Tag Archives: Nancy Harrow

“PARTNERS”: NANCY HARROW’S GIFT

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.”

I’d written this and this about Nancy’s art for JAZZ LIVES — but still I was thrilled that she asked me to contribute a few lines to the new CD:

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!

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“FOREVER WEIRD”: THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET and FRIENDS at THE KITCHEN, PART ONE (Dec. 9, 2017)

For me, 2017 has been a year of wonderful music, meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow, interviewing Dan Morgenstern, and more.  The “more” includes hearing and recording The Microscopic Septet twice.

I know I am late to the festivities, since the Micros have been changing the world one song at a time for more than thirty years, but I am certainly enjoying them.

The facts, or what they resemble: the Micros are co-led by pianist / composer Joel Forrester and saxophonist / composer Phillip Johnston.  The five other nobles in the crew are Richard Dworkin, drums; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Don Davis, alto saxophone. They make uplifting, always surprising music.

The first time I had the pleasure was on June 6, at the Astor Room in Astoria, New York, and the results are here and heregloriously.

Six months later, I very happily found myself in a reserved seat in the front row of The Kitchen at 512 West 19th Street in the West Village of New York City, waiting for the music to begin.  Phillip had gathered the Micros and two other bands from the same time and place — the Jazz Passengers and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, for what he called FOREVER WEIRD.

At times, the music was weird, but in the most friendly ways.  To attempt to “interpret” it would be an impudence both to the musicians and this audience. I will indulge myself in only one metaphor: imagine a train rhythmically moving through a constantly shifting multi-colored landscape, changing, morphing, returning.  Just as we’ve gotten comfortable with the purple stalactites outside the window, they are replaced with three (not four) upholstered kitchen chairs. And we are happy.

Not knowing the two other bands, I did not video-record them (although we might get to see the finale, when everyone gathered onstage and played DON’T MIND IF I DO — in a future post) but I devotedly captured the Micros. The premise of their hour-long set was a quick retrospective through their collective history — too rich to compress into eight performances, but what a satisfying jaunt.  Here are the first four:

Phillip’s A STRANGE THOUGHT ENTERED MY HEAD:

LIEUTENANT CASSOWARY, by Joel:

Joel’s SECOND AVENUE:

A “seasonal favorite” for the “generic holiday season,” recomposed by Joel:

The second half will come soon.  I know this offering is but a fraction — one-half of the closing third, but it’s a very rewarding sixth.

Thanks to Phillip Johnston, Don Davis, Dave Sewelson, Michael Hashim, Richard Dworkin, Joel Forrester, Dave Hofstra, and to the kind people at The Kitchen, who couldn’t have been more welcoming.

May your happiness increase!

FOR NANCY HARROW, THE SONGS ARE ALL

Looking back on my 2017, one of the memorable pleasures is the privilege of meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow (in the company of fellow-singers Daryl Sherman and Hilary Gardner, too).  You could call Nancy “a singer,” and then add “composer,” but she is more, an inspiring artist of great scope.  I imagine her as someone who realized, early on, what her paths were, what her purposes might be, and set off to fulfill them — as she continues to do, with warmth, perception, humor, lightness, and strength.

I’ve written about Nancy here, but I couldn’t let this year conclude without shining a light on her latest work, her 2016 CD, THE SONG IS ALL.  It’s not just that she’s recorded infrequently in this century — her preceding CD, recorded with Don Friedman in Japan, was in 2009, and even Tom Lord hasn’t noted it.  But THE SONG IS ALL shows off Nancy in all her facets and reflections.

Nat Hentoff wrote this about Nancy’s 1981 sessions with John Lewis (THE JOHN LEWIS ALBUM FOR NANCY HARROW, Finesse Records): Nancy’s style is Nancy.  There are no masks, no trickery–of sound or personality.  What impressed Buck [Clayton] and a good many others . . . was the absence of artificiality, the directness of her sound and emotion.  The presence, in sum, of someone real. . . . Nancy moves inside the lyrics, and as she tells each story there is that touch of autobiography that all lasting singers suggest.  Again, it’s real.  And that, I think, is why people who have heard her keep on wanting more.  Hearing that kind of probing of memory and imagination is infectious.  You start probing your own.

In the opening track of  THE SONG IS ALL, Nancy sings the lines, “When I was small, no friend called, I played all the parts by myself,” which beautifully characterizes what she’s been doing for years — creating literary / musical imaginings based on Willa Cather, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several “children’s books” with deep meanings for adults as well.  Nancy has written music and lyrics — songs that stand on their own as well as interludes in the plot — then performed them, an actress without artifice.  THE SONG IS ALL is thus the multi-colored, emotionally intense Nancy Harrow Repertory Company.

Here is IF I WANT TO, drawing on Nancy’s improvisations on Cather’s A LOST LADY, combining pride, tenderness, vulnerability, and self-knowledge:

Ordinarily, if you offered me a CD solely of one artist’s originals, I might look at it with skepticism, for not every musician is a successful composer, but I embrace THE SONG IS ALL because of its depth and variety of feeling — the toughtness of SELF-ESTEEM, the wry wit of PUTTING ON AIRS, the mournful recollections of MY LOST CITY, the quiet intensity of I AM TOO SHY, and more.  Many CDs pall after a half hour because of sameness, but this one moves from scene to scene with grace and power.

Although I take great pleasure in hearing Nancy with spare accompaniment, here she has assembled a thoroughly entrancing stock company of (mostly young) musicians: Chris Ziemba, George Delancey, Robert Edwards, Owen Broder, Alphonso Horne, Carrie Dowell, Monica Davis, Sarah Whitney, Eleanor Norton, Alex Claffy, Britton Smith, Carl Clemons Hopkins, David Linard, Nathan Bell, and veterans Dennis Mackrel and Rufus Reid.  (If I’ve made anyone improperly “young” out of my ignorance, I trust I can be forgiven.)

Another piece of music that has become part of my daily pleasure — I cannot share it with you here (it never became a CD in this country)– is Nancy’s 1981 performance of MY SHIP and her version of AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT LOVE from the record with John Lewis, and I have had the strongest urge to get out of my chair and put my ear close to the speaker, to best hear her songful message.  I think of Whitman, “This hour I tell things in confidence, I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”

Her voice, so endearingly personal — vibrato-ed or vibrato-less, tender or fierce — conveys emotions and ideas that it seems only she can convey, even if the song is familiar, with many singers trying to make it their own.  And when she sings her own words and melodies, she quietly fills the room.

Here is an extraordinarily deep article on Nancy (with many of her own words and insights) by Wayne Zade, and here is Nancy’s website, a good place to read, listen, dream, and purchase CDs.

I close with the words by Chekhov — chosen by Nancy to be what someone sees having opened the cardboard sleeve of THE SONG IS ALL:

“Why are your songs so short?  Is it because you are short of breath?” the songbird was asked.  The bird replied: “I have a great many songs and I should like to sing them all.”

“When it’s true, I can move you,” Nancy sings, and she does:

Nancy Harrow and her songs are rare blessings.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CECIL SCOTT, DICK KATZ, AND NANCY HARROW (Sept. 29, 2017)

I won’t go on at length about my good fortune — having Dan Morgenstern patiently sit and tell wonderful stories to my camera so that you can all delight in his warmth, his first-hand experience, and his beautifully articulated love for the music and the musicians . . . but here are two interview segments from my most recent visit, September 29, 2017.

The first, a belated celebration of reedman and splendid figure CECIL SCOTT:

Here’s Cecil in a 1935 Oscar Micheaux film, MURDER IN HARLEM:

and one of my favorite recordings ever, Red Allen’s ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON (with Cecil and J.C. Higginbotham):

Here are Dan’s affectionate memories of someone who was much loved and is not, I fear, well-known today, pianist / composer DICK KATZ and the very much with-us NANCY HARROW:

On a personal note or two: I am more involved in this video than I usually am, and I hope our conversation bothers no one.  On the subject of conversation . . . as soon as I’d shut the camera off, I said to Dan, awe-struck, “YOU KNOW Nancy Harrow?” and through the kindness of Daryl Sherman and Dan, Nancy and I have met and exchanged compliments and gratitudes — a great blessing.

But back to DICK KATZ.  Here is Dick playing THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU:

and THREE LITTLE WORDS:

and with Nancy Harrow on a very touching rendition of IF YOU WERE MINE (I need no excuse to recommend Nancy to you):

Dan Morgenstern says, “Dick was a dear man.”  Dan Morgenstern is a dear man.

May your happiness increase!

NANCY HARROW, ENCHANTER

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.”

Yes.

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!