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The Life of a Jazz Singer

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In a review on this website of a previous Anita O'Day album, I said that "the more I hear Anita O'Day, the higher she rises in my notional league table of great female jazz singers". This double DVD set fortifies that belief.

The first of the two DVDs is a documentary made just before Anita died in 2006. It makes an excellent introduction to the singer's life and work. The DVD title - "The Life of a Jazz Singer" - is appropriate, because Anita O'Day was a genuine jazz singer. Interviewed on the DVD, Leonard Feather says that the essential qualities of a jazz vocalists are the timbre or tone quality of the voice, phrasing, selecting amazing musicians as accompanists, and the choice of material. He might also have added "singing in tune" and delivering the lyrics clearly and with feeling. While Anita's intonation strayed occasionally, she let you hear the words perfectly and always sang with feeling. Above all, she was a really daring improviser. Trumpeter Denny Roche said "She was a musician who used her voice as an instrument".

The DVD includes extensive interviews with O'Day talking about her upbringing and career, illustrated by film footage. The latter includes Anita singing with the Gene Krupa Orchestra, where she made her name in duets with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. In those days, it was unusual to see a black man and a white woman entertaining together - perhaps Krupa had learnt from Benny Goodman that there should be no colour bar in music. There is also film of her singing with Stan Kenton's band - her next important job.

Anita left Kenton to strike out on her own with a small group - a wise decision, as a big band hindered her need to improvise, whereas a small group allowed her to take risks and do the unexpected. A botched tonsillectomy had removed her uvula and left her with an inability to sing very long notes or use much vibrato, but she took advantage of this by multiplying the number of short notes she sang. Yet she could also interpret a ballad with sensitivity.

These qualities are evident in the second DVD, which is a collection of her live performances. The quality of the (mostly) black-and-white film is often poor, starting with dimly-lit footage of Anita singing Boogie Blues at a 1963 Tokyo concert with a big band. Then we jump back in time to her classic versions of Thanks for the Boogie Ride and Let Me Off Uptown with the Krupa band, and a strange song called Tabby the Cat with Stan Kenton.

The contrast between these tracks and the following Body and Soul underlines the value of Anita switching to a small group. Filmed at Art Ford's Jazz Party and accompanied simply by a quartet, Anita takes huge liberties with the song, although the group finds it hard to keep up with her twists and turns. The sound quality as well as the film quality is rather poor here.

The DVD continues to shift around in time: moving back to the 1963 Tokyo concert for Let's Fall in Love, which is followed by a performance of the same song at Art Ford's Jazz Party - taken at a faster tempo but again with fuzzy sound. The highspot of the DVD is O'Day's classic rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where her performance was as memorable as her striking outfit. Anita was not well-pleased when Norman Granz told her she would be appearing at Newport at 4.50 on a Sunday afternoon, but her performance was a triumph. This film clip is in clear, glorious colour. Sadly, the DVD omits her Newport performance of Tea for Two but it includes a version of the song from a 1963 concert in London.

Travellin' Light displays Anita's way with a slow song, while her scatting in Four Brothers with the Billy May Orchestra is a wonder to see and hear. This DVD also contains interviews with O'Day which were abbreviated for the documentary: talking about the songs she recorded and the people she knew. Anita is candid about her difficult life, and particularly her long years of heroin addiction, which she was lured into by drummer and friend John Poole (himself an addict) and which she finally overcame through a painful "cold turkey" process. Even recounting such harsh experiences, Anita's humour shines through, justifying pianist Billy Taylor's opinion: "She was fun".

This is a "must-have" set for anyone who cares about fine jazz singing. The only drawbacks are that, however good it is, one may not want to watch the documentary very often, and the second DVD is marred by some poor-quality film footage. But the set is accompanied by a 32-page booklet crammed with photos and assessments of the singer, including the first chapter of Anita's autobiography, High Times, Hard Times.

Tony Augarde

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