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Drawing inspiration from Billie Holiday, jazz singer, pianist, songwriter, and occasional actress Carmen McRae (1920 - 1994) was instrumental in broadening my interest in more than just pop music during the late Fifties with her distinctive stylish vocal timbre, mellow depth and metallic edge immediately catching my attention when I first heard her singles. OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY/THIS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH and STAR EYES/I'M A DREAMER (AREN'T WE ALL) were 45’s which quickly joined my collection and further encouraged me to seek out her vinyl albums.

Avid’s two-disc set combines four of them with the boast that remastering probably reveals the finest ever sound quality. First of all there’s TORCHY (1955) which not only contained STAR EYES and I'M A DREAMER (AREN'T WE ALL) but MIDNIGHT SUN, YESTERDAYS and GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE. With orchestral accompaniment shared by either Ralph Burns and Jack Pleis this is a superb collection which at the time of its release made the perfect promotional showcase for the McRae vocal artistry.

The more intimate setting for AFTER GLOW (1957) allowed Carmen to not only sing EXACTLY LIKE YOU, PERDIDO, I CAN’T ESCAPE FROM YOU and THE LITTLE THINGS THAT MEAN SO MUCH but accompany herself on piano - assisted by Ike Isaacs (guitar) and Specs Wright on drums. Other tracks MY FUNNY VALENTINE, I’M THROUGH WITH LOVE and EAST OF THE SUN feature the piano skills of either Ronnell Bright or Ray Bryant; leaving Carmen to concentrate on her vocal styling with, for me, GUESS WHO I SAW TODAY? the heart-breaker highlight of this remarkable collection.

I imagine it took much courage to dedicate a whole album to Noel Coward in 1957 but MAD ABOUT THE MAN is a fine tribute to “The Master” with A ROOM WITH A VIEW, MAD ABOUT THE BOY, SOME DAY I’LL FIND YOU, I’LL FOLLOW MY SECRET HEART and a thrusting take on IF LOVE WERE ALL headlining lesser-known and more difficult rhythm patterns of WORLD WEARY, ZIGEUNER and NEVER AGAIN. However, Carmen’s in full control with orchestral accompaniment and as my first hearing of the complete album it succeeds in every way.

Finally, another unusual concept, BIRDS OF A FEATHER (1958) swoops into songs celebrating the feathered variety with SKYLARK, MISTER MEADOWLARK, BYE BYE BLACKBIRD and THE EAGLE AND ME soaring to the skies via Carmen’s high gloss styling and deep pondering of lyrics. Full orchestral accompaniment.

Since her death in 1994, Carmen's contribution to jazz has been woefully undervalued and this welcome quartet goes a long way to bring these Fifties albums of note to our attention with many more waiting transfer to CD.
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Back in 2002, I reviewed a CD containing two of Carmen's sixties albums, but despite my enthusiasm for it, it took until 2014 until I bought and reviewed more of her music.

These albums were among Carmen's early recordings, though they were not consecutive releases. CD 1 features two albums dominated by ballads, which Carmen sang particularly well, while CD 2 provides more variation by including more swinging, but there are plenty of ballads here too.

I particularly like Guess who I saw today (a song also recorded by Julie London, Eydie Gormé and Nancy Wilson among others, and I have at least some of those versions), Exactly like you (one of the swinging songs, which I've also got other versions of, including one by Willie Nelson) and the album with a birds theme, but there's plenty of great music here.

Somehow, I don't think it will be another 12 years before I review another selection of Carmen McRae's music. The same label may even follow up by releasing a sequel to this volume.

Tracks

CD1

From `Torchy!'

1. Last Night When We Were Young
2. Speak Low
3. But Beautiful
4. If You'd Stay The Way I Dream About You
5. Midnight Sun
6. My Future Just Passed
7. Yesterdays
8. We'll Be Together Again
9. I'm A Dreamer (Aren't We All)
10. Good Morning, Heartache
11. Star Eyes
12. I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You

From `After Glow'

13. I Can't Escape From You
14. Guess Who I Saw Today
15. My Funny Valentine
16. The Little Things That Mean So Much
17. I'm Thru With Love
18. Nice Work If You Can Get It
19. East Of The Sun
20. Exactly Like You
21. All My Life
22. Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea
23. Dream Of Life
24. Perdido

CD2

From `Mad About The Man'

1. I'll See You Again
2. Zigeuner
3. Some Day I'll Find You
4. A Room With A View
5. World Weary
6. I Can't Do Anything At All
7. Mad About The Boy
8. Poor Little Rich Girl
9. I'll Follow My Secret Heart
10. If Love Were All
11. Why Does Love Get In The Way?
12. Never Again

From `Birds Of A Feather'

13. Skylark
14. Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)
15. A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square
16. Mister Meadowlark
17. Bye Bye Blackbird
18. Flamingo
19. The Eagle And Me
20. Baltimore Oriole
21. When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along
22. Chicken Today And Feathers Tomorrow
23. When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano
24. His Eye Is On The Sparrow
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