Portrait of a Jazz Singer compiles three live performances Anita O'Day made between the mid-'70s and 1988. The first seven tunes are from a 1979 club appearance in Sweden featuring Harry "Sweets" Edison, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and an unidentified big band replete with strings. The second session took place during the mid-'70s with an unidentified group of musicians, and the third occurred in Japan in 1988 with Hank Jones, Frank Wess, Ray Drummond, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
The Swedish performance is a mixed bag. O'Day's voice has a husky, tired sound, and she seems to be constantly trying to catch her breath. Nonetheless, there's a stirring rendition of "I Can't Get Started" that features an extended impromptu solo from Davis. A vocal duet with Edison on "Let Me Off Uptown" reprises her classic duet with Roy Eldridge from the '40s. Edison's lyrical trumpet is also featured on an upbeat "No Moon at All." The performance ends with a lively version of "Opus #1," with the big band swinging hard behind O'Day.
The next four songs, starting with "On the Sunny Side of the Street," come from what the liner notes call "unknown sessions" in the mid-'70s. On this set, O'Day is accompanied just by piano. (Whoever the pianist is, he is in complete sync with O'Day, and provides commendable support.) Although having performed for more than 30 years, and having dealt with many personal problems, O'Day shows she hadn't lost her singular interpretative abilities or her unmatchable phrasing. These four songs could be a primer for a class in the art of jazz singing.
The last set of tunes, from "Wave" through "Boogie Blues," are from one of the many tours O'Day took in Japan, this one from a live 1988 performance with Jones and Wess. Of the three sessions, O'Day is at her best here. Her voice is as clear as a bell, recalling those cool days with Stan Kenton and Gene Krupa. She kicks off with "Wave," with Wess' flute floating in support; Wess picks up the tenor on a midtempo "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." But the highlight of this concert -- and the disc -- is "Street of Dreams." O'Day does the verse with just Jones' piano behind her. On the chorus, Jones is joined by Smith's delicate drumming. Drummond has a long bass solo, after which O'Day, Jones, and Smith return, joined by Wess' saxophone swirling around O'Day's wordless vocalizing. This seven-minute excursion is jazz singing at its absolute best. O'Day also revisits "Let Me Off Uptown," this time with Wess playing the Roy Eldridge role.
Although O'Day is not always in top form on this album, a less-than-perfect Anita O'Day offers more than most other singers at their very best. These sessions are a welcome addition to her discography.