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Remembering Carmen McRae and Her (Nearly Forgotten) Masterpiece

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It is hard to say exactly why a musical artist moves you deep in your soul but for me in the case of vocalist Carmen McRae it is these three things: She interprets lyric in an organic way that is on a level all her own with a take no prisoners attitude. She intuitively interacts with her band as well as a live audience. She has sass, strength and fearlessness as a singer and is an impeccable musician and composer. 

Carmen's career spanned from the late 1930s to the early 1990s. She is considered one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century. She sang with big bands yet her greatest artistic showcase, in my opinion, was captured in a small group setting. She made over 60 albums but there was one that always stood apart from the rest for me -- the 1976 Grammy-nominated album "At The Great American Music Hall" (ATGAMH) released on Blue Note Records.

ATGAMH was played in my house all of the time while I was growing up but it wasn't until as an adult, that I actually discovered what my parents had loved so much about the album.  It was Carmen at her very best:  singing jazz standards, ballads, the American songbook, popular songs of the day and some bossa nova to boot.  She is backed by a superb and swingin' trio and jazz pioneer Dizzy Gillespie guests on several tunes.

Sadly, not many have had the privilege to enjoy this superb album because after the initial vinyl pressing it was never released on CD here in the states and has since been a work that has slipped through the cracks like many jazz albums of the 70's era.

Recently, I reached out to a colleague at Blue Note Records about this oversight and happily discovered that the label is in the process of preparing ATGMH for digital release at iTunes soon.

As we await the availability of this nearly forgotten masterpiece, what better way to get in the mood and celebrate it and Carmen than by visiting with her backing trio on the recording: Marshall Otwell (piano), Ed Bennett (bass) and Joey Baron (drums & percussion).

These three guys are not only anxiously awaiting the digital release themselves but were more than happy to take a trip down memory lane and share in their experience and insights about Carmen and this most special and brilliant recording.

What made Carmen such a brilliant artist?

Marshall Otwell (MO):  Carmen was unique and greatly talented musically.  She had a personal magnetism that people loved and wanted to be around her and she could get their attention very easily with her facial expression and with her voice.  She had a great love for the music and the tradition and a great attention to detail.  Those were all part of her personal stamp.

Ed Bennett (EB):  What made Carmen so great was how she could interpret a song.  The way she sang a lyric was from a real emotional level, especially on ballads. Her phrasing, time and feel was amazing at any tempo. She was a musician. When she sat down at the piano and accompanied herself, she could play.

Joey Baron (JB):  Her understanding of timing, lyricism, melody, phrasing and drama. Not only her understanding, but her ability to synthesize all these elements & influences and make them her own. Whether playing piano or singing, within a few notes, you know it's Carmen. She had soul. Her confidence and self respect were incredible. She was a great mix of earthiness and sophistication. She loved and cared about what she did.

What part of her vocal artistry were you most impressed with?

MO:  What most impressed me about her was her strength, will and ability to just take a song and make it a complete emotional experience for the audience and maintain intensity. With a lot of singers, when an instrumentalist would play a solo, at the end of the solo would kind of have a little down curve in the intensity or the volume and set it up for the singer to come back in. With Carmen, she encouraged that I would just keep going at the intensity that I was at and she would come in right on top just as though she were a powerful tenor sax or something. She just had such power and such will. She would just take it and there was no having to hand it over gracefully to her. 

EB:   Probably when she would sing a ballad.  She could deliver the lyrics in such an emotional, personal,  and powerful way.  She liked to take ballads at really slow, slow tempos.

JB:  Carmen's ability to be herself. Never one to waste notes, the way she sang words painted pictures.  She could really swing.

Dizzy Gillespie guests on many songs, what was it like playing with him?

MO:  When Dizzy came and started playing with us, his style was kind of like scattering notes around as he makes his phrases.  It's beautiful what he does but it kind of startled me on the gig because I thought it isn't that he doesn't know where we are in the tune and I know he knows what these harmonies are but whoops there he goes over there and so I was simultaneously, sometimes, trying to support the extended harmony type of notes that he was playing and support her melody.  It was really quite a challenge playing with him.   I realized listening to this album 35 years later that I was trying to help him and I shouldn't have been doing that.  I should have left him a little more space and let him do what he did.  

EB:   It was great! To be on the same stage as Dizzy. We were sharing the bill with his band for the 3 nights we played there. I don't know if it was planned for him to play some tunes, or if he just decided to come up and play.

JB:  Playing with Dizzy was absolutely thrilling. To be a part of the incredible rapport and chemistry between Carmen and Dizzy was an amazing experience.

When you listen to this recording, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

MO:  One of the main things is being in the Great American Music Hall and how the audience was and just the vibe of the whole thing.  I can still see the colors around the stage and remember how the people just loved Carmen.  I always loved playing in that place and I loved their piano.

EB:  Wow! that was 38 years ago. But I think the recording holds up to the test of time.

JB:  I miss her .  I am forever grateful that she heard something in my playing at that time that warranted me being a part of her music. 

The four sides of the album are very special in that every tune works on many levels.  Did you feel that magic while recording? 

MO:  The album is a subset of what we actually played and I don't think it is in the exact order we had it in our sets.   They programmed it the way they did to make it work with the sides on the vinyl and it worked beautifully.  Working with Carmen I always felt like her choice of tunes was magical.  I always felt that it was just so very special and I think the tunes on the album really do work.   As I was listening to it, I loved it all.  

EB:  Carmen was loved and revered so much especially when she performed in San Francisco. They were the best audiences and were crazy for her. You can hear that on the record.  There was a lot of energy going on.

(This was funny) On the tune, "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do," Carmen takes a chorus of a humming-scat thing.  As she finishes, she says  "You put dat in your pipe and smoke it".  The crowd went wild, it is the city by the Bay.

JB:  I was not thinking about the recording. Carmen loved San Francisco, in particular The Great American Music Hall.  San Francisco felt the same for Carmen. To witness and be a part of this exchange, was for me electrifying.

Can you tell us about one track on the album that has a special meaning to you?

MO:  The one that I always remember the most is "Miss Otis Regrets" because that is a duet I did with Carmen and Dizzy joined us and I remember being so excited and intrigued by what he was playing that I lost my place in the tune.  And here I am giving the harmony and the rhythm - I am the band in that case and I couldn't look to Ed or Joey to figure out where the hell I was but I remember thinking "Oh shit, I am lost!"  In listening back to it, I can't hear the place where I felt I was lost.  It just all flowed.  That is one of those career moments that I won't forget.

EB:  "On A Clear Day" - It's the one track that is swingin' with Dizzy Gillespie. I played a little fill that Dizzy responded musically on his solo.

JB:  "Clear Day" ... it was the first thing I ever played with Carmen.  Here on the record, she opens it up for Dizzy to play. To play with Dizzy on a medium walking tempo still puts a smile on my face.  Marshall, Ed and I were all excited.

Also, "Old Folks" - it's such a soulful song.  Carmen always sang it with such feeling.  She gets to the essence of the song.  Hearing her sing this makes me think of how she modeled respect across the age, race, gender, cultural and religious walls. That continues to inspire me.

What album was played at your house that holds a special memory or meaning?