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Helen Merrill/Piero Umiliani Orchestra: Parole e Musica

Album Notes

Though she had been active since the 1940s -- while still a teenager -- vocalist Helen Merrill finally came to prominence in the 1950s through her recordings for EmArcy. By the end of the decade, she was rightfully known as one of the great American jazz singers. She toured Europe and headlined the Comblain la Tour Jazz Festival in 1960, and lived and worked in Italy for a few years. Composer/arranger Piero Umiliani convinced her to record a television program called Moderato Swing. When she agreed, he assembled a top-flight cast of Italian jazzmen -- some of whom were also composers -- to back her. This set compiles the music from that program. Merrill is backed by either a sextet or quartet. The interplay between her and Umiliani and his bands is instinctive. A fingerpopping reading of "Night and Day" features slippery electric guitar from the great Enzo Grillini, and "Everything Happens to Me" is one of the finest readings she ever recorded -- in no small part due to Umiliani's ethereal arrangement that includes his celeste playing. Her performance of "You Don't Know What Love Is" is startling. Umiliani's arrangement encourages the singer to leave all sentiment out of her delivery. She does so and replaces it with a brooding noir-ish sense of longing so intense that it implies menace. Nino Culasso's lyric muted trumpet solo underscores that tension. Umiliani's reputation for finding the poetic in a melody is on full display in "April in Paris," framed by his celeste and Tonino Ferrelli's expressive bassline supporting the sublimated desire in Merrill's vocal. The darkness in her voice had largely gone unnoticed by American producers to that point, but is highlighted here. The last three performances here, "Solitude," "Willow Weep for Me," and "When Your Lover Has Gone," come from out of the blues to wrap themselves around the words and dig deeply into the grain of the emotions they express. This set is appended by Fernando Cajati reading the lyrics in Italian between each song. Anglo listeners might initially find this a distraction, but upon repeated listening will find it adds holistically to the feel of the set. On Parole e Musica, the collaboration between Merrill and Umiliani is nothing short of sublime, and it also gives rise to a question: What might they have achieved had they worked together longer? ~ Thom Jurek


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