A mature artist requires a mature audience, which is my way of saying that some artists I now revere I was not ready for when I first encountered them. One such person is Nancy Harrow. If you already love and admire Nancy and her art, you may pass GO and visit here. Without delay, I might add. (Details below.)
I first heard this singer-composer-enchanter on radio in the early Seventies (Ed Beach played tracks from her first album, WILD WOMEN DON’T HAVE THE BLUES) and she surfaced intermittently in my consciousness: her Finesse recording with John Lewis, and more recently, her early sessions for Atlantic, YOU NEVER KNOW. Something had happened: my ears and heart were ready to appreciate her magic.
Here is Nancy, speaking for nineteen seconds, ostensibly introducing her musicians at a 1995-6 gig, which was recorded — we are grateful for such marvels. In the first few seconds, she states what I feel might be an artistic credo, a statement of purpose: lovely, wise, and unvarnished. Listen.
I have half a dozen dear friends, wonderfully rewarding singers, people I go to hear whenever I can. They know I love them. I heard Louis, Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, and Jimmy Rushing sing in person. And I have spent the past half-century and more listening rapt to recordings of everyone from Leo Watson to Cleo Brown.
But there’s something about Nancy Harrow that transfixes me, her very personal combination of beauty, candor, and courage. Her voice has the delicately intensity of a perfectly focused light beam, with a small purr or rasp on the ends of phrases. She can be tough — hear her YOU’RE NOT WHAT YOU SAID YOU ARE (sung by a cricket, disappointed and reproachful, to a dung beetle who has tried to pass himself off as more glamorous) or sweetly tender (the song EFFIE that follows), but she shapes herself to fit the song, rather than insisting that the song shape itself to her.
I think of candor when I hear her, which is to say that she is never faking anything, not a note. Certain very accomplished musicians, for instance, say to us without words, “Now I’m becoming Ben Webster!” and we approve, because even an attempt to sound like Webster is a warming phenomenon, but we know it is an impersonation.
Finally, I bow to her courage: the courage to gently move a note or a phrase to express a personality, to make an utterance more true to the song than the notes on the music page would indicate.
If you’d like to know more about Nancy before plunging in to her music, here is her delightfully candid autobiographical sketch. (The link also takes you to her website, which is a trove.)
But the music. Hear, for instance, what she does with a song worn paper-thin by familiarity and repetition:
In a playful yet poignant duet with the late Dick Katz, Nancy makes us hear the song as we never have — her touching variations, her emotive phrasing that gets us away from the expected up-and-down of notes and rhythms. Have we ever heard PENNIES before? We’ve believed that we have, but it sounds new and real here.
Nancy has also written song cycles based on Willa Cather’s A LOST LADY, Hawthorne’s THE MARBLE FAUN, the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “children’s books” THE ADVENTURES OF MAYA THE BEE, THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN. Here is one of the songs composed for LOST LADY, which she recorded on her most recent CD, THE SONG IS ALL, in 2016:
That song — with its tough, hilarious lyrics (which make me think of Frishberg but with even greater impact) should convince anyone of Nancy’s continued power and assurance, backed by (among others) Alphonso Horne, Robert Edwards, and Owen Broder.
Here is what I take as another credo, (I believe the song was written in collaboration with John Lewis) from the 2016 CD:
Here’s the pairing I promised above, which Nancy introduces herself:
and the songs, backed by Sir Roland Hanna and Paul West:
Maybe it’s my particular place in the cosmos, but EFFIE makes my eyes wet. Nancy Harrow can do that to you. “Telling what I know, and spreading rhythm around.”
I write this post to announce something beyond rare: this Sunday, November 12, 2017, at 3:00 PM, Nancy will sing songs from her LOST LADY album, based on the Cather novel. She’ll be accompanied by Alphonso Horne, trumpet; Dave Linard, keyboards and harmonica; John Snow, string bass. The recital will happen at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, New York, New York. Tickets are $25 each. It’s a small room, seating 70 people, and on Tuesday morning that half of the seats were already sold. Registration is required before the concert, and the $25 is then payable at the door or over the phone at 212.298.6900, extension 230 (leave a message with Ms. Katie Fricas, Events / Circulation Assistant). Here is a link to the event page on the Library’s website, which includes instructions for registering online, another option. It sounds complicated, but I did it, and it is worth doing.
A postscript for JAZZ LIVES’ cognoscenti: I won’t be bringing video equipment, so Nancy Harrow’s enchantments must be experienced first-hand.
May your happiness increase!
Enchanter is right! Nancy is an original. A true artist who can’t help but be sincere. Thanks for the post and videos!
I love Nancy’s voice, she makes me feel like home. She has a touch of Lee Wiley and just a little of Mildred Bailey, however, she’s mostly an original – why haven’t I heard her before? Thanks for the introduction, Michael.
I really like her, and love her voice, She sings with tenderness on some tunes and with that cute little lilt on others,,,still with that great voice Oh I wish I was friends with her, I would love to hear her in person, Thank you so much NM
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I stumbled on her first album “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” at Marshall Field’s when I came from St. Louis to teach at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Just the cover told me this was an important album and an important artist. I have everything she ever recorded. There is no one like her vocally, but as important, few artists have the curiosity and adventurous spirit which has resulted in an amazing body of work.
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