Lacking the vocal purity of Sarah Vaughan and the inordinate swing of Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae has secured her position in the grand triumvirate of female jazz singers with her extraordinary interpretive gifts.
At the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood on Tuesday evening, where she is in residence through Sunday night, McRae presented those gifts in a 13-song opening set that was simply exquisite.
“I’m more interested in the lyric than the melody,” McRae told a sparse opening-night audience, adding that as a jazz musician she can do as she pleases with a melody but the words must be right.
Every lyric she included in her opening set was right. Her melodic variances were subtle (she scatted only once) and her words were delivered without an abundance of emotion or sentimentality. There was a from-the-heart honesty about her delivery that made each song seem a part of her own thoughts.
Backed by a marvelous trio of musicians that seemed to share her lyric concerns, McRae bared her bebop roots with spritely rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” before downshifting to a Latin-tinged “Speak Low.” More of her fascination with Brazilian music was displayed later in the set with “Upside Down,” a delightful tune whose middle section turned to swing.
Swinging came easy to McRae on such songs as “Getting Some Fun Out of Life,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Them There Eyes” and “Mean to Me,” the latter made particularly effective her trio’s focus on dynamics, as well as the drive provided by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Mark Pulice.
But the ballads are McRae’s forte and whether nudging the gentle melody of “These Foolish Things” against pianist Eric Gunnison’s inventive harmonies or not straying a note from Johnny Mandel’s beautiful “Where Do We Start,” she was effective to a fault. Her voice, deep and coarsely etched, was perfect on “I’m Glad There Is You” and “For All We Know.”