In 1999, Concord Jazz launched its Ballad Essentials series with this superb Carmen McRae collection, which spans 1980-1987. The influential singer recorded for Concord on four occasions; after teaming up with George Shearing for 1980's Two for the Road and joining forces with Cal Tjader on 1982's Heat Wave, McRae paid tribute to Nat "King" Cole on 1983's You're Lookin' at Me and visited Long Beach, CA, for 1987's excellent Fine and Mellow: Live at Birdland West. The only track that's out of place on this CD is "Fine and Mellow," which is a 12-bar blues instead of a ballad. True, McRae is captivating and inspired on this Billie Holiday classic, one of the highlights of Birdland West, but this is supposed to be a collection of ballads, not a blues collection. The rest of the CD, however, demonstrates just how stunning a ballad singer McRae could be. This is true whether she's joining Tjader's band on "Besame Mucho," saluting Cole on "You're Looking at Me," performing for the Birdland West audience on "These Foolish Things," or doing a vocals/piano duet with Shearing on "More Than You Know," "If I Should Lose You," and "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You." It's regrettable that Concord disrupted the CD's ambience by including a blues performance -- albeit an impressive one -- but even so, Ballad Essentials is enthusiastically recommended to anyone who cherishes intimate, smoky jazz singing.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson