1957 – Blossom Dearie (Verve)
The story goes that Norman Granz, famed jazz impresario and Verve Records main-man, was checking out the clubs in Paris, France one evening in 1955 or 1956, when he saw and heard Blossom Dearie, who’d been in Paris for a while singing and playing piano. Granz may have already known who she was; or maybe he didn’t. Blossom had already put in several years within the bebop scenes in Manhattan through the 1950s (she was chums with Gil Evans, and apparently was present for some of the Davis/Evans Birth of the Cool sessions, for example; she knew Bird and Dizzy, too). But Blossom was also friends with Tony Bennett, and it was towards cabaret that she had moved even before Granz invited her to record for all-powerful Verve in 1956, upon her return to the USA.
Blossom had sung for years in vocal groups in New York (with Woody Herman’s Blue Flames, for one), and was possessed of a unique and high-pitched voice. Some have called it an acquired taste, but upon first impression I found it instantly agreeable. Her voice isn’t overly strong; it’s soft. But it’s not slick like Bennett’s; it has some gravitas… somehow. Everything she sings sounds slightly tongue-in-cheek, and her voice exudes cuteness, which is just as well with a name like “Blossom Dearie”. But then again, she never sounds overly clever or insincere. On this first Verve long-player, she also sings some of the chansons française she learned over in gay-Paree – sometimes singing in both French and English – which also adds to the novelty of this fine recording, which is otherwise laden with bebop-era standards.
But Blossom was primarily, perhaps, a pianist. Her tinkling of the ivories can be heard throughout this disc, though the piano isn’t particularly well-miked on some of the tunes (the bass, however, is). Still, she was often spoken of as a very fine pianist and accompanist, and certainly sounds great. Now able to accompany herself on her own big-label LP, Blossom was fortunate to be joined by bassist Ray Brown (Ella Fitzgerald) and drummer Jo Jones (Count Basie Orchestra), themselves not exactly slouches in jazz performance. Some of the cuts also feature backing vocalists.
Be warned if you’re a “serious” jazz fan: some of the songs are cute (yes, like Blossom herself) and even rather silly. After all, Blossom had to entertain supper-club audiences in smoky Parisian nightclubs, and sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. The much-covered “’Deed I Do”, “Everything I’ve Got”, “Comment Allez Vous” (with slightly overdone male/female backing vocals), “Tout Doucement” (a popular French cabaret tune?), “I Hear Music”, and “I Won’t Dance” (half in English, half in French) are the cutest, or silliest, depending on your perspective, but all are so tastefully done, with that winning vocal-timbre, that you just have to give in and enjoy them!
Blossom sings three songs by Bob Haymes here (his big one, a few years prior to this album, was “That’s All”, but she doesn’t do it). One of the best tracks here is Haymes’ “You For Me”, which doesn’t come across as silly like some others, but is nevertheless full of funny lines like:
Your subtle glance
Gave me the chance
That you’re for me
I'm the fish at sea
And you're the lure for me
Take a look and see
The she who'll agree
To be for you
If it's you for me
It’s a solid tune anyway, and the rhythm section finally breaks out a bit and swings! Another Haymes’ tune, which is the last track on the original LP, “A Fine Spring Morning”, is likewise lyrically cute (in fact, silly) but also mines surprising depths of emotion thanks to the sparse accompaniment, slow tempo, and Blossom’s impressive and finely nuanced vocal. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reviewing this record has been my discovery of Bob Haymes’ songwriting. Based on the numbers Blossom covers here, he seems to have a knack for funny, witty lyrics but within songs very musical and with unusual depth underlying their surface “frothiness”… which certainly suits Blossom!
Not every song here is lighthearted. Blossom sings – second off the top no less – “Lover Man”, a song most often associated with Billie Holiday’s definitive version(s). It hardly seems the kind of tune that would suit Blossom and co., but the trio pull it off with aplomb. Blossom sings it very straight with no scatting, groaning, or moaning, and the effect is poignant and mournful, though not overly passionate. When she sings, “I go to bed with the prayer that you’ll make love to me”, it has a much less desperate effect than Holiday’s take, but is just as evocative. Blossom sings “It Might As Well Be Spring” entirely in French. It’s sad-but-not-too-sad, and one of the better tracks. My favorite of all the songs and performances here is the beautiful and quite serious, “Now At Last”, another by Bob Haymes, and quite a sad song of love-lost and regret. “I’ve lost the last love I shall ever win,” Blossom sings, and at least for a moment you believe her. Excellent vocals! Her voice reaches for pathos in the “Where was I…? Where was I…?” refrain, and succeeds. Stunning track.
“More Than You Know”, one of a handful of Rogers and Hart tunes, is an instrumental, and a nice break from the vocal treatment to focus on the trio’s tasteful instrumental synergy. Actually, this track isn’t just the trio; it’s a quartet, with Herb Ellis on guitar, plucking some subtle but perfect notes. At barely three-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest cut on the record. Another fairly somber Rogers and Hart tune, but a somewhat less successful one, is “Wait Til You See Him”, which is nicely performed but never really achieves lift-off. The melody isn’t one of the stronger on offer, and somehow I’m not sure Blossom can really pull this one off. Maybe requires more of a torch singer.
In the CD era, the 1957 album was re-issued with three bonus tracks: “They Say It’s Spring” is outstanding, fitting perfectly with the regular LP cuts and is one of the stronger tracks in general. Rogers and Hart’s “Johnny One Note” is somewhat overwhelmed with a chorus of vocalists, and is a pretty silly tune anyway. Cute, though. “Blossom’s Blues” was apparently recorded in the spring of 1959, perhaps two and a half years after the other tracks, which in itself makes it somewhat incongruous. It is indeed a blues, and the lyrics include the memorable: “My name is Blossom / I was raised in a lion’s den / My nightly occupation is stealing other women’s men”. She continues: “I’m Gina Lollobrigida, I ain’t Red Ridin’ Hood”. Before the final verse, if you listen closely you can actually hear Blossom whispering the first words to herself before she actually sings it, so rough and loose is this recording. She even calls out bassist Ray Brown in the lyrics! It’s funny as hell and rather a great track, and it’s nice to hear Blossom putting on some airs and even scatting a bit, but more critical listeners might find it slightly discordant with the proper LP songs, as bonus tracks sometimes are.
Writing in the late-1980s for the first (?) CD issue, Will Friedwald wrote of Blossom Dearie’s reputed status as “the white Rose Murphy, the femme Chet Baker and the bebop Betty Boop”. But he concludes, of course, that she was in fact simply her own woman, with no easy comparable. Based on a couple of her 1950s’ albums I own, I have to agree, and if you’re unfamiliar with her, or just curious, I heartily recommend you dig out some Blossom Dearie, even if, like myself, you normally have an established aversion to cabaret-style music.
Blossom’s first Verve Records album, from 1957, is by popular opinion, the best place to start. Go check out Blossom Dearie!
Random Note: A couple of weeks before writing this, I was in the local stationery shop near my apartment in central Tokyo, and the proprietor was, to my surprise, playing this album. Rave on, Blossom!