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Carmen McRae: At Ratso's, Vol. 1

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Album Review

Ron Hitchcock has managed to unearth previously unreleased material, mostly live performances, of Stan Kenton andWoody Herman, among others. His endeavors have resulted in a respectable catalog for his Hitchcock Media company. Hitchcock outdid himself this time by releasing in two volumes of Carmen McRae's appearance at the now defunct Ratso's Jazz Club in Chicago in 1976. Both volumes come from Saturday and Sunday night performances. Each CD has its own distinct and diverse play list; there are no duplications. McRae was at the top of her form. She applies her inimitable and immediately recognizable smoky timbre to a play list of mostly familiar tunes. McRae was influenced by the bop masters of her time, and she doesn't hesitate to give her offerings a boppish inflection. But most of all, it's her deep respect for the lyrics that often sets her apart from her peers. Her phrasing was designed to make sure that the true message of each song, complete with appropriate emotional emphasis, is never ambivalent or vague. When McRae sang a song, you knew exactly what her interpretation of the words conveyed. And she didn't have to rely on any vocal gymnastics or other gimmickry. Her unembellished, straight-ahead delivery was all that was necessary to put over a tune and to display her considerable talent. Renditions such as "I Am Music" (which she had recorded just a year before) and "You and I" are examples of this unique way with a song. The up-tempo "Them There Eyes," with its elongated phrasing, is one gem from a set filled with precious material. Her trio then was Marshall Otwell on piano, Ed Bennett on bass, and a young Joey Baron on drums. The sound is excellent. This is essential McRae and is thoroughly recommended.


Born: 08 April 1920 in New York, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s

Carmen McRae always had a nice voice (if not on the impossible level of an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan) but it was her behind-the-beat phrasing and ironic interpretations of lyrics that made her most memorable. She studied piano early on and had her first important job singing with Benny Carter's big band (1944), but it would be another decade before her career had really gained much momentum. McRae married and divorced Kenny Clarke in the '40s, worked with Count Basie (briefly) and Mercer Ellington...
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