Susannah McCorkle

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How do you keep the music playing?

Susannah McCorkle was one of the great jazz vocalists, but since she was born long after the others, didn’t have a very inspiring name, and didn’t really look the part either, this fact is not widely known. Like the others, her style is unique and inimitable, but her closest resemblance is to Billie Holiday: they sounded nothing like each other, but both seemed incapable of anything less than complete emotional commitment to a song. This classic album features late-period Al Cohn on tenor, and rest of the band is also great, although I haven’t otherwise heard of any of them; bassist Steve LaSpina is particularly impressive. However it is McCorkle who dominates throughout, and there are unforgettable moments on all twelve tracks. The absolute highlight is ‘There’s no business like show business’. This was the second time a jazz musician had turned this Irving Berlin stage-number into an unlikely masterpiece; the first time was Sonny Rollins’ swinging up-tempo version, which first revealed what a harmonically and melodically interesting number it was. However it took McCorkle’s inspired decision to drag it down to ballad tempo in order to bring out the inner tragedy that was always lurking beneath the glitzy surface. The other highlights are the definitive version of Dave Frishberg’s ‘Blizzard of Lies’, the distinctively odd ‘Ain’t safe to go nowhere’, which is reminiscent of a Joni Mitchell piece, the rarely-heard introduction to ‘Poor Butterfly’, and the floating ‘Outra Vez’, which McCorkle sings in both English and Portuguese: who needs Astrud Gilberto?
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No More Blues

Another classic album, this one features Dave Frishberg, not singing or contributing his own songs, but just playing his elegant and inimitable brand of swing piano; unlike many other singer-songwriters in jazz, he could easily have made it as an instrumentalist alone. The predominant feel here is pre-bop swing, a perfect example of which is McCorkle’s vocalese on ‘Sometimes I’m happy’, where she sings Lester Young’s solo; this track provides a perfect demonstration of the genius of Lester Young, since hearing McCorkle sing words to both the original composition and the improvised solo makes it evident that the latter is vastly superior to the former. The title track is also great, sung in both English and Portuguese, with the Portuguese version becoming inexplicably and outrageously sultry. The clear highlight, however, is Gerry Mulligan’s composition ‘The Ballad of Pearly Sue’, which is just incredibly poignant. The only flaw to this album, to my mind, is the saxophone playing of Ken Peplowski; it is inoffensive, but this is such great music that I wish they had used somebody able to capitalise on the many opportunities to take-off and soar. That said, he does sound good on the tracks where he plays clarinet.