “Round Midnight” and a big, rangy version of an enjoyable tune that you realized, later, was good old “Autumn Leaves” in new guise.
[. . .]
The small, enthusiastic gathering, more aware than most perhaps of the thinning ranks of the great jazz singers [. . .] will treasure what they heard. (“Helen Merrill Weaves Wonders” Toronto Star21 August 1990: E2)
Mark Miller was a little less enthusiastic, but still drew attention to Merrill’s astounding handling of ballad form:
Some jazz singers have made their names by the number of notes they can squeeze into the four beats of a bar. Some have made a style out of the number of bars they can squeeze into a note. . . .  The long notes are the ones to wait for, the ones that draw the whistles, in a Merrill song – there was a note in You and the Night and the Music that simply turned transparent as it drew out in mid-air. They give her interpretations a quietly dramatic, sultry quality and lend a variety of softened textures and subtle shadings to the most familiar standards. The good effect in Monday’s second set, however, was often undermined by the bruised quality of her voice, a voice apparently “sabotaged” – that was Merrill’s word – by the club’s air conditioning. (“Revival Act” The Globe and Mail 23 August 1990: C3 )
I was there, so I can confirm that she did complain about a problematic air conditioner; her voice remains a sensitive instrument, and the ways in which she re-shapes a melodic line, slowly unfolding notes like delicate origami blooms, means that her breath and her pitch are closely responsive to their immediate environment. In some ways, her style is more suited to the rarefied immediacy of a recording studio than exposed to the unpredictable elements of background and stage noise. Her performance that night was, indeed, much less subtle and nuanced than those I’ve heard on record, although there were moments – like those mentioned in the reviews, but also in her version of “Lilac Wine” – when you could feel your heart stop beating, when the room seemed briefly suspended in time.
         Given that Peter and I were almost her whole audience, and the only ones sitting up close, when she left the stage after her first set, she came over to our table. Her manner was a bit wry and ironic; I think she asked us if we had a cigarette lighter, but neither of us smoked. I think I bungled saying something complementary, about how much I enjoyed her albums. She cocked her head a little,  as if unsure as to whether or not I was putting her on, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Do you have the one with Thad Jones?” I didn’t. I think she told me I should try to get hold of a copy, though it was probably out of print (which it was).  He was great, she said. “A Child Is Born” is a beautiful song. And then she left us for the back of the club.
         Years later, Emarcy France would reissue not one but both of her albums with Thad Jones – The Feeling Is Mutual (1965) and A Shade of Difference(1968), although they soon dropped out of print again, until Mosaic Records put them together on one limited-edition CD as The Helen Merrill–Dick Katz Sessions. It’s not just the presence of Thad Jones, but the gathering of two groups of musicians’ musicians – Jim Hall, Ron Carter (with whom Merrill would later record an incredible duo album), Pete LaRoca, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, Gary Bartz, Hubert Laws – makes these sessions astoundingly special. Alongside her albums with Gil Evans, Bill Evans and John Lewis, I think it isn’t a stretch to call The Feeling Is Mutual her masterpiece. In the liner notes to the second record, pianist and broadcaster Marian McPartland suggests that what makes these recordings so brilliantly alluring is a lyrical tension, both within Helen Merrill’s voice and in her subtle interactions (I’d suggest) with the other musicians:
I remember vividly the first time I heard Helen Merrill sing. It was some years ago, and I was listening to the radio, late at night, while driving to New York. Suddenly I heard a voice with an unusual timbre and such poignancy that I pulled over to the side of the road to listen more closely. [. . .] The contrasts in her voice are most intriguing: on the one hand, like eggshell china, and on the other a heartfelt cry, a depth-of-the-soul moan of deep feeling.
She was right, of course, about “the one with Thad Jones”; while her performance that Monday night might have been a bit marred, a bit “bruised,” there is something even in that heartfelt late effort that partakes of the idea of the cry, of crying: a grainy emollient pathos. A few years later, I tried to write about it, in a small lyric tribute of my own to Helen Merrill, which appeared in Descant in 1997; strangely, I used the same metaphor as Mark Miller, the bruise, although for him it was a fault, while for me, it is the essence of what Helen Merrill does. Late recordings, such as her duet on “My Funny Valentine” with Masabumi Kikuchi, only heighten the subtly attenuated grain of her voice, its lovely expiring.
         The second gig I attended was the closing night of her Bermuda Onion run, the Saturday. My parents had come to town, to visit the CNE, and my dad offered to take us all out to dinner, so I suggested we go see Helen Merrill. He paid, which was pretty nice. The club was packed that night. She was great, a bit more showy, a bit higher energy, a bit less nuanced. Afterwards, I asked my mother what she thought. “Great legs for sixty,” she said.
         Last year, I bought an autographed copy of a Japanese album, a session Helen Merrill did with Teddy Wilson – another significant pianist in the music’s history. (Helen Merrill produced a handful of solo piano albums in the seventies, including significant recordings by Tommy Flanagan and, my favourite, Roland Hanna – playing Alec Wilder.) 

The signature, presumably for a couple she likely doesn’t know, reads “with much love always, Helen Merrill.” The thing is, I think she means it. What she does, what she gives, on these records and in those performances, despite whatever conditions there might be, is a genuine moment of feeling, a pathos that makes you pull your car over and listen. A kind of love.

Lilac Wine: Helen Merrill, Part One

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.