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MY SHINING HOURA Harold Arlen Songbook
HighNote Records 1997
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at "Wesla's iPod"
MY SHINING HOUR
- Out Of This World
- Let's Fall In Love
- My Shining Hour
- Medley : It's Only A Paper Moon / This Time The Dream's On Me
- Happy As The Day Is Long
- Moanin' In The Morning
- As Long As I Live
- I Wonder What Became Of Me
- Ill Wind
- Over The Rainbow
- Ding, Dong The Witch Is Dead
- What's Good About Goodbye
- Let's Take The Long Way Home
- Someone At Last
- One For My Baby
MY SHINING HOUR
wesla whitfield: vocals
mike greensill: piano / arranger
Michael moore: bass
Colin bailey: drums
Warren vache: Cornet
orrin keepnews: producer
MY SHINING HOUR
For just about all of my life, I have been a collaborator in the creation of small and rather delicate artifacts – extremely specialized records made by deeply talented and highly dedicated performers who have chosen, or have unavoidably been driven to operate in an extremely demanding musical art form. It is a precarious field that often fails to give them enough in return to let them pay the rent on tike, but that also on occasion enables them to reach peaks of emotional and artistic achievements that make it all worth the struggle.
This is a rather intricate way of saying that I have spent quite a few years producing, almost without exception, instrumental jazz records. But there have been a few important exceptions, and even occasions when the description I have just given can be applied to other kinds of music.
Several years ago, as one of the rewards for having in 1972 converted myself into a resident of San Franciscio, I became aware of a remarkable locally-based singer named Wesla Whitfield. In a sense, she should have been outside my range of activity. At times over the years I have worked with an eclectic range of vocalists (from Abbey Lincoln to Mark Murphy to Flora Purim is a pretty broad span), but they were all firmly within the boundaries of jazz. Wesla was quite insistent about not being a jazz singer, although like most of those who explore the vast and fertile area best described as the Great American Songbook, she was also not happy about being stamped with the somewhat condescending label "cabaret." Having spent much of my life in New York had helped me to develop a strong appreciation for this distinctive repertoire and a broad knowledge of those who work with it. I quickly came to realize that Wesla dealt with this territory as well as anyone I'd ever heard – that in vocal equipment and attitude and presence, in understanding lf the lyrics and ability to personally interpret them, she was about as good as it gets.
I have always found it difficult when faced with musical talent that I find overwhelming, to remain merely a listener. So, given my reaction to this artist, it was probably inevitable – despite her declared no-jazz status – for me to become involved with her recordings. Starting with a mutual understanding that I was not going to make some insane attempt to convert her into Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter, we have by now worked together on six albums. As essential element in this mix, and beyond that her career as a whole is the overall contribution of Mike Greensill, a richly talented pianist and arranger, for a decade Wesla's accompanist and for almost that long her full-fledged musical director and her husband. Looking back on our efforts, it becomes apparent to me that there has been a gradual and valuable blurring of lines. What began as an inside joke that maybe some jazz disc jockey, seeing my name as producer might be tricked into automatically playing her records, she has by now been transported into music that fits just about any rational description of what jazz radio should play.
I think it's a good idea about now to deal conclusively with a couple of major cliches' that may otherwise continue to confuse us all. First of all, the troublesome term "cabaret" is heartily hated by Wesla and others primarily because it conjures up an inaccurate image of out-dated, falsely glamorous, unmusical settings where society folk assemble to make louder sounds than the performers – and where that doesn't matter too much because the entertainers are invariably not very talented singers (who tend to be described by words like "sultry"). Quite clearly that association does not apply here, but since no one has as yet quite been able to bury the word and since the Great American Songbook is really to long-winded to make a snappy catch-phrase, I guess we'll just have to keep using "cabaret" – but cautiously, please.
As for the deep and dangerous question about who and what exactly is a jazz singer, this would seem to have become a major semantic problem for no good reason. A barrier has somehow been erected where none belongs, built by the firm insistence of most jazz experts that (pardon the expression) those cabaret singers are not under any circumstance to be granted admission to the jazz world, that the various elements common to both – naturally the frequent use of the same body of repertoire – are irrelevant and deceptive. Probably no form of music in the world boasts as large or as loud a corps of self-proclaimed "experts" as jazz (I should know; I've been one of them most of my life), but my earnest recommendation is to totally ignore them.
The sad truth of the matter is that, commercially speaking, neither of these categories is really worth fighting about – certainly one of the things they have in common is that hardly anyone can claim to have reached fame, fortune, or the top of the best-seller chart based solely on their membership in either group. On the other hand, in the strange and often perverse world that is the American entertainment scene as we near the end of the twentieth century, there exists a relatively small but fiercely dedicated body of listeners and artists who take that italicized sentence not as a complaint but as a badge of honor. To such people, the differences between the worlds of cabaret and jazz are of far less significance than the fact that both are endangered species – that the valiant if perhaps fool-hardy mutual insistence on paying attention to taste and nuance and sensitivity creates an important bond between them.
All of the foregoing has helped me to reach an important conclusion about this particular compact disc – it is exactly what you want it to be. If it pleases you to consider it a jazz record, there is plenty of evidence for your side. The music of Harold Arlen has over the years provided strong and graceful starting points for major jazz improvisers; the daring and tasteful cornet of Warren Vache darts brilliantly behind and alongside Wesla at both up and down tempos; Colin Bailey is an impeccable timekeeper. I will not soon forget that Whitney Balliet has seriously compared Mike Greensill to the late Jimmy Rowles, a compliment not to be taken lightly. Michael Moore is universally recognized as one of the most sensitive and creative of jazz bassists. In addition, his remarkable affinity with Whitfield and Greensill has led him, over the past three years, to make himself available for as many as possible of their engagements and has resulted in his becoming a highly important element in their tightly-woven ensemble sound. And above all, Wesla Whitfield (although you are never going to hear her scat even on one syllable) swings magnificently, varies and interprets most creatively and very possibly may convince practically everyone but herself that the line between what she accomplishes here and any positive definition of "jazz" is too wafer-thin to pay any attention to.
On the other had, if you consider the preceding paragraph to be pure heresy, you too have a very good case. What better example of the Great American Songbook than the incredibly varied work of Harold Arlen, with no less than five nimble lyricists, led by Johnny Mercer and Yip Harburg, to give a singer so very much to work with. And here are four distinguished accompanists, combining their individual talents to enhance and support and never compete with Wesla. And the artist herself, in rare form and fully in control of her material, her highly individual sound quality vividly and accurately captured by superb recording techniques, and consistently displaying that deep affection for the songs which is the true distinguishing characteristic of this genre.
As you may have figured out by now, I am more than happy with this record and quite proud to be associated with it. I think it turned out pretty much the way we wanted it to – which, I assure you, is a rare enough accomplishment, So I really don't care how it is described, or into what niche it is catalogued – as long as it is properly appreciated.
- Orrin Keepnews
San Francisco 1996
A special thank you to Lansing Bailey, who first introduced me to the music of Harold Arlen and helped me understand its importance. And a special thank you to Dean Stamatopoulous, Randy Wallace and Bob Grimes, without whom I would not have found the elusive, out-of-print copies of these beautiful songs.