As one who is accustomed to hearing Carmen McRae, a huge favorite, accompanied by a sax or other instruments of low timbre, I was unprepared for the magic which occurs here in this 1980 album, where she records with George Shearing for the first time. Shearing's light touch on piano, especially in the high range, contrasts dramatically with her deep, dark voice, but both artists share the same feeling for words and music, and both can build on the moods and interpretations of the other. Since they apparently never rehearsed a single note of this album, recording direct the first time they worked each song, their synchronicity is especially remarkable.
Experts on the slow, moody jazz ballad, McRae and Shearing play off each other from the first song, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance," in which the clear, high notes of Shearing's "tinkly" accompaniment set McRae's low range into sharp relief. In the emotional "More Than You Know," Shearing's piano lends a sweetness and even femininity to her dramatic but very quiet treatment of the lyrics. "Gentleman Friend," a toe-tapping, less familiar, and upbeat song (the only one on the CD) features Shearing's jazz variations, McRae's vocal variations, and the two of them coordinating naturally for her scat and his improvisations in the spontaneous conclusion.
Among the exciting (and sometimes unfamiliar) songs here, two stand out for me. "Cloudy Morning" became an instant favorite, with Shearing creating a romantic, moody impression with sounds of thunder in the piano bass. His singing voice is much darker and deeper than McRae's, of course, and when she answers his lyrics, she does so with an uncharacteristic delicacy which makes the harmony of their duet a "chicken skin moment." "Too Late Now," contains a haunting piano intro, as Shearing creates clear, bell-like chords, arpeggios, runs, and key changes for 2:41 minutes before McRae enters quietly to maintain the mood and sadness.
A brilliant collaboration between two of the great stars of jazz, this CD features both stars at their best, but Shearing's piano also makes McRae sound more vulnerable--less dramatically assertive than usual--as she sings torchy and impassioned lyrics--a lovely change of pace. Mary Whipple