Tell Me Once Again is the greatly anticipated collaboration between Carol Kidd and guitarist Nigel Clark. This lovely album is full of staple songs from the Kidd - Clark repertoire but with the twist of being arranged exclusively for this dynamic duo. Kidd's vocal melodies are as rich and sensual as velvet and Clark's guitar playing is refined, delicate and impeccable. Each of the songs on this album is captivating and intimate - so much so, you might just find yourself thinking that Kidd might be singing just to you. Sit back, relax and let the gorgeous melodies of this fantastic duo take over.
I am a sucker for a jazz duo. Really. Offer me a big band with a handful of fantastic players or two world-class musicians performing duets, and I'll plump for the duo every time. There is no more intimate setting - and no context which demands more from either musician. It's more intense, it makes them more vulnerable - there's nowhere to hide, after all - and, with the right combination, it can be absolutely magical.
Anyone who has been to a Carol Kidd concert in the last twenty years will know that a guaranteed highlight is the point in the evening when the stage clears, the lights dim and the audience hushes to pin-drop levels as the singer embarks on a duet with her long-time guitarist Nigel Clark. In fact, those of us who savour their sublime musical rapport have been waiting for this recording for a very long time.
It may have been obvious to everyone else that they should make a duo album, but it never occurred to Carol and Nigel until Linn Records suggested it. One song in particular triggered that suggestion: ‘Moon River'. Carol recalls, "We did a gig in Edinburgh last year and they said that they thought that that duo number was the strongest part of the whole show, so how about doing an album."
The dreamy Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer ballad, written for Audrey Hepburn to sing (with just guitar) in Breakfast at Tiffany's, was still a relatively recent addition to the Kidd-Clark repertoire. They first performed it with singer JJ Gilmour at a charity concert at Glasgow's Oran Mor in April 2008 and it stopped the show. It was such a perfect song for Carol - and one she had long loved, but never sung.
"JJ was the one who suggested ‘Moon River' - not being a jazz singer, he didn't want to do something that was too jazzy," says Carol. "And it just worked, so well, with just guitar." It was at an all-star Johnny Mercer concert at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in June 2009 that ‘Moon River' was established as a new Carol Kidd signature song; up there with her trademark ‘When I Dream'. The duo's heartbreakingly lovely performance of it prompted a visibly moved Sir Michael Parkinson to comment that, "You'd have to travel a very long way to hear a better singer."
With ‘Moon River' in the bag, so to speak, Carol and Nigel had to put together a selection of songs that would work individually as duo numbers - and collectively as an album. One of the things that leaps out from the end result is that the songs they chose complement each other beautifully. Carol sets out her stall with the opener ‘Stormy Weather' - ‘Since my man and I ain't together' - and the theme of lost love recurs throughout the final selection.
There's a natural arc to the album which concludes, appropriately enough, with ‘The End of a Love Affair' - a song that Carol had loved for a long time, but had never performed. She admits that she hasn't a clue where it comes from: "Is it from a show or a movie?", but in a way, it doesn't matter because like the best songs, it is a perfect entity, and one which Carol brings vividly to life thanks to her attention to the lyrics. She says, "All I know is that Frank Sinatra recorded it and it's just the most beautiful story, with a gorgeous melody on top."
That story aspect is something that both musicians are passionate about. "We wanted every song to tell a story", explains Carol. "And", adds Nigel, "The story is paramount". The onus isn't just on Carol to be the storyteller, they're very much two halves of the one whole; and as a result, Nigel's role as accompanist and soloist is also to serve the song/story.
He explains, "When I was doing my research for this, I went back and listened to the recordings Tony Bennett made with Bill Evans. Like most musicians, I adore Bill Evans, but it bugged me that he'd go off on these big long solo excursions and then, when they go back to the song, you think, 'What song is this again?' Surely it should be about the song; about the lyrics? You lose the flow if you break the story up with a big instrumental solo. Quincy Jones once said, 'Don't get in the way of the lyric.' And he's right. So you have to have quite a lot of discipline as an instrumentalist."
"You do," agrees Carol. "And I feel the same way about the way I sing. I don't want anything to get in the way of the story or the lyrics. I know some people who sing the word 'you' and it turns into 'yooooo-oooo-oo-ooo'. And I know some people expect scatting from a jazz singer, but for me it's about the integrity of the lyrics and the emotion and the sentiment you have to put into the story."
Nigel nods. "Perfect. You see, we think the same things - completely parallel - though this is probably the most we've ever discussed it! It drives me nuts when singers put emphasis on the wrong word. It's like they're not listening to what they're singing, so it doesn't make any sense at all."
One song which Nigel reckons many singers screw up is ‘I Loves You Porgy', from the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess opera. "It's maddening. So many singers sing it as some kind of fatuous love song and it's not. It's actually tragic." Carol chips in, "You have to know what it's about to sing that song. It's Bess coming to Porgy, telling him that she loves him but begging him to save her from the white man boss who's coming to take her, just because he can."
Nigel says, "Can you imagine her terror, and the helplessness of them both? And you get singers who sing it like a love song, with a smile on their face!" Carol takes both parts of the song - ‘I Loves You Porgy' and ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now' - and sings the whole thing from Bess's point of view. "It's a hard, hard song to sing - because of the dynamics, the emotions. It was a stretch in every way but we felt so strongly about it that we decided to go for it."
Now in her sixties, Carol has been through a period of emotional upheaval in the last few years, and readily admits that this is ‘definitely' the most personal album that she's ever recorded, both in terms of the song choices, which reflect different stages of her career (‘Stormy Weather', from the early 1990s, when David Newton was her pianist; ‘I Loves You Porgy', from her Gershwin album of the mid-1990s; ‘I Got Lost in His Arms', which was brought to her by fans more recently), and in terms of the meaning of the songs.
She says, "It's not even just those aspects; I think recording with just Nigel - who's been with me throughout - makes it more personal. It couldn't have been as personal had I had recorded it with my quartet, because then I'd have had to take into account that so-and-so might want a solo and all that kind of stuff."
All of the songs are personal but only one is an original. ‘Tell Me Once Again' is the first song that Carol and Nigel ever wrote together - and it features Carol's first set of lyrics, penned during an almost involuntary fit of writing that happened one sleepless night some time after the sudden death of her partner, John. These bursts of writing happened repeatedly, and Carol took the sheets of lyrics to Nigel to see what he could do with them.
He remembers, "I went through this batch of lyrics and kept thinking, 'Uh-oh, we're not going there ...' They were too dark. Then this one leapt out at me. It was almost a complete song. I sat down with my guitar and my little tape recorder, and each phrase just came to me. I could hear Carol's voice in my head singing it, even though she'd never heard the melody before. It was one of those ones where you think 'somebody else is doing this', and it took me twenty minutes to get it the way it is now."
"We call it our little opera because it is quite complicated", laughs Carol. "It goes into so many changes, but again it's a story and that's what's important about it for me." The pair's confidence in their first collaboration shot up when they tried it out at Glasgow's Cafe Cossachok, where Nigel has a regular gig. "The reaction was fantastic", recalls Carol. "I was worried about how we were going to hold their attention because, being an original, they wouldn't know it but they loved it - I guess because they could relate to it. And of course they were getting it straight from the horse's mouth!"
Audience reaction clearly plays a huge part in the decisions that the duo has made about its repertoire - after all, Carol and Nigel are in a sort of cocoon when they're working together, so they welcomed the chance to gauge listeners' responses. Their exquisite recording of ‘Once In a While' - which stands up alongside Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass's version - would quite simply not exist had it not been for a St Andrews audience being blown away by their first public performance of it.
Carol's initial reaction when she listened back to this CD for the first time was, "I don't sound young anymore!" Certainly the coquettish Kidd from her earliest albums is not so much in evidence, but age and experience bring with them a richer repertoire - and allow the imaginative singer to invest lyrics with deeper emotion as well as, in some cases, another level of meaning.
‘He Won't Send Roses' is a stunning example. Carol says, "That's one I've been doing for years but had never recorded and I was desperate to put it down on disc. Robert Preston sang it to a younger woman in the show Mack and Mabel." Nigel picks up the plot. "He's a big Hollywood producer, Mack Sennett, and she's a young star. She falls in love with him, and he's saying 'Don't. Don't do it.'"
Carol takes the song and sings it from a woman's perspective, an older woman advising a younger woman not to fall in love with a guy who ‘won't send roses, won't hold the door'. Nigel laughs, "It absolutely kills audiences, this song - people relate to it so much. I've watched Carol sing this so many times - she usually does it with the piano player, and has usually been joking around just before she sings it - and it's always the same reaction. You've got the guys squirming in their seats and you've got the women, who had been laughing a minute before, and now their smiles evaporate and eyes start to shine. It slaughters the audience!"
Clearly, it's not a song that a young singer could pull off, then. "For me", says Carol, "this sort of song - about someone who's had a life, who has life experience - is perfect. I have to choose my repertoire very carefully not only because my voice has matured, but also because, with me being older, I have to sing mature songs - like ‘Once In a While', which is about someone looking back on a past relationship. I don't want to go out and do throwaway pop songs."
Mind you, pop songs do feature on this album - though, in this duo's capable hands, they're hardly throwaways. Burt Bacharach and Hal David's theme song from Alfie may not be a song readily associated with Carol Kidd, but she has sung it before. "In the mid-1960s, I was the resident singer on a radio show here in Glasgow. They would bring up all the pop stars of the day - Adam Faith, Mark Winter, the Baron Knights ... whoever was in the charts. They would be the guests, but I'd always do a couple of songs with Peggy O'Keefe's trio. When I did ‘Alfie', Peggy just about died - she loved it. when it came to this album, and thinking about songs I'd loved singing years ago but not recorded, this was an obvious choice."
Nigel needed no convincing, especially once he had done a bit of digging on YouTube. "I came across this clip of Bacharach singing it at a lifetime achievement awards bash. He sings it at the end - just his husky voice and the piano - and he kills them with it. It's just perfect."
The Bacharach performance shaped the duo's rendition. Carol explains, "We thought - that's how we have to do it. Not like a pop song - but just sing it the way it's meant to be sung - very quietly and very emotionally. He sings it so heart wrenchingly, with no fuss. And that's what we decided to do."
The inclusion of a Stevie Wonder song may surprise some Carol Kidd fans but ‘Moon Blue' is one of the great joys of the album; a gorgeous, typically sunny bossa nova which lifts the mood after Harold Arlen's ‘Stormy Weather'. Carol gasps, "I love ‘Moon Blue'. It's so romantic and it fits in with everything we're trying to do." Another Wonder song was dropped as it would have jarred, mood-wise, with the rest of the album - but The Stevie Wonder Songbook could well be a future project, as could (or should) a bossa nova album, judging by ‘Moon Blue' and by the pair's sumptuously slow performance of ‘The Shadow of Your Smile'.
That song was among several which Nigel and Carol checked out on YouTube, where they found the verse - as they did with ‘Stormy Weather'. The classic Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler torch song was one with which they were already familiar, and which Carol had performed regularly in the past. Indeed, after ‘Moon River', it was the first song that they decided to include in the album. Carol says, "I didn't realise it had this verse until I watched the clip of Lena Horne singing it in the movie Stormy Weather. So I did it with the verse in the middle, like she did it."
For Nigel, that verse was one of the revelations of this project; "It's got this great key change. Harold Arlen wrote it so it goes into the key change right in the verse itself, and then when you come out of it, it sounds as if you've gone up a tone, but you haven't - you've come back to the original key. It's so clever - a real Jerome Kern-ish touch. I had goose bumps the first time I realised that it was going back to the original key."
Another revelation is the duo's take on a song that Nigel concedes was "all Carol's idea" - ‘You Don't Know Me'. "Aw, that is great - that song," says Carol, eyes sparkling as she admits that she was inspired by crooning pop idol Michael Buble's version. "I love the Ray Charles recording but I really loved how Michael Buble did it, and I thought it would be a great way to end the session. We'd never played it before but we just had a quick run-through and a wee chat about how we were going to do it. Then we started recording and all of a sudden it just took off. It all came together - and that was it in one take."
Only Carol and Nigel could possibly be surprised by such one-take wonders, or by the magical moments that run through this album. The rest of us have always known that a Kidd-Clark duo album would be a gem. And that it would be worth the wait...
© Alison Kerr 2010
Recorded at Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland, UK from 1 - 3 February 2010
Produced and engineered by Calum Malcolm
Mixed by Calum Malcolm and Philip Hobbs
Post-production by Julia Thomas, Finesplice, UK
Design by John Haxby
Photography by Robert Black & William Ellis