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.