‘It’s A Lazy Afternoon’ as sung by Lucy Reed is quite something. Discreetly accompanied by Dick Marx on piano and Johnny Frigo on bass doing the bare minimum beautifully, her precise articulation, the exquisite enunciation, the unforced projection, everything, it’s all so subtly sensual and seductive, the mood is incredibly dreamy, so intimate, so tempting, so indolent. When Lucy suggests spending a lazy afternoon with her, only a fool would hesitate.
She really works wonders with John Latouche’s carefully chosen words, his very vivid imagery, with those beetle bugs zooming, and the tulip trees blooming, the farmer leaving his reaping, the speckled trout no longer leaping, the daisies running riot amid the quiet. You really feel as though you are there, with Lucy offering her hand, and with that look in her eye. There’s absolutely no need to answer is there?
The lyricist Latouche was quite a character by all accounts, and there are plenty of accounts of him being a very sociable guy, very well-connected in New York’s artistic and literary high society in the immediate post-WW2 years, with friends and champions including Gore Vidal and Carson McCullers, moving freely in the sort of circles you might associate with Truman Capote and Holly Golightly. He wrote for John Cage and worked with Duke Ellington, and among the many songs he provided the words for, before his early death in 1956, there is ‘Ballad for Americans’, with music by Earl Robinson, as sung by Paul Robeson, famously. But ‘Lazy Afternoon’ is arguably John’s greatest moment, and certainly Lucy Reed’s 1955 version is the favourite here, and God bless the day a wrong turning was taken on YouTube which led to stumbling across this exquisite recording.
By the time Lucy sang it on her debut LP, The Singing Reed, she was a mature lady, in her mid-30s, with a young son. She had lost a husband in the war, and after that decided to dedicate herself to singing jazz. Her performances with Dick Marx and Johnny Frigo in Chicago clubs such as the Lei Aloha are legendary, and this was at a time when there were a lot of great singers appearing regularly in Chicago’s clubs, cabarets, and bars, and it is intoxicating to read of Jeri Southern or Lurlean Hunter singing there, or Bev Kelly working with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and oh to hear Audrey Morris perform the songs that appeared on her Bistro Ballads set (the one with Johnny Pate on bass) and imagine being in the audience at Mister Kelly’s, sitting near Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren crying into their beers.
You really can hear how the many dates they played, Lucy, Dick and Johnny, created the close chemistry which shows on the few tracks they recorded together for her debut. Most of the LP, however, was recorded in New York with Lucy backed by a young Bill Evans leading a quartet or simply playing with bassist Bob Carter. This would have been one of the very first recordings of Bill in a studio.
Among the quartet tracks is a quite remarkable recording of ‘Out of This World’, where Bill’s arrangement has a South American flavour, with the repeated rhythmic guitar motif giving an almost tango-like feel to the song. Lucy’s singing throughout is wonderful. Quite non-demonstrative but incredibly emotional, very natural, with no affectations, and her maturity works for her. She is particularly good, with Bill accompanying her in a sympathetic way, on Bart Howard’s ‘My Love is a Wanderer’, which has a haunting, folk song-like feel.
Lucy made one other LP in the 1950s, This Is Lucy Reed, which was produced in New York in 1957. Having already recorded with Bill Evans, this time around she worked with the George Russell Sextet and with a Gil Evans Septet, which shows how highly she was regarded. There is a lovely story George Russell told about how Lucy had rung him up one day and asked if she could bring her friend Bill to visit. This was, oh yes, Bill Evans, and well you can look the tale up, but this was how Bill came to work with George on his Jazz Workshop LP in 1956, and later on the exceptional Jazz in the Space Age album.
The three tracks Lucy recorded with George Russell are incredibly good (and all these 1950s recordings are available on a Fresh Sound 2CD set), particularly ‘Born To Blow the Blues’, a composition by George with words by Jack Segal about a young man with a horn, who lives only for his music, which may refer to the film but better still is the idea that it was inspired by Dorothy Baker’s brilliant novel, the story of Rick Martin, itself loosely based on the tragic tale of Bix Beiderbecke, and within the book there are so many great lines worth remembering or reciting, such as: “He stayed in the joints with his own kind, the incurables, the boys who felt the itch to discover something. He stayed within the closed circle of the fanatics, the old bunch of alchemists, and there he did his work.” Or how about this? “The good thing, finally, is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face.” And you can be sure it will, oh yes.
Another of the tracks Lucy recorded with George Russell was a bewitchingly moving take on ‘In The Wee Small Hours’, which is so familiar from the Sinatra version, but sung by a lady who’s lost a husband in the war, has been bringing up a young kid while working in the jazz world, well, it takes on new emotional dimensions. She is quoted as saying: “I never sing anything that doesn’t kill me when I hear it … I feel I go home as tired as a horn player, because I’m so closely linked, emotionally speaking, to the tunes I do. I find songs that mean so much to me, too, because I’ve had experience, more than many of the young chicks singing today. I’m 35. The tunes are meaningful to me because I’ve lived them.” There’s a book in those few sentences isn’t there?
Another four tracks on the LP were arranged by Gil Evans, and this was in January 1957 when he was on the approach to the corner of Miles and Gil, a few months before he and Miles put together the LP that was Miles Ahead and which led on to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, those classics which it is tempting to kick against but some days everything falls into place when you dig them out and play them and find something new, not just what you’re told to appreciate in them, and you realise they are indeed entitled to be considered classics.
Nat Hentoff’s liner notes give an insight into Gil’s way of thinking when working with Lucy, and thinking is the operative word because he clearly gave the arranging process careful consideration, which makes sense. One of the songs Lucy and Gil did together is ‘A Trout, No Doubt’ which features some smart wordplay and hip tongue-twisters, and singing this sort of clever nonsense seems to have been one of Lucy’s strengths, as she had also done a fantastic job romping through ‘Tabby the Cat’ with Bill Evans in support, you know the feline who walks around with a righteous air and addresses Count Basie as Pally.
‘Lazy Afternoon’ has become a jazz standard, and there are many, many versions out there. Some of them are great, but many of them just feel wrong, with the arrangement or the singer doing too much or moving too fast. One of the most enchanting versions is that sung by Scott Walker, a 1966 Walker Brothers-era recording which lay in the vaults for 40-odd years, which gets the languid mood just right, and who would resist an invitation from Scott? It was Kaye Ballard who first sang ‘Lazy Afternoon’, and it appeared on a single in 1954 on the flip of her recording, again the first, of Bart Howard’s ‘In Other Words’ which became better known as ‘Fly Me To The Moon’.
Kaye first sang ‘Lazy Afternoon’ in the 1954 Broadway musical, The Golden Apple, a retelling of Homeric Greek myths set in smalltown America at the turn of the century, with words by John Latouche and music by Jerome Moross. Maybe Moross is better known as a soundtrack composer, particularly for Big Country, the main theme of which will always be associated here with the Geoff Love Orchestra and his Music for Pleasure LP of Big Western Movie Themes from 1969, part of a great and very successful series, and it rings a bell that the early Pale Fountains set great store by the Big Bond Movie Themes set alongside Sketches of Spain, and indeed Concierto de Aranjuez was another Geoff Love success as Manuel and his Music of the Mountains.
Another of the most wonderful recordings of ‘Lazy Afternoon’ is by Helen Merrill, appropriately as in the musical it is sung in the character of Helen, the fairest of them all, which suggests a Herman Leonard shot of the singer from the 1950s somehow, maybe the one where she has her hand pushing up her chin. Helen’s rendition is mistier than Lucy’s, more reflective and wistful, but still incredibly intimate which has always been Helen’s strength, the thing her big admirer Miles Davis apparently wanted to capture in his playing, the art of natural intimacy, and Helen’s ability to intimate, to suggest rather than state, is quite deadly. “Helen of Destroy” is what the French critic Gil Pressnitzer reverently called her.
Helen’s ‘Lazy Afternoon’ appears on Merrill at Midnight, a 1957 recording, part of her five-piece EmArCy suite of LPs, some of which were pop and others deep jazz but all of them were wonderful, with a pool of musicians reappearing here and there across the titles, in different permutations and settings, like Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Barry Galbraith, Oscar Pettiford, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, and Jerome Richardson, the truly intuitive players, which can be no coincidence. That LP also features a mesmerising recording of ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ which leaves this listener simply spellbound every time it is played, and that is often. In interviews Helen has spoken about how she used to hear her mother singing Croatian folk songs around the home as a kid and maybe she channels some of that magic on this early performance?
Helen is, quite possibly, the favourite singer here, a position she has attained by stealth, a gradual growing awareness just how many exceptional performances she has released on record over the course of many years, allied with a realisation there are so many of her LPs that one has yet to hear. And Helen is also almost certainly the only singer, apart from Lucy Reed, to record with Bill Evans, George Russell and Gil Evans. She was determined to have Gil Evans as the arranger on her Dream Of You set from 1957, when again he was heading towards (being) Miles Ahead, and it perhaps can be argued that it shows.
The record is worth buying for the cover portrait of Helen alone, that smile, those eyes, but the LP itself is extraordinary. Gil’s arrangements were surely challenging to sing with, but Helen at times sounds like she is surfing the waves of sound and at other times she seems to be carressed by the music, floating like a cloud, weightless and lost in a world of her own, impervious, cocooned, wrapped, rapt, and the performance of ‘Where Flamingos Fly’ by Helen and Gil is simply beautiful and a sort of suggestion of what was to come on Out Of The Cool with Jimmy Knepper’s trombone singing Helen’s part so movingly.
The following year, 1958, Helen recorded The Nearness of You, which again has an exceptional picture of her on its cover, and quite possibly it is the one to look at while listening to her sing ‘Lazy Afternoon’. Five of the tracks on this record, the last of her EmArCy LPs, were recorded with George Russell and his quintet, featuring Bill Evans on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, and Bobby Jaspar on flute. ‘I See Your Face Before Me’ from this session is particularly arresting, with Helen sounding like she’s sharing secrets, and Bill shadowing her, lost in daydreams of his own. And this was around the time he would go off and work with Miles Davis and record Kind Of Blue, an LP apparently shaped by some of George Russell’s musical concepts, an LP that has shaped so many of our own concepts of music.
On the other seven tracks from The Nearness of You Helen was accompanied by a quintet featuring Dick Marx on piano and Johnny Frigo on bass, with Mike Simpson on flute, Fred Rundquist on guitar, and Jerry Slosberg on drums. Their performance of ‘Summertime’ is quite extraordinary. It is a song we have all heard so often, in so many different ways, and Helen and her group take it so slowly and softly that it’s like a lullaby, but quite scary in a way, with a real edge to it, which is captivating, and the perfect complement to what Marx and Frigo did so wonderfully well with Lucy Reed on ‘Lazy Afternoon’.
Quite possibly the version of ‘Lazy Afternoon’ that first made an impression here was Karin Krog’s from the Mr Joy LP she recorded in 1968, which became quite an obsession, especially the remarkable title track. It is tempting to build up quite a convincing theory that Karin’s recording was inspired by the Lucy Reed rendition, particularly as Lucy’s friend George Russell wrote the liner notes for Mr Joy in which he celebrates Karin’s pioneering spirit and the way as a jazz singer she was stretching out towards new music and electronics, while taking jazz and folk forms in new directions with her musicians, who included saxophonist Jan Garbarek who also played on George’s contemporaneous Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature.
But, no, in interviews to promote her 2015 Light In The Attic compilation Don’t Just Sing, Karin said that her ‘Lazy Afternoon’ was inspired by the instrumental version on Pete La Roca’s Basra, his Blue Note LP from 1965, where the drummer is accompanied by Steve Kuhn on piano, Steve Swallow on bass, and Joe Henderson singing sweetly on tenor sax, which is pretty cool really as it’s not one of the records that the casual jazz fan would immediately associate with Blue Note, but it is one of the favourites here. Wouldn’t it be great if it were a favourite of Scott Walker’s too? It would make sense.
Basra is a brilliant record, one of so many incredible Blue Note LPs from that period. Apart from the lovely lope through ‘Lazy Afternoon’, the consistently excellent set features the Latin flavours of ‘Malaguena’ and the Middle Eastern inspired title track. La Roca had an impressively outward-looking approach, and Ira Gitler in the liner notes refers to the drummer’s study of Indian music, Sanskrit, yoga and James Joyce. A personal favourite, the impressively sinuous and serpentine ‘Candu’ is another obsession here, and rates with the best rhythmic blues dance performances of the time.
Another 1965 recording Pete La Roca played on was Helen Merrill’s The Feeling Is Mutual, the first of her pair of collaborations with the pianist and arranger Dick Katz. These two LPs are mesmerising, and showcase Helen’s artistry perfectly. The first also has sympathetic support from Ron Carter, Jim Hall, and Thad Jones. That trio also appeared on the 1968 follow-up, A Shade of Difference, alongside performances by Gary Bartz, Richard Davis (weeks before he played on Astral Weeks), Elvin Jones and Hubert Laws, which is perfect really. From The Feeling Is Mutual the recording of ‘Deep in a Dream’ is as good as anything ever, Helen singing with just Jim Hall’s guitar accompaniment, and if the song is associated with a wistful Chet then Helen is the one who goes deep, without ever making a great show of it, and she reaches somewhere really deep on this one.
The choice of material on these two LPs, mostly ballads, wonderfully, is resolutely rooted in jazz standards and unearthed lost gems, and there was (presumably consciously) no attempt to tackle contemporary pop material thus helping to make the records timeless. This is pertinent as there was a distant family link between Helen and Laura Nyro, which Michele Kort revealed in her book Soul Picnic, and indeed Laura’s immortal Wedding Bell Blues was reportedly about a doomed romance of (sort of) Aunt Helen’s, one that led to her going into exile, which in turn led to her working with Piero Umiliani on her wonderful Parole e Musica set with the unforgettable recitations of the lyrics in Italian between Helen’s performances.
The loose family links between Helen and Laura are almost casually mentioned in Michele’s excellent book, but it is quite intoxicating when the thought finally sinks in, the idea of that connection and how it prompts questions about whether Laura was influenced by Helen and her resolutely uncompromising approach to her art. The jazz aspect to Laura’s singing and writing is often spoken of, but it is usually in the context of Billie, Miles and Coltrane rather than closer to home, so who knows? Surely Laura was aware of Helen’s work, and vice versa, but critics do not seem to have explored this, or have they?
And then, just as casually, Michele mentions Helen’s son Alan who as a kid was a close friend of Laura growing up in the Bronx in their unorthodox homes. And then that too really registers: it is Alan Merrill as in Arrows, an early childhood love here when the week revolved around the new issue of Look-In and the pop of Chinn & Chapman soundtracked this world. Then, later, learning how the name Arrows came from Peter Meaden, their first manager, who in a recurring pattern lost them to Mickie Most. Then, Arrows pop-up in Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming in the audience for an early Pistols gig at the El Paradise strip club in Soho. And, most recently, Alan’s name crops-up in the credits of the superbly autumnal Light in the Attic compilation, Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969 – 1973, where he plays keyboards on a Gypsy Blood LP in 1972, at a time when his mother was living out there.
Quite probably Alan had something to do with one of the records Helen made in Japan at the start of the 1970s which was a very irregular set of songs from The Beatles’ catalogue, with some unexpected choices and some occasionally experimental arrangements from pianist Masahiko Satoh. And with Helen’s delivery often so confidential, seemingly so close to the listener’s ear, some of the Beatles’ ballads work wonderfully well as secrets imparted, and it is incredible really how songs, like ‘In My Life’, which they wrote as young men take on so many new dimensions when sung reflectively by an older woman. In particular Helen’s version of ‘If I Fell’ is exceptional, a whispered confession, and the way she sings “please” is frightening, while ‘And I Love Him’ is a gorgeous bossa blues.
Masahiko also recorded with Helen around that time as part of the Gary Peacock Trio on a daring LP that closes with a devastating version of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘Until It’s Time For You To Go’, and it is tempting to fantasise about Helen and that line-up making an LP of Laura’s early ballads, soft and slow and sort of stretched out in a cat-like way, in minimal settings. So, for example, on A Shade of Difference, a haunted Helen solemnly sings ‘Lonely Woman’, the Ornette Coleman tune with words by Margo Guryan, and it is easy to imagine her also singing Laura’s ‘Lonely Women’ and its line about how no-one knows the blues like lonely women. And it is fun to play with the notion of Helen singing, say, ‘Billy’s Blues’, ‘Poor Susan’, ‘I Never Meant To Hurt You’, ‘He’s A Runner’, ‘December’s Boudoir’, ‘Woman’s Blues’, ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry’, ‘New York Tendaberry’, ‘Been On A Train’, ‘Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp’, and maybe, yeah, ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’, because isn’t it really a younger relation of ‘Lazy Afternoon’?
In fairness to Michele Kort, when Soul Picnic was first published, or indeed first read, there would have been little sense here of the sustained brilliance of Helen’s singing career, and the discovery of her artistry has been a personal highlight of the past dozen-or-more years. It was once like that with Laura. There seemed relatively little said in the 1980s about her magnificence. Indeed, the first time her name piqued interest here was via a glorious version of ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ by Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon found on a Direction soul compilation, which also featured Cliff Nobles, so there was quite a strong Dexys connection. And then there was ‘Reminisce (Part Two)’ with Kevin talking about ‘Wedding Bell Blues’.
Did her songs get played on the radio back then or were her records generally available? It doesn’t, ahem, ring any bells, but there is a recollection of overhearing The Wolfhounds’ Callahan recommending Laura to Alan McGee one night upstairs at The Black Horse in Camden, and earlier the same night McGee raving about Manicured Noise’s ‘Faith’. Who knows why that should stick in the mind so? Then the first time one of Laura’s records would have been played here was a boot sale find of an old 45 on Verve Folkways of ‘Goodbye Joe’ (which was a lovely fit with Tracey Thorn singing Bid’s song of the same name) backed with ‘Billie’s Blues’, which was spelt that way, yes, making misleading connections to Billie H.
Perhaps partly because of that old salvaged single, Laura’s debut More Than A New Discovery is much loved here and, while it may never have sounded the way Laura imagined it should, Herb Bernstein’s arrangements mostly work so well. And his is a name revered here for that, and for things like what he did with Barbara Banks’ ‘River of Tears’, Lainie Hill’s ‘Time Marches On’, and what he did with Norma Tanega and on ‘If You’re Ready Now’ with Frankie Valli and co. Then appropriately his successor as Laura’s arranger was Charlie Calello, who also had close links to The Four Seasons’ stable, which may be coincidence, but as the great Kate Atkinson wrote: “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen”.
One of the reasons why it can be claimed Laura was a great jazz singer would be the way she could take someone else’s song and get inside it and let it get inside of her and then turn it inside out and present it in a new context. For example, her (“I’m a non-believer but I believe in your”) Smile LP, a favourite here always, opens with a cover of The Moments’ ‘Sexy Mama’, and apart from its brilliance there is the tangential association with memories of 1975 and the All Platinum sound of The Moments with ‘Girls’, ‘Dolly My Love’, and ‘Shame Shame Shame’ by Shirley and Co., The Rimshots, and somehow those youth club disco sounds seem as much an integral part of the Postcard mythology as the Velvets and Byrds.
Then there’s Laura’s spiritual record with Labelle, but also there’s the Christmas Laura singing, well reclaiming really, transforming yes, ‘Up On The Roof’, a song of sanctuary, escape, but also an offer of a clandestine liaison, an invitation, like ‘Lazy Afternoon’, definitely ‘Lazy Afternoon’. And here’s an invitation: play Lucy Reed’s ‘Lazy Afternoon’ straight after listening to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ own performance of his protest ‘Farewell To Stromness’. It works, magically.