Video Recommendation - Carmen McRae, “No More Blues” (1986)
Hi everyone! Luara here of the singing teaching team here to talk to you about one of my favorite YouTube clips, this positively cracking version of No More Blues by Carmen McRae, recorded live at Kan-Hoken Hall, Tokyo, 1986.
First, some context. Carmen McRae is an American jazz singer who was incredibly successful, highly revered and made over 60 albums in her lifetime. McRae was born in 1922, so she was no “spring chicken” at the time this video was recorded. In a world very saturated with the notion that performers, particularly female vocalists, should be young, attractive and youthfully hip, this live performance portrays a whole other kind of cool - that which arises from having decades of experience in life and music. McRae exudes a commitment to making really great music in this video that is really quite in contrast to the way we often expect vocalists to perform (think of most of the biggest pop stars around today). This is one of the aspects that earns McRae the title of “one of the best jazz singers of all time” - she’s not just a singer, she’s a musician. Her gutteral, unapologetic and deeply swinging delivery gets me every time - it’s just so good - and here I’ll give you a bit of a rundown on why I have such a high opinion of this performance. I’ll also point out some interesting moments that outline the conventions of jazz music and highlight the way jazz musicians communicate.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Carmen “counts in” her piano player. She clicks her fingers to indicate the tempo of the song. Usually, in jazz ensembles, the bandleader - be they a singer, horn player, pianist etc - ”counts in” the song and controls the tempo. This is McRae’s band, so it’s her responsibility to choose a tempo she feels will work best for the specific song.
Then McRae and the pianist perform a composed introduction, to which McRae scats the melody. In jazz, “scat”’ refers to the wordless vocalisations singers make in imitation of instruments. This introduction sets up the tune for Carmen and the band. Then they jump into the song proper.
The thing I love most about this performance is the listening that occurs on stage. The band is exceptionally tight, meaning there is a seemingly telepathic level of communication between all players, and McRae is right in the thick of it - this is no back up band, McRae is a fully contributing member of the ensemble. I’ll give a few examples.
At 1:25, Carmen chooses a specific rhythmic pattern to sing for the words “ha-ppiness I’ve found”, and you can hear the band, particularly the drums and bass, pick it up in a split second and join her, articulating the same rhythm on their instruments for the next couple of bars.
Around 1:56 we have a bass solo from Bob Bowman, followed by the rest of the tune.
Then Carmen goes into an improvised solo to take the song out while the band “vamps” behind her. A really cool moment happens when, at 3:43 Carmen sings a few notes of the melody to the jazz standard “St. Thomas” (Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4DTR0I7xhA is a really great performance of Sonny Rollins performing this tune, you’ll know it when you hear it!). She doesn’t finish the line, but the pianist picks up on the reference and finishes the line off for her. This is an example of what jazz musicians call “quoting”, or finding a fragment of another tune that fits over the chords of another tune, and working it into your improvised solo. It functions as a bit of an “inside joke” for jazz players and often invites many “lols” from those in the know!
But overall, what stands out for me is the phenomenal swing that is being produced by the ensemble. They dig into the groove so exceptionally hard by knowing exactly what and how to play when - something that can only be learned by playing for years and years, and particularly by playing with the same people for years and years, until you know each other’s musical sensibilities inside out. And Carmen is an integral part of the fabric of the groove, just as every jazz singer should be. In this performance I hear -- perhaps above of all -- incredible relationships. Incredibly strong relationships to music, the craft of jazz, and each other. I hope you enjoy it too, and find your own special things to hear in this ripper of a video!
Words by Luara Karlson-Carp