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Reviewers: Don Mather, Tony Augarde, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby



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LENA HORNE

The Best of

EMI 0946 3 97388 2 3

 

 

 


CD1

1. On A Wonderful Day Like Today
2. I Wanna Be Around
3. Feelin' Good
4. Willow Weep For Me
5. The Girl from Ipanema
6. Softly As I Leave You
7. And I Love Him
8. Hello, Young Lovers
9. Singin' In The Rain
10. Somewhere
11. Wives And Lovers
12. It Had Better Be Tonight
13. Moon River
14. A Fine Romance
15. I Love Paris
16. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World
17. I Got A Worried Man
18. Wonder What I'm Gonna Do
19. Love Bug
20. What The World Needs Now Is Love
21. Unchained Melody
CD2

1. Prelude To A Kiss
2. Day Follows Day
3. Old Friend
4. You're The One
5. I’ll Always Leave The Door A Little Open
6. I've Got To Have You
7. Come Runnin'
8. Do Nothin' 'til You Hear From Me
9. I've Got The World On A String
10. We'll Be Together Again
11. The Lady is a Tramp
12. Some Of My Best Friends Are The Blues
13. As Long As I Live
14. Autumn In New York
15. A Sleepin' Bee
16. How Long Has This Been Going On?
17. Maybe
18. Something To Live For
19. Stormy Weather
 

When people compile their lists of the great jazz singers, they inevitably include such names as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, but they may well omit Lena Horne. She is not included in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and several other jazz reference books. Yet she sang with the bands of Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet; recorded with Teddy Wilson and Artie Shaw; and her repertoire included songs by such jazzmen as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Perhaps she was regarded as a cabaret performer rather than a jazz vocalist, since she gave many of her most memorable performances in night clubs (as well as in films). Indeed, one of her most popular songs – New Fangled Tango (sadly not included in this collection) - was recorded in cabaret.

There is good evidence here that she was a jazz singer – not the greatest but certainly not negligible. This generous mid-priced double CD is subtitled "The United Artists and Blue Note recordings". The recordings on the first CD date from 1962 to 1966, and those on the second CD from the 1990s. The opening On a Wonderful Day Like Today is a big production number, with accompaniment from a large, loud orchestra, and it exemplifies the cabaret side of Lena. But the next song, I Wanna Be Around, has a subtler backing. She still sounds rather like an American Shirley Bassey – selling a song with dramatic conviction – but the comparison shows up the vital difference between the two singers. Bassey seldom diverges from the planned arrangement but Lena Horne can and does improvise, as you can hear in the third track, Feelin’ Good, where her phrasing is free and jazzy.

Subsequent tracks reinforce Lena’s jazz credentials. Her intonation is good, her vibrato is wide but expressive and well controlled, and she takes liberties with songs which make them sound fresh. A Fine Romance is a good example: a joyous performance even though it is marred by too abrupt an edit right at the close. The busy backings sometimes threaten to overwhelm Lena and I wish there were more recordings with small jazz groups here, as they would have allowed Lena to spread her wings more freely.

The second CD marks a significant change from the confident vocalist of the first disc. Now well beyond pensionable age, Lena sounds rather frail and her voice is a more fragile instrument. Yet she could still negotiate the difficult intervals in Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss. The jazz element is strengthened by Toots Thielemans on wistful harmonica (although personnel details are not supplied on the inner sleeve). The first six tracks on this disc are from the 1994 album We’ll Be Together Again, including a duet with Johnny Mathis on Day Follows Day and some more apposite contributions from Toots Thielemans.

Tracks 8 to 11 on the second CD come from the 1995 album Live at the Supper Club, with a hyper-enthusiastic audience spurring Lena on. The Lady is a Tramp is a show-stopper even though Lena mangles the words. And I’ve Got the World on a String is moving despite the fragility of the voice: Lena improvises daringly. Tracks 12 to 16 are from the Being Myself album and benefit from the accompaniments by a small group of excellent jazz musicians, giving Lena that freedom to stretch freely in a way that she should have done more often. And the compilation ends with Stormy Weather, a late version of the song she sang so memorably in the 1943 film of the same name.

Lena Horne is apparently still with us. She reached her 90th birthday on 30 June, although she is understandably no longer performing. But she has left us with a fine legacy of material on disc and film which confirms her fame as a most elegant performer – and an extremely talented singer.


Tony Augarde



 



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