The singer, composer, artist Nancy Harrow is not only a rewarding musician but, from what I can see, someone doing a fine job of navigating this complicated human-being business with art, energy, grace. She has opened her hand again to reveal a gift for us: a new CD, PARTNERS.
Here you can read details of the CD (the song list, the personnel) and admire the spunky cover photograph. Go to the top of the page and hear Nancy’s recording of IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD — previously unissued and unheard, from 1964, Nancy with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley, and Denzil Best.
Incidentally, you can skip what follows and go directly here to hear samples, purchase the disc, download the music.
It is the privilege of the mature artist who has created a body of work to look back and assemble a selection from that art into a new mosaic, the familiar creations making new patterns. Yeats, for one example, after he had written poems that would fill a new volume, spent as much time arranging them — new, old, revised — into partnerships and neighborhoods that said as much as the poems themselves did.
PARTNERS has some of the same essence, very different from “Greatest Hits,” “Golden Favorites,” or “Million Sellers,” because Nancy (rather than Decca or Columbia) has been in charge, and her sensibility — not, I state, her ego — is evident when one regards the CD as an artistic whole. The cover lists a jazz nobility. PARTNERS is a series of small-group performances: mostly duets, trios, and quartets — an octet in only one instance — that Nancy and friends, no, partners, recorded between 1962 and 2016. The performances aren’t arranged chronologically, but they offer a limber, mobile, portrait of the artist, for us to marvel at.
Even the most dedicated collector of Nancy’s recorded music will be wide-eyed at six previously unheard (and unknown performances). Five — IN A MELLOTONE, BUT BEAUTIFUL, YOU’RE MY THRILL, I GOT IT BAD, and IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD — are demonstration performances (“demos”) recorded in 1964, pairing Nancy with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley, and Denzil Best. These brief recordings are sweet intense surprises. When I first received a copy of PARTNERS, I found myself replaying these performances over and over, thinking, “Ah! That’s what Nancy was up to!”
The sixth gift is a 1991 duet on NOT WHILE I’M AROUND, sung by Nancy and her son Anton, also a wondrous expressive vocalist. I find tears in my eyes on each rehearing. In other moods, Vernel Bagneris, Grady Tate, and an irrepressible Clark Terry share the spotlight.
I “knew” the seventeen other songs on this disc: in my alphabetical arrangement of CDs, Nancy is (I hope comfortably) between Mary Cleere Haran and Coleman Hawkins . . . and I have her issued CDs, a generous offering. But I hadn’t truly heard the performances, I think, until I’d heard them in the shapes that PARTNERS makes possible.
Nancy has remarkable emotional energy and a focused directness, so that her singing — even though I know it’s not the case — seems a completely personal statement aimed at the single listener, like a conversation one has when there are only two or three people in the room. And the emotions! Tenderness, joviality, teasing, astonishment, protective love, joyous exuberance . . . and even irritation as well as rue and hopefulness. Nancy doesn’t shout or carry on, but her range is broad, every expression genuine. Her quiet honesty is so rare and so embracing.
I shared PARTNERS with the fine singer Petra van Nuis, who wrote,”There is that central element which makes Nancy so special and unique. That element is feeling.”
For those who feel, a universe vibrating with love speaks through melody, harmony, and rhythm. Singing lets a very few, the rarest creators, send deep messages about what it is like to be alive, whether we are perplexed by circumstances, downcast, or rejoicing. In calmer times, everyone would have recognized Nancy Harrow as a priestess of heart-tales, helping us hear, helping us feel. She still seems a magical practitioner of rare arts, although she is a modern divinity who sends emails. I can testify to her tangible self, teacup in hand, grinning broadly, ready to break into laughter. I have seen her eat a cookie. Very reassuring.
I had originally thought to write a few lines about the performances that touched me at my very center. But they all do. What I hear and feel in this recording is a deep, complete, and varied personality shining her light at me, one track after the other. I hear energy, warmth, passions. Distinct and the same all at once. Her voice makes lovely shapes, now tough, now tender, now impish.
It would be impudent of me to squeeze her art into text any more than I have already. Listeners will write their own admiring, perhaps astonished, essays as they move from song to song.
Bless Nancy Harrow. Some of us lived long stretches of time without clearly knowing she was there, but she enriches our lives now and will continue to do so.
PARTNERS is yet another great gift, from and by a great artist.
May your happiness increase!