As a person who has been avidly collecting jazz vocal records for over forty years, I find this new CD really unique, especially considering the state of today's jazz vocal outputs. I have always admired Nancy as an individualistic artist. It is true that every one of her previous fourteen albums was produced with plenty of care and meanings. She never was the type to rush an album out by stringing together ten or twelve familiar standards. To make her personal and artistic statement was her main goal each time she made a record. She never considered demographics or trends. Even when she recorded songs by such contemporary writers as Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, she managed to turn them into her own kind of music. In other words, she could make anything sound like an "art song." As it usually turns out, her fans hardly noticed who had written those songs.

This album is especially personal for Nancy because, for the first time, listeners get to hear her performance in front of an audience. She is a jazz singer within each song she sings, but she also comes from the generation when jazz artists were supposed to be entertainers. She understands that she has to have "an act." In her cabaret act, she shows her honest self. Nothing is put-on. Her personal warmth and sense of humor are more evident in these spontaneous moments.

Nancy received her college degree when most young girl singers were looking for a job in the dance band business. Nancy's first love was great literature, but hearing Billie Holiday sing awoke in her a desire to sing jazz. Working as an editor in a publishing house daytimes, she spent her evenings studying diligently and sitting in with musicians in jazz clubs. By 1957, she made some demo discs which were very good. After preparing herself for several years, the break came. She caught Nat Hentoff's attention, and the result was her 1960 debut album "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" on the Candid label. While the majority of her contemporaries in the early 1960s were emulating either Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, or Dinah Washington, Nancy sang with confidence and authority in a style that was normally associated with singers of the Swing Era.

For her debut album, she was accompanied by a medium-sized orchestra which included three musicians from the legendary late 1930's Count Basie Orchestra - Buddy Tate, Dickie Wells, and Buck Clayton, who wrote arrangements and led the band. The songs and the band chosen for Nancy were very similar to Jimmy Rushing's for his Vanguard sessions several years earlier. She was completely at home in this setting as if she were Helen Humes, especially successful with the blues and bluesy pop tunes. Even if largely because of her accompanying musicians, her debut album became a hit for her in the world of jazz. In fact, the record has never gone out of print completely since its original release. It seems that every fan of mainstream jazz I have met knows this record. As far as jazz vocal fans are concerned, her "Wild Woman Don't Have The Blues" album put her on the map.

By the early 1970s, Nancy had left the night club scene to work as the editor of a literary magazine; her two sons were very young, and the general musical taste didn't favor her type of jazz any more. She returned to the club scene as soon as new clubs that featured mainstream jazz re-emerged in the mid 1970s. Barney Josephson opened his new jazz club/restaurant The Cookery in 1974. It was there I heard Nancy for the first time in late 1975. She was splitting the week with Helen Humes at that time. I got to know Mr. Josephson quite well because of my family connection. I got to hang out with Helen Humes and Rose Murphy at the Cookery quite regularly because it was located practically within the campus of NYU, which I was attending. Josephson also presented Adelaide Hall and Nellie Lutcher. Much greater business came to the club when Josephson hired 82 year-old Alberta Hunter in 1979. I knew all these names from my grandfather's record collection. I was also aware of Nancy's "Wild Women..." album, but didn't yet have enough knowledge to fully appreciate its merits.

I remember hearing Josephson say about Nancy, "She's really authentic." That was a huge compliment since Josephson had a very specific taste (which was unfailingly good) and only hired authentically original performers. He had been that way since the day he started with his first club, the Café Society Downtown, in 1939. Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner were the first vocalists he presented.

About Nancy's singing style, one notable music critic said "Ruth Etting sings Billie Holiday" when he heard her sing Mean To Me. Somebody pointed out the similarity between Nancy (of the early 1980s) and Mildred Bailey (of 1933-1935). The bottom line is that Nancy is a genuine classic. Although she never studied the singing styles of Etting, Bailey, Annette Hanshaw, and others of their times, she sounds as if she came from that classic period. All of these qualities she possesses are organic. She never copied anyone's style intentionally except that she was heavily drawn to Billie Holiday's records at the beginning of her career. The original 10" LP of Lee Wiley's "Night In Manhattan" also made a strong impression on her. She knows what she likes at once when she hears it. Her taste is interestingly eclectic. She doesn't like anything artificial or gimmicky. Imitating somebody doesn't suit her. Neither does anything that is too sentimental or dramatic.

Technically speaking, certain things Nancy does are unorthodox, just as Ruth Olay, Morgana King, Sheila Jordan, and Betty Carter (to pick notable jazz voices of her generation) were each unique and idiosyncratic. Unlike many jazz singers, Nancy never improvises in an "in your face" manner. Nancy is not a show-off. Everything she does is subtle and tasteful. Like her accompanist Roland Hanna, she is always in the moment. Take If I Could Be With You, which I consider one of the highlights of this CD; Nancy hardly sings the original melody but she does it in such an easy manner that she makes it sound as though she is singing the melody. In some songs, especially her own compositions, she hardly departs from the original melodies. Nonetheless, she always manages to retain her jazz identity.

In 1990, Nancy began adapting her favorite literary pieces into musical shows. She merged her two loves: great literature and jazz. She recorded her first piece, "Lost Lady," with a Broadway actor/singer Vernel Bagneris, with solid jazz arrangements written by pianist Dick Katz. Dan Morgenstern, who wrote the booklet notes, called it her "song cycle" album, but as Ray Drummond, the bassist for the date, said, "She wrote herself a complete musical." I agree. I prefer calling them original jazz cast albums. They would have played very well as radio musicals if she had written them in the 1940s. By 2005, she had completed five of these original jazz cast albums. As I predicted in the mid 1990s, her projects have been developed into stage productions of various kinds. In this show, Nancy debuted several songs from her up-coming theatre piece "Maya the Bee." She also sings one song from "Lost Lady."

Nancy's music is purely personal. Both artistically and personally, Nancy is unaffected. She does what she does because of her own creative urges. Among the performers of her generation and older, I can think of Nancy and Sheila Jordan as the only ones who are not jaded in the slightest sense. At an age when most of her contemporaries are retired or reticent about learning anything new, Nancy remains genuinely enthusiastic and creative.

In the late fall of 1985, when I was talking with Barbara Lea in some jazz club, I told her about my plan to record Nancy on my label. Barbara said, "That's really great. I like Nancy. She's a real person." In a business filled with insecurity and jealousy, it was such a remarkable comment uttered by one artist about another. Making a studio album with Nancy and Roland was one of the highlights of my career, and the resultant product -- the LP "You're Nearer" (on Tono)-- received many rave reviews. Ten years later, Nancy and Roland did this "live" date with the wonderfully understated support of bassist Paul West. It was recorded by the gifted recording engineer Malcolm Addey. Fans and friends gathered and filled the room with such warmth, affection, and sincere appreciation that the atmosphere is clearly audible on the disc. The mutual admiration between Nancy and Roland is also obvious. This is a wonderful cabaret act performed by the most enthusiastic of veteran jazz singers, Nancy Harrow, a real person.

Ted Takashi Ono


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