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Helen Merrill at The Iridium

Helen Merrill is perhaps best remembered for her stunning Emarcy sessions where a fresh and very young waif like singer first unraveled her soft almost fragile like voice in that hypnotic whisper so entrancing that many listeners (myself included) we’re helplessly hooked. Fifty years later in 2004, Ms. Merrill, in top form, comes to us in the Big Apple in a concert for the ages. Appearing on the final night of a three-day engagement at the Iridium in Midtown Manhattan, Ms. Merrill and trio worked up the night in an intoxicating brew of lushly intimate ballads, a breezy Brazilian piece and a rarely performed gem and the evening’s highlight.

Ms. Merrill appeared with trio leader and pianist Torrie Zito, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Ronnie Zito. On this autumn cool night, Ms. Merrill unleashed her vocals before the full house with the up tempo People Will Say We’re In Love. Her familiar voice which is more matured and slightly smokier only adds to her allure rather than detracting from the performance. The audience seemed instantly aglow as she continued her next number singing the modal arrangement of Summertime. Ellington’s masterful blend of dissonant harmonies is irresistible particularly for this bittersweet blues I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) which Ms. Merrill delivers with a perfect balance of grace and blues as she does in her next number Autumn Leaves in obvious reference to the chilly weather outside.

As if it we’re her very own, Ms. Merrill, with just voice and piano, delivers a sparse Lover Man with an atmosphere as fluid as molasses and the pacing of a funeral dirge. The audience was transfixed as she turned in a quixotic performance. Billy Holiday would most certainly be a little jealous, if not miffed. After dropping every ounce of emotive juice into the last piece, Ms. Merrill needed a welcome break.

The trio performed And Then Came Steve a snappy feature for bassist LaSpina. LaSpina shows that he clearly enjoys the attention by playing a nimble solo that shows both his steady showmanship here (as is with the rest of the trio) and throughout this evening. His energy carries the trio forward with a rollicking bass line that opens up My Favorite Things with a refreshed and rejuvenated Helen Merrill returning to the stage.

A big fan of Brazilian music no less the warmly stunning tune Island by Ivan Lins, Ms. Merrill sings it here, well you know, efficaciously. Although she needed to read along with the lyric sheet, Ms. Merrill makes the lyrics shine rapturously as if every word were intended for you. It was worth the price of admission, meant rhetorically of course since I had a press pass but would have gladly paid double and triple the cover.

Don Redman’s Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You is a vocal favorite (and instrumental) performed from an endless list from Billy Holiday, Nat Cole to latest diva, Diana Krall. Ms. Merrill turns in a fine performance here with an after hours type appeal from the trio.

When she needs to Ms. Merrill completely immerses herself into a lyric like no other. The darkly brooding You’re My Thrill mesmerized the audiences with her hushed vocals barely above the tip of a whisper. The sparse setting with just piano backing is used to skillful effect. Dick Katz who was seated in the audience collaborated with her on this tune in the album The Feeling Is Mutual on Milestone. Their fruitful efforts brought them together again for Shade of Difference and Chasin’ the Bird, all regretfully out of print unless you’re willing to dole out large sums of cash for the imports.

Cutting through the broodingly thick atmosphere, Ms. Merrill tells us that nothing else matters that she is in it for the long haul in the swinging Harold Arlen classic Come Rain Come Shine before setting us up with another magnificent gem.

Dmitri Tiomkin’s Wild Is the Wind from the 57’ movie is a rarely heard treat recorded by David Bowie and before by Nina Simone. In a standout interpretation and one of the evenings’s many highlights Ms. Merrill rescued this little heard or performed classic to an absorbed audience which kept us glued to our seats with what was to come next.

Born to Be Blue which appeared on the album Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown is covered here in a tight and swinging arrangement perhaps more befitting to the pacing of its original composer Mel Torme than the original pensive and languid portrayal.

By Myself is a piece she recorded with Gil Evans in the late fifties. She would return to it once again as she did in her ’87 album Collaboration (again with Gil Evans) and tonight, to the delight of the crowd, she revisited this old chestnut singing it as if it were new material.

And as ceremoniously as she entered, Ms. Merrill and the trio signed off with Gershwin’s It’s Wonderful singing "it’s marvelous that you should care for us." And we do.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Helen Merrill
  • Concert Date: 10/24/2004
  • Subtitle: Helen Sings Her Heart Out
  • Venue: The Iridium
  • City State Country: New York, New York
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