Carmen McRae has reached that stage of her career at which such terms as legend and survivor are often applied. More importantly, as she demonstrated during her opening show Tuesday at Catalina’s, she remains precisely what she was when her audiences called her youthful and promising --a jazz-directed singer of exceptional class.
When a ballad mood is called for, she suffuses it with all the requisite tenderness, as she did on “Where Do You Start?” This product of Johnny Mandel and the Bergmans is the best of all the breaking-up-is-hard-to-do songs.
When a scat interlude seems called for, she scats with flair, as on “Street of Dreams.” If wit is wanted, she can apply her keen sense of humor as in “At Long Last Love.” And when melisma is appropriate, she will multiply those syllables with taste and discretion. She can even deal with schmaltz and bring to it the personal poignancy she displayed in “Old Folks.”
Late in the show came three items from her Grammy-nominated CD of Monk tunes, most notably Thelonious’ elegant “Ruby My Dear.” As a closer, she hinted at her forthcoming Vaughan tribute album with an exquisite Carroll Coates song called “Sarah,” dedicated to the Divine One.
What becomes a legend most? A flawless backup trio, as McRae made clear in her funny, affectionate tribute to pianist Eric Gunnison’s group, with Mark Simon on bass and Mark Pulice on drums. The threesome played an invigorating opener.
If we have to talk about survivors, may they all be as loyal to their longtime art as this wondrous, sui generis woman. She closes Sunday.