You’re forgiven for forgetting that Chris Connor, one of the premier cool-jazz vocalists, took a quick detour into popular music in the mid-1960s. After just two albums dotted with hipster pop tunes that sometimes proved beneath a talent such as hers, Connor quickly returned to her original style when none of it sold. No surprise there, I suppose. The record-buying kids didn’t want to hear her do Beatles stuff, and neither did her legacy fans.
Yet 1965′s Sings Gentle Bossa Nova, to be reissued on Sept. 13 by Just a Memory Records, isn’t without its considerable charms. You’d expect no less, really, from a traditionalist who approached every tune with a just-right sense of tempo and grace.
Connor worked on this album and its similarly themed successor with producer Kenny Greengrass, who’d made his name alongside Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. The projects marked a bold move away from the more straight-ahead jazz recordings Connor had been known for since shooting to fame in the early 1950s with Stan Kenton – an underrated pioneer whose bands earlier launched the singing careers of Anita O’Day and June Christy.
Still, as with many bold moves, not all of it worked — in particular, inappropriately contemporary choices like “Hard Day’s Night” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Elsewhere, however, the album hits more than it misses by blending show tunes (“Who Am I,” from Broadway’s The Roar of the Greasepaint), movie themes (“Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” originally featured in a Bette Davis film), and light jazz fare (Henry Mancini’s “Dear Heart” and “Taste of Honey,” later a hit for Herb Albert) that better suited the late Connor.
Perhaps the most interesting track was, in fact, new, but was already well on its way to minor-classic status: Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” would become an Oscar-winning tune from The Sandpiper. It was later a minor hit for Tony Bennett, and was included on Frank Sinatra’s legendary Reprise live recording with Count Basie. (The arranger on this Connor date, by the way, was Pat Williams, who later echoed a number of classic charts for Sinatra’s early-1990s Duets projects.) Nowhere does Sings Gentle Bossa Nova so perfectly match Connor’s trembling but never shy authenticity with the album’s eponymously easy-going vibe.
There are some, in fact, who think Connor’s Gershwin songbook album superceded even Ella Fitzgerald’s from the same period, and “The Shadow of Your Smile” makes such gushing praise seem infinitely more reasonable. After all, not every Gershwin tune was a priceless artifact. (See, ahem, “Bla Bla Bla,” which Connor somehow shined up brilliantly.) Yet, she’s ever-thoughtful, unafraid to commit to even the more rudimentary material, and always has the ability to elevate into these breath-taking moments of honesty and thoughtful poise — whatever her surroundings.