There are many signs that 2021 will be a New and Improved Year: you can list your own. A significant one is the appearance of a new Nancy Harrow CD, PARTNERS II: I Don’t Know What Kind of Blues I’ve Got. For those of you who greet this news with delight — and for those of you who have the pleasure of discovering Nancy Harrow waiting for you — here’s her HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME, with Clark Terry, Dick Katz, Ray Drummond, and Ben Riley:
One of the most beautiful things about that performance is that, hearing it again, I don’t think, “Oh, that’s a Billie Holiday song,” but rather, “How wonderful Nancy sounds!” For the moment, Billie has retired to another room.
This, to me, is testament to the strength — a winning strength — of Nancy’s artistic self. The cliche is “She sounds like herself,” but it is not a cliche, especially when so many singers do not.
Singing should be easy — we are organisms capable of making all kinds of vocal sounds, from the pleased wordless sounds of delight when we meet, by chance, someone we haven’t seen for a long time, to the sound we might make when something falls on your bare foot. But we know that singing is more than opening one’s mouth and — even knowing the melody and the words — letting our impulses take over. So much is craft, simultaneously delicate and passionate, the way one phrases a particular word in a line, the tone one uses to surround that word, the timbre.
In HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME, the placement of each syllable is the result of Nancy’s lifetime of on-the-job immersion; at the same time, it is improvised and fresh, a kind of emotion-driven speech set to music. She has immersed herself in the song so that the sharp edges of where Song ends and where Nancy starts are happily erased, but her personality shines through in every choice she makes. It’s not Acting in some melodramatic way but Nancy is having herself a time for those minutes it takes the performance to unfold. I hear her smile, but it is a wise smile, not boundless enthusiasm, separate from craft.
Not for the first time, hearing Nancy, I think of the paradox she presents, evoking Whitman,
This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.
where at once she leans forward to tell us a secret in her own quiet way, even as the secret is sung aloud to everyone in the room. Her art is completely personal and completely universal. I haven’t described the perfect tang of her singing voice, at once tender and salty, her emotional range, also moving from sly amusement to grief, her innate rhythmic pulse, her complete connection with the words as well as the melody line: you must hear these magics for yourself. And you have a new opportunity in PARTNERS II.
This disc is an anthology of performances Nancy selected — from 1961 to 2016 — with two previously unissued performances. Even if you have squirreled away all of Nancy’s CDs (a lovely shelf-full) as I have, it is thrilling to hear her own choices, arranged as if brilliant tiles in a mosaic or familiar poems in new contexts, each reflecting the sheen of its neighbor, seeming new because of it. And PARTNERS II (there is a I, also available) speaks to Nancy’s sense of the buoyant jazz community, so we also hear Buck Clayton, Phil Woods, Kenny Barron, Grady Tate, Frank Wess, Bob Brookmeyer, Roland Hanna, Jack Wilkins, Jim McNeely, Rufus Reid, John Lewis, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Mraz, and Bob Brookmeyer.
Here’s one more — Nancy’s own (yes! words and music) IF I WANT TO, with Chris Ziemba, Owen Broder, Alex Claffy, Dennis Mackrel:
PARTNERS II is available as a physical disc from Amazon, and in digital format at all the usual places. More importantly, it is Nancy’s gift of her music, of her irreplaceable self — things told in confidence that we can treasure as our own.
May your happiness increase!