This 2004 double disc of Carmen McRae released by Collectables continues the label's efforts to chronicle her stay with Atlantic Records from 1967 to 1972. She was near the top of her interpretive powers during this era, turning standards and contemporary pop songs into personal expressions of joy and heartache. Her voice, while not as pure as it had been, is still a thing of wonder, very powerful and always very much her own. The Art of Carmen McRae
gathers songs from the two live records she released for Atlantic, Live at the Century Plaza
and the incredible The Great American Songbook
, as well as the studio albums (excepting For Once in My Life
, which makes up the whole of the second disc), singles, and for some reason the Bittersweet
album that came out in 1964 on Focus. You could spend time beating your head against the wall wondering why those songs are seemingly thrown in at random or why the liner notes provide very little documentation, but there really is no need -- instead it is a better idea to just enjoy the disc for what it is: a very fine compilation of some of McRae's best work. The second disc (the straight reissue of 1967's For Once in My Life
) is much easier to enjoy, as it raises no packaging or song selection issues. The record is made up mostly of contemporary songs by Bacharach/David, Brian Wilson, the Beatles
, and Buffy Sainte-Marie
, and at first glance one might think that the record is just a callow attempt to jump on the pop bandwagon. One would be wrong to conclude this, because whatever the intentions, the record is a success. With producer Joel Dorn mostly providing restrained and sometimes groovy backings, McRae turns in some wonderful performances. The two Beach Boys
songs are heartbreaking; "Don't Talk" is one of the better covers of a Wilson song you are liable to hear. "Come Live With Me" is a swinging number that sounds like something Sammy Davis, Jr.
would have torn up around this time. Leiber & Stoller
's "Flying" is another light and smooth number that works very well. The only song that falls flat is the Vegas-style take on the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life," where Dorn lays on the glitz and McRae sounds tentative. While there isn't a whole lot of jazz to be found here, fans of McRae shouldn't be scared off by the songs or the era, as this is actually one of the better albums she recorded in the second half of her career. Taken together, the two discs are a vital purchase for McRae fans. Perhaps someday someone will release a collection that does a coherent job of organizing her days at Atlantic. Until then, The Art of Carmen McRae/For Once in My Life
will have to do.