The late, great jazz vocalist Teri Thornton left us way too soon after a valiant battle with cancer that finally claimed her life on May 1, 2000 at the age of 65. After nearly a 35-year pause in her recording career, she threw the jazz industry for a loop in the year 2000, by winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition-the same competition that has repeatedly catapulted "young lions" to fame (e.g. Joshua Redman). In her final year, with the release of a new Verve CD and a gig at the legendary "Village Vanguard" Teri finally began to garner the kudos that she so richly deserved, firmly designating her as an artist of taste, deep feeling and breathtaking technical facility. The recent Koch Jazz release, Terry Thornton Sings Open Highway (the title tune more familiarly known as "The Theme From Route 66") was originally recorded by Capitol Records in 1963, and is a virtual treasure trove of diverse material performed by Ms. Thornton at her vocal peak.
The re-issue of Open Highway is produced by Donald Elfman, with accompanying elegant liner notes by noted author and jazz journalist, James Gavin. This recording is in the same excellent tradition of other recent Koch re-issues of late (notably retrospectives of jazz vocal greats, "Jackie & Roy", Rosemary Clooney, June Christy and Peggy Lee). Many of these vintage arrangements (mainly by arranger/conductor Larry Wilcox) are rich with the warm analogue sounds of a real orchestra in symbiotic interplay with a vocalist who was not only in the same room with players, but somehow managed to create an intimacy with an entire orchestra-no easy task, and also a skill that seems to have been temporarily lost to us with the advent of isolation booths and modern recording techniques.
The title track, and theme from TV's "Route 66" was written by the ebullient Nelson Riddle (with intriguing lyrics by Julie Styne's son, Stanley). It is a stunner.... complete with soaring strings and swinging piano accents lustily inserted by the late Bobby Scott. Those old enough to remember early television will have no trouble conjuring up images of the cherubic cheeked Martin Milner and the delightfully androgynous George Maharis streaking down the highway in their little white sports car-on to their next thrilling adventure in pre-Stephen King small-town America.
In spite of the good intentions of this re-issue there seems to be something lacking in the sound re-production as well as a decidedly dated aspect to a few of the Larry Willis arrangements (you can almost imagine Gene Pitney wailing away in Monaural sound with some of these same charts)-but I imagine that is the point. Open Highway is not only an interesting and eclectic record, but it's also a real time capsule of the haphazard way that vocalists were often marketed during the transitional time when "Popular Music" was constantly changing shape and form this is obvious from the amount of floundering in the general concept of the recording--as if the movers and shakers at Capital Records of the day (and original producer Tom Wilson) decided to make Teri Thornton perform a smorgasbord of material to see what would "go", ranging from country inspired songs ("Cold, Cold Heart") and early R & B ("The Day I Stop Lovin' You"), to a heart-rending ballad by the then-unknown Alan & Marilyn Bergman ("Goodbye is a Lonesome Sound") and of course the swinging TV theme heard on the title track. Some things work better than others.
Even with the lack of digital oomph, this CD is a refreshing and moving tribute to a real woman, who's voice on this recording (at age 28) is already tinged with experience, heartbreak and the travails of the real jazz life-a life that would eventually interfere with her most productive years as a singer. Bravo to Koch Jazz for bringing this recording to light. In spite of everything, Teri Thornton lived life and sang about it with honesty and clarity.... .a far cry from the bland offerings of the current neo-natal jazz cuties who are marinated in media juice and served up to an unsuspecting public--before they're fully cooked.
Highly recommended for a cruise down the freeway with a baby boomer. (four stars)