Clifford Brown recorded three classic collaborations with singers in the early 50’s. Of the three (which included dates with Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington), Helen Merrill has had the least distinguished career since. I like to compare Merrill’s career to that of Nancy Wilson: both had fantastic debuts in small group settings that featured a notable soloist (in Wilson’s case it was the Cannonball Adderley Quintet), and both continued to have careers drenched in strings and superfluous arrangements, none of which matched the magic of the initial small-group settings. With arrangements courtesy of a young Quincy Jones, the nonet that appears on Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown remains one of the smallest groups that Merrill ever recorded with. This is particularly strange because Merrill’s voice works much better in a smaller context; she does not have much projection, and her soft, whisper of a voice fits perfectly among minimal support. Her style was far more effective when she was young, and unfortunately it did not develop quite as well as one would have hoped as she got older. Thus this date finds her in her prime and to this day remains her best outing.
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
Just as her voice is better suited for more minimal settings, it also works much better with slower number and ballads. “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is an exception. Granted, it’s taken at a medium pace, but it is still significantly faster than most of the other tracks and works much better than her up-tempo take on “‘S Wonderful”. Lyrics like “you’d be so nice by the fire” are complemented perfectly by her warm, soft voice. The following track, “What’s New”, is given a classic arrangement by Quincy Jones, and Merrill’s voice floats beautifully atop the wandering harmonies at the beginning of the form before landing perfectly in the verse. The arrangement also best utilizes her range, and we find the closest example her ability to pull an operatic projection out from her soft pad-like voice.
But by far the best track on the record is her classic interpretation of the overlooked Mel Torme standard “Born to be Blue.” Once again, the lyrics of perpetual sadness are perfectly conveyed by the character and composition of Merrill’s voice and inflection. After a perfectly balanced solo by Clifford Brown, Merrill returns to the bridge and then the final verse, where she sings “I guess I’ve had it luckier than some folks, I’ve known the thrill of loving you,” which is so effortlessly melancholy it’s as if she is living the lyrics as she sings them. Once again, Jones’s arrangement is perfectly tasteful, especially when Merrill proclaims that her world, once bright and sunny, is now a “faded pastel,” and a deep mix of colors emerge in the horns (what a perfect description of her voice as well).
Born To Be Blue
Special regards should also go to Clifford Brown, whose performance on this record overshadows those on his collaborations with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. I especially enjoy his solo on “What’s New” and his quote of “Parker’s Mood” at the beginning of his solo on “Yesterdays”.
Sure, Helen Merrill isn’t the most versatile of singers, and her voice can certainly grow tiresome, but if there was ever a perfect vehicle for her, this 1954 date was it.