Carmen McRae - At Ratso's: Volumes 1 & 2 
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Dan MacIntosh   
Wednesday, 01 May 2002

Hitchcock Media
Performance: 7
Sound: 7
released: 2002

Carmen McRae was not a particularly distinctive artist, nor was she one of our best-loved jazz singers, but she was always consistently good, and these two live CDs capture her at her best.

Recorded at a club in Chicago, “At Ratso’s” reveals McRae’s eclectic song selection abilities, which have always been an interpreter’s best friend. Volume 1 opens with the one-two punch of a James Taylor work first, followed by a Stevie Wonder song, which – back in 1974 when these two dates were recorded – would have amounted to two adventurous choices.

In fact, McRae had her ear specifically tuned to the goings on in pop radio at that time, as “For Once In My Life” and “All By Myself” are also given jazz treatments here. Her take on Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” is especially effective, since she wisely removed some of the originator’s unnecessary excess drama, and changed it into a much quieter meditation on loneliness. Another pop-associated tune, “Just A Little Lovin’,” neatly melds sunshine pop with jazz for a memorably melodic delight in McRae’s hands.

But it’s standards, such as the ones that pre-date the modern rock era, which have always been the bread and butter for jazz vocalists, and McRae certainly did not abandon such selections on these dates. Volume 1 includes an extended (12:49) Duke Ellington medley, and she also swings through “Them There Eyes” and settles into “My Old Flame.” Then there are what can best be described as wild cards, such as the pseudo-country leanings of “Ballad Of Thelonius Monk,” which is a song about as unpredictable as that musician was.

McRae would have never been able to stretch out into so many different musical directions -- as she’s allowed to do here -- without an elastic group of musicians, such as her trio. Ed Bennett is solid on bass, as is Joey Baron at the drums, and Marshall Otwell’s piano work also shines, especially during his colorful solos on “Them There Eyes.”

When you consider that co-producer Jim Brown was an admitted novice -- who was otherwise fixing sound systems when he lucked into tracking these live dates – the sound here is quite good. Except for a few occasions when the piano slightly overpowers McRae’s voice, the balance is mostly good. And of course, capturing the spontaneity of a performance should always be goal number one when recording a live show -- these two discs do just that.

Whereas some artists view live shows as a chore, Carmen McRae thrived on interaction with her audience. Her in-between asides with this crowed reveal just how much everyone in the room was on the same wavelength. Such emotional frequency is something no recording studio will ever capture.

“At Ratso’s” doesn’t show us anything we didn’t already know about Carmen McRae, but if you’re one who is already on McRae’s joyfully loose wavelength, these albums will give you the best possible way to experience this singer -- live and in her element.

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