Helen Merrill Featuring Clifford Brown
Late one night, several years ago, I was playing LPs while scanning half-a-dozen music sites I had open on the laptop, looking at other LPs that I had to have (the first step is admitting you have a problem). A "sale items" page listed a reissue pressing of the LP Helen Merrill.
It was the cover: the vintage microphone got to the amateur recordist in me; the strain in Helen's face had to be the visual to something musically amazing; and, the blue-toned B&W cover shot, while an obvious cliche', pulled the whole thing together - so damn cool. It was in the cart without having ever heard of Helen Merrill or checking to see who the sidemen were. Add a few more LPs to the order for the free shipping, and it was on its way to me.
In our jazz teething stage, we select music based on pictures because we don't have a clue what we want to hear. You can tell yourself you were more academic about the process because you bought a record guide or used a "Best of Jazz" list from somewhere. But, be honest, you bought the covers. If you're over 50, it likely happened in a music store. We'd pick our share of losers, but we'd also hit the trifecta on occasion. The more we buy, the less we put in yard sales, educational costs.
When Helen arrived, and I saw Clifford Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, and Quincy Jones were among the sidemen, my rookie-like impulsive buying was vindicated. Before unwrapping it, I knew the cover was perfect, and the music, punctuated by Clifford Brown, was not going to disappoint.
Even when all the elements are there, the players may not completely gel or the recording can be poorly engineered. You've heard a few of them. ("Is that really Bill Evans?") Not the case with Helen Merrill. The recording is excellent. The liner notes don't reveal much about the engineering, but the arrangements were written by and the production credited to Quincy Jones.
The usual female vocalist album cover of the day was a glamorous-to-sexy shot that required a torture device to make the feminine waist look like my ankle, and of course, a rocket-bra. This cover is different. Helen's on the cover and she's not selling that illusion. A clue that the others on the album are more than backup filler. In this context, the human voice is a jazz instrument like any other in the band. If you'd never heard a word of English, you'd still find this to be an amazing jazz album.
Dennis Davis of the Audio Beat wrote of Helen and Clifford on Helen Merrill:
"Like Miles Davis's, Merrill's instrument caresses the notes and floats around them. Like Miles, she knew when not to sing, leaving space to be filled in by the listener's imagination. Clifford Brown, probably the most acclaimed jazz instrumentalist in 1954, acts as the perfect foil. He supplies the hot to Merrill's cool."
An original 1955 EmArcy mono LP in mint condition will cost you well over a grand if you can find one. There have been many reissues of it on LP and digital formats over the years. If you're into vinyl, Analog Productions has the best sounding pressing that I've heard. You can order it at Bull Moose Music for around $35.00. I'm sure the premium streaming services have it, the CDs are cheap on eBay, and you can listen to it here on YouTube.
At some point in our jazz odyssey, we move past the lists of the "Best Jazz Albums" and the opinions of others, we find what truly speaks to us. I can't see myself ever not enjoying Helen Merrill.