Picks and Pans Review: Carmen Sings Monk
A musical meeting of the vibes between the music of the late composer-pianist Thelonious Monk and stalwart jazz singer McRae sounds like a too-good-to-be-true recording idea. In fact, this selection of instrumental Monk classics, sung by McRae with newly written lyrics, proves to be better than anyone—anyone except McRae and her support group anyway—might have dreamed. (For copyright reasons, most of the titles have been changed.)
With sterling support from saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Charlie Rouse (a Monk sideman), bassist George Mraz, pianists Eric Gunnison and Larry Willis, and drummer Al Foster, McRae sings 15 tracks from the preachy "Get It Straight" (from "Straight, No Chaser") to the playful "Suddenly" (from "In Walked Bud").
McRae's command of blues and jazz idioms and her tough-tender phrasing are well suited to Monk's at once cranky and buoyant compositions. From the ironic "It's Over Now" ("Well You Needn't") to the iconic "Little Butterfly" ("Pannonica"), McRae employs a volley of idiosyncratic scat and vocalese touches over Monk's surprising rhythmic and melodic twists.
Lyricists Sally Swisher, Jon Hendricks, Mike Ferro, Abbey Lincoln and Bernie Hanighen came up with the words to complement Monk's quirky thematic impulses. On "Man, That Was a Dream" ("Monk's Dream") McRae sings Monk's fantasy with salty assurance, "I dreamed of a life that was pure and true/ I dreamed of a job only I could do/...I dreamed it was music I had to play/ I dreamed when I played I would play my way/...Man, that was my dream."
No stranger to the peripatetic pianist's midnight ramblings—he often dropped by the singer's New York City apartment round that time to play for her—McRae has captured the odd, difficult, intricate spirit that was Monk. (Novus/RCA)