Paging through the April 7, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, I was delighted to find “Hail To The Chief,” a brief essay by Colin Fleming commenting approvingly on the most recent Mosaic Records release — four CDs devoted to the 1936-40 recordings Lester Young did with the Count Basie Orchestra and small groups. To find Lester noted in this magazine was a surprise, for The New Yorker, since Whitney Balliett died, has acted as if jazz no longer existed.
But then I came upon this sentence:
A handful of previously unissued takes were culled from a vault treasure hunt, foremost among them a treatment of “I Left My Baby,” a gutbucket blues shorn of any hokum by a Young riff that seems to inhabit its own private atmosphere.
Fleming has good taste in admiring Lester (“Pres” or “Prez,” not “Chief,” but we shouldn’t split hairs) but I wonder if he knows what the words he uses so cavalierly actually mean. “Gutbucket” and “hokum”? Indeed. As homework, perhaps he should be asked to listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five record of “Gut Bucket Blues” and the complete output of the Hokum Boys. Maybe then he will temper his verbal flourishes with some accuracy?
One of the great insiders of San Francisco jazz, Barb Hauser, wangled a copy of this CD for me a few years ago. I had never heard of the singer, although I admired her sidemen (Barrett, Skjelbred, Erickson) as well as her repertoire and, not least, her fashion sense. From the crooning opening of “I’ve Had My Moments” (a song I associated with Django and Marty Grosz, a heady pair) I was smitten. In the most Platonic artistic way, I must add. The great Thirties jazz records which merged a small, intuitive hot band with sensitive yet rhythmic singing were, I thought, gone with that decade. But Melissa’s gentle way with the lyrics was entirely convincing. Without demanding our attention or making a show of it, she sings as if she had fully absorbed not only what the words mean but what their message implies. Calmly, when she sings “Nevertheless, I’m in love with you,” it sounds like a truth. And the instrumentalists play at their very best: Barrett, whose solo skills often make us forget what a peerless ensemble trombonist he is, is in splendid form on his usual horn and even better on cornet. Skjelbred offered his usual blend of lopsided Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy, leavened with splashes of his own idiosyncrasies. Erickson, whose exuberance has sometimes obscured his subtler musical virtues, is just as fine. But Melissa is something to hear. Some current retro-jazz recordings put an ordinary singer in front of a swing group, give her some Thirties tunes to perform, and hope for the best. Often the singer imitates Lady Day — a truly bad idea, for Holiday’s style can in the wrong hands be reduced to a handful of growls and meows. (Yes, meows.) Melissa has a yearning but understated delivery: her singing is based on her speaking voice rather than a melodramatized persona; she sings from the heart. Each performance has its own mood and approach, and it’s clear that she chooses songs whose musical ambiance makes her comfortable and whose lyrics speak to her. It isn’t the high drama of “these songs are my autobiography,” but it is clear that Melissa knows what it is to miss “the you and me that used to be,” the impact of having “had her moments,” and does indeed value “old fashioned love.” It approaches heresy, but I think her version of “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” is even better than Fats’s. And her appeal is not narrowly limited to some imagined Brunswick-Vocalion evocation of the 78 past: she can move nimbly from small-band swing into Thirties Hawaiian (her “On A Cocoanut Island” is funny, genuine, and sweet). Her approach is always imbued with tenderness, whether the mood is bouncy (“Why Don’t We Do This More Often?”) or darker (“Street of Dreams”). It’s a rewarding CD — one with a true, beating heart. Melissa, of late, has found new musical partnerships in California, and I hope that a second CD, with equally rare and heartfelt performances, will come along soon. Check out her website (www.melissacollard.com) and visit CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com/cd/mcollard) to hear sound clips. She’s got it, as they used to say.