To hear Carmen McRae on a bad night is to hear a jazz singer who can linger around a ballad’s phrases or swing through a standard’s groove with all the emotion and verve afforded few others on a very good night.
Wednesday night at the Vine Street Bar & Grill, McRae returned to the spotlight for a four-night stint after a brief hiatus from performing. “My voice ain’t where I want it to be,” she told the audience after completing her opening few selections.
True enough. Her voice was a little rough around the edges and she did tend to slide to the notes rather than land squarely on them, but McRae nonetheless managed to give a satisfying performance from her repertoire of jazz classics. And by the time she got around to singing the beautiful Leslie Bricusse-Henry Mancini ballad, “Two for the Road,” midway through her opening show, the stylist’s voice had returned to its familiar sound.
Though she swung easily on such tunes as “Mean to Me” and “Gettin’ Some Fun Out of Life,” and provided just the right Latin feel to “I Concentrate on You,” it was her gentle approach to the ballad form that resounded. “The Masquerade Is Over” and “My Old Flame” were given dramatic readings, while “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” with all its difficult changes of melody, became an emotive tour de force for the singer.
McRae was accompanied by a fine trio of bassist Bob Bowman, drummer Mark Pulice and Pat Coil, a deft pianist who capably read each of the singer’s shifts in time and feel. McRae, who works the Hollywood jazz spot through Saturday, showed her own piano chops when she accompanied herself on her two closing numbers.