Throughout her life, Nina Simone remained active in the pursuit of civil rights, continually engaging and challenging established norms. Her vocal style begins in traditional songs, hymns and spirituals, and brings those influences to heights of sophistication and avant-garde expression. Her voice is immediately recognizable, commanding, defiant, and arguably the most powerful of any jazz singer. She is the only vocalist in this compilation who is also featured as an instrumentalist, playing piano on all four selections.
The album's opener, the traditional 'He's Got The Whole World In His Hands,' clearly displays Nina's roots in spiritual music, in a style both delicate and sincere. Nina's earnest reading of the Gershwin classic 'I Loves You, Porgy' was her first taste of commercial success, reaching the Billboard Top 20 in 1957. Her restrained take on 'For All We Know' is sung in clean, direct lines, communicating the tune's bittersweet embrace of the moment. Nina's vibrant instrumental composition, 'African Mailman,' shows a bop-influenced melodic style, particularly her active left hand and Monk-like measured staccato on the right, while her rhythm swings energetically.
Chris Connor's career spanned five decades, and Bethlehem recorded its beginnings. In fact, Connor's first record as a featured performer was Bethlehem's first 10" release in 1954 - Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland. A capable big band singer (she first charted with the Stan Kenton Orchestra), Connor earned her stripes singing standards at nightly gigs and radio broadcasts, eventually gaining renown at Birdland. Her voice is breathy and intimate, with particular control over vibrato, and carries no wear from her exhaustive performance schedule. Three of Connor's selections here are melancholy ballads, her performance of the standard 'Cottage For Sale' notable among them. Connor delivers the lyrics convincingly, particularly the couplet "the keys in the mailbox, same as before I but nobody's waiting for me anymore." Her voice flutters achingly in the lovers' parting of 'What Is There To Say.' On the classic 'Try A Little Tenderness,' Connor is more animated and her voice floats breezily over the accompanying piano. Carmen McRae's talent filled her personal professional life with jazz royalty. She married renown drummer Kenny 'Klock' Clarke (Miles, Bird, Diz, Monk) and bassist Ike Isaacs (Count Basie, Eddie Davis). Very early on, McRae performed at the now-mythical Minton's Playhouse, meeting and performing with members of the star-studded house band and the great Billie Holliday (whose songs she consistently performed through the remainder of her career). Her voice is energetic and charismatic, earning collaborations with seemingly every notable jazz artist of the 1950's. On 'Old Devil Moon,' McRae handles the rhythm changes deftly and sings the lyric to a welcome love she is eager to be drawn to, each and every night. 'You Made Me Care' has McRae playing coy with a knowing smile as she takes the choruses precisely on the downbeat and lets the verses roam a bit more freely. The almost burlesque rhythms of "Too Much In Love To Care" propel McRae as she chooses love and loyalty to her partner, steadfastly declaring 'Go have your fling with your new love I I'll be forever your true love.' The album's appropriate closer, 'Last Time For Love,' is McRae's own, and she sings it like a goodbye kiss.
Vocal jazz depends almost entirely on the singer's ability to not only blend the rhythmic and harmonic intricacies of a tune, but to directly convey its mood and central emotion to the listener. The strength of this collection is in the skill of its singers, in their dexterity and passion. Nina Simone, Chris Connor, and Carmen McRae sing compellingly of loves new and old, of love that begs reminiscence.