Carmen McRae – Live at the Flamingo (1962)

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by Nick DeRiso 

To think, we almost never heard Carmen McRae sing these songs.

Even though she was an early acolyte of Billie Holiday, McRae was at first better known as a pianist. (In fact, upon meeting her, Holiday was said to be so impressed that she recorded McRae’s “Dream of Life” in 1939 for Vocalion.)

Still, McRae initially appeared tickling the ivories with the big bands of Benny Carter and Count Basie in the middle 1940s, and recorded with Duke’s son Mercer Ellington — going unnoticed as a singing talent until the early 1950s.

That she finally found her way behind a mic was jazz music’s very good fortune.

McRae, from the first, seemed to have a firm grasp on the entirety of the vocal tradition, from its gently cooing romanticism to its sharp, swinging jabs. Over her lengthy career, she matured into a white-hot coolness, like holding an ice cube too tightly — something that can likely be traced back to those musicianly beginnings.

All of which makes “Live at the Flamingo,” this sizzling mid-career club performance, an important find.

The 40-minute concert, presented without editing or retakes, illustrates her zingy artistry on bedrock songs from the American songbook — including signature works by the Gershwins (an upbeat “A Foggy Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”) and Rodgers and Hart (“Thou Swell,” “I Could Write A Book,” embedded below).

They’re anything but routine, though, as McRae pushes these old favorites past the familiar with a knowing wink, a smartly turned phrase, a shy smile.

Originally issued in 1962 by the Ember Records label, “Flamingo” was reissued in 2008 by Acrobat Music. McRae appeared in May of ’61 at the London venue, in what was said to be her first live appearance outside of the U.S., along with pianist Don Abney, drummer Phil Seaman and bassist Kenny Napper.

Abney gets an intimate showcase moment with McRae on the Kern/Hammerstein tune “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” That sense of front-row immediacy is heightened by the nightclub setting — something that can’t be found, say, on McRae’s 1991 concert recording at Tokyo’s massive Kan-I Hoken Hall.

At the same time, the smoke-draped bandstand reveals a singer without the booming resonance of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn, nor the fragility of her hero Billie Holiday.

No matter. McRae’s vocal musicality, inviting sense of humor and effortless caress on these ballads can’t be denied. “Live at the Flamingo” ends up as a tour de force performance from an Harlem-born artist whose career would ultimately span five decades primarily on the Decca, Columbia, Atlantic and Concord labels, with seven Grammy Award nominations along the way.

McRae struck up an enduring friendship with Holiday, and was said to have never performed without doing a song associated with her early mentor. (Still later, McRae recorded a 1983 tribute album, “For Lady Day.”) On “Live at the Flamingo,” that’s the shattering “Lover Man,” a tune Holiday famously recorded for Verve.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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