Reflecting fondly on the making of A Diva’s Tribute to Johnny Mercer, an exquisite homage to one of the most poetic and treasured wordsmiths in music history, Rose Kingsley says that Jim Corwin, Mr. Mercer’s grandson and executor of his estate, brought in to the legendary Studio A at Capitol Records the Oscar the songwriter won (his first) in 1946 for “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” so that “he could be there in spirit.”
With that to spark our musical/historical imagination, let’s take in the beautiful scene of Mercer’s spirit hovering in the room as Bob Corwin, his musical director, pianist and collaborator for almost 20 years, brings a batch of his classic tunes to freshly re-imagined life as thoughtful, heartfelt and often playful and spritely piano-vocal duets with Kingsley, a onetime opera great who has enjoyed a stellar second career as a jazz artist and performer. More than simply one of those proverbial labors of love, the 12-track set is the compelling and infectious culmination of the duo’s beautiful seven-year partnership – a stretch that has included countless live performances of their show “Through the Years with Johnny Mercer” in L.A., NYC and beyond.
Mercer knows the studio well of course. Not only did legends from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat Cole on down record there, but Mercer in 1942 founded Capitol Records along with Buddy DeSylva and Glenn E. Wallichs. Adding comfort to the session of mostly single takes is the fact that besides Jim Corwin, there were other members of Mercer’s family present to witness the lovely, intuitive interplay between Corwin’s colorful arrangements and Kingsley’s often dramatic flair for taking well-known narratives to exciting, otherworldly levels. Many songs in those days came from musicals, but Kingsley’s deep-seated emotional expressions make even songs that weren’t (like the Mercery-Hoagy Carmichael classic “Skylark”) feel like the passionate outpourings of a stage character.
I would hope Mercer’s spirit would agree with me that one of the deepest pleasures of A Diva’s Tribute to Johnny Mercer is Kingsley and Corwin’s choice to create magic as a duet without the typical jazz trio or quartet most Great American Songbook based projects default to. The duo dynamic lends itself to a feeling of pin-drop intimacy and the ability to spontaneously snap into rubato phrases – such as on Corwin’s solo section of “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the snappy percussive twist they bring to the second verse of “That Old Black Magic” – without worrying about an ensemble having to pull such a quick and crafty about face.
The picture-perfect match of Corwin’s blend of subtle elegance and joyful chording and improvisations with Kingsley’s keen storytelling skills is quite enough to ensure we feel like we’re being caressed by a larger band, or even a full orchestra. With his deft hands and her powerful, deeply lived vocals and spot on emotional phrasing leading the journey, the gems roll quickly by – from the jubilantly romantic opener “Too Marvelous for Words” to the elegant, wistful closing number “Dream,” a lesser known tune (also featuring music by Mercer) that Sinatra would often end his shows with.
Along the way, Corwin and Kingsley find dynamic, sometimes unexpected ways to remind us why Mercer remains one of the last century’s most essential lyricists and worked with the greatest composers of the 20th Century – including Henry Mancini (“Charade,” a medley of “Moon River/Days of Wine and Roses”), Harold Arlen (“That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby,” “Blues in the Night”), Richard Whiting (“Too Marvelous For Words”), Victor Schertzinger (“I Remember You”) and David Raksin (“Laura”).
There are highlights aplenty in these renderings where each new listen allows for inspiring new insights – but a few of the moments worth special mention are Kingsley’s quick switch to the original French (along with a brief tempo change) as she battles the sorrow of “Autumn Leaves” and their six minute, mood swinging version of “One For My Baby” which allows us to feel rivers of sorrow even Sinatra never swam through.
Back to Mercer’s spirit, as he ponders the joys and sorrows, the whimsy and the woes – and especially the mournful beauty Corwin and Kingsley bring to his all-time favorite of his “babies,” “Days of Wine and Roses” – he might be thinking to himself “Encore!” Here’s hoping they mine his catalog further and project “That Old Black Magic” into the future.
Listen to A Diva’s Tribute to Johnny Mercer here: https://open.spotify.com/album/1gmPVwdGdXcoGXMQZVzEZZ