Newly reissued on CD by Acrobat Music, Live At The Flamingo Jazz Club documents Carmen McRae's first live appearance outside of the United States. The 38-minute disc contains a lively London performance taped in May 1961. McRae delves into the great American songbook, singing eleven songs backed by a jazz trio. This was my introduction her, and I was quite taken by her style. There is a sexy swagger in her voice as she finesses these old chestnuts, breathing fresh life into songs that were old even when this recording was made.
The unique touches she brings to these familiar tunes make for an engaging experience. "Body and Soul" has a few unfamiliar variations in the lyrics, but more importantly the liberties she takes with the melody add to the performance's unpredictability. Another case in point is her exquisite reading of "Loverman". After singing the line "I go to bed with a prayer that you'll make love to me," she repeats the last four words emphatically – turning the prayer into a command. Yes, ma'am! McRae knows these songs inside and out, and obvious care has been taken in her interpretations.
The quality of the songs themselves can hardly be argued, though at times the choices are a matter of personal preference. "Moonlight In Vermont", clever though it may be with its haiku verses, happens to be a song I could never stand. I must say it's a great testament to McRae's skills that I found myself wanting to visit the Green Mountain State after listening to her sing.
The accompaniment is provided by the trio of Don Abney (piano), Phil Seaman (drums), and Kenny Napper (bass). The latter two were local British players, apparently recruited for this performance, while Abney was her regular pianist. Although the focus remains on the vocals throughout, the musicians are given many chances to shine. An intimate rendition of "Don't Ever Leave Me" features a solo Abney backing McRae. There isn't much emphasis on improvisation, though Abney is given some room to stretch out on the brief "Thou Swell". A funny moment occurs at the beginning of the track when McRae loses her timing, singing "thou swell, thou witty – let's start again," as the audience chuckles. Appropriate for the location, Gershwin's "A Foggy Day (In London Town)" gives Seaman a chance to slip in a hot little drum solo.
The sound quality is quite good for a recording of this age. The vocals are close mic'ed and sit in the front of the mix. Acrobat has included a nicely detailed booklet with informative liner notes, very helpful especially to those (like me) who are new to Carmen McRae. I can assure you after hearing Live At The Flamingo Jazz Club, I'll be seeking out more of her music.