Carmen McRae had a voice made for ballads, sad ones.
It was like an eggshell, simultaneously tough and fragile. This unique quality comes through on the CD release of "Bittersweet," a 1964 recording she made for the small Focus label. The album features 13 moody ballads that speak of late nights and heartaches.
"Did he light her cigarette?" she asks on "How Did He Look." ".... Was there a smile upon his face or did he look bored? Not that I really care."
McRae delivers the lines with sad resignation, but there’s just the tiniest hint of hope rising in her voice.
Although she never achieved the nearly impossible status of Ella and Sarah, McRae’s talent was considerable. Perhaps, her greatest gift was shading a song to go beyond the literal meaning. McRae, who died in 1994, built layers of emotions into a song, making it more complex and interesting than the next singer.
Her subtleties are brought out on "Bittersweet" by a quartet that wastes no notes for any more might interfere with her delicate interpretations. On several songs, including the lovely "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," McRae and pianist Norman Simmons are largely left alone. The CD also features some deft guitar work by Mundell Lowe, who was a last-minute replacement at the session.
"Bittersweet" is an outstanding recording that deserves to find an audience again.