Helen Merrill Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein

Helen Merrill

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Helen Merrill Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein Review

by William Ruhlmann

The songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein, with some notable exceptions, have not attracted jazz interpretations to the extent that the songs of Rodgers & Hart have. Helen Merrill, that oxymoron a "jazz singer," here puts her stamp on nine Rodgers & Hammerstein standards, creating an album that is a triumph of the performer's art over the material. For the most part, Merrill, accompanied by a chamber group consisting of a piano, four strings, a horn, a harp, an occasional vibraphone, bass, and drums, imposes her introspective ballad style even on songs that, from the lyrics and their original arrangements, might seem to suggest a more vibrant treatment. In particular, "People Will Say We're in Love" and especially "Getting to Know You" tend to be thought of as lighter songs than Merrill chooses to make them. With her funereal tempos and considered, word-by-word interpretations, she suggests that having people say you're in love could be fatal, and what interests her in "Getting to Know You" is the fear the lyrics describe. Not surprisingly, "It Might as Well Be Spring" is more mournful than yearning, and "Hello Young Lovers" concentrates on the aging narrator. The only song on which Merrill's becalmed approach sounds exactly right is "My Lord and Master," even if she drains it of anger, leaving only pain. After all these slow, disembodied performances, however, "My Favorite Things" is given an uptempo treatment, while the singer's vocals seem to have been strangely compressed. But then it's back to the furrowed brow for a joyless reading of "The Sound of Music." Of course, Merrill has sung this music before, and not always this way. (Recall the lively "People Will Say We're in Love" from 1956's Dream of You LP.) In her fifties, she seems to be deliberately trying to reinterpret Rodgers & Hammerstein for a troubled, complicated age. Anyone familiar with these songs (and who isn't?) will be forced to think about them again after hearing this album. Richard Rodgers, who died two years before it was made, would have disliked it, as he did all jazz versions of his work, although he probably would have approved of the slow tempos. [DRG Records licensed this album for American release from Japan's Victor Musical Industries, Inc.]

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