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Listening Post: Sublime, previously unheard jazz singing from Jeri Southern from 1956; Bach’s French Suites.

Jazz

Jeri Southern, “Blue Note, Chicago, March 1956” (Uptown).

It’s a sizable irony that in her prime, Jeri Southern was almost completely forgotten and rather quickly at that. There were so many unquestioned empresses in the world of jazz song back then – the whole sorority of singers for whom only a first name sufficed: Billie, Ella, Carmen, Sarah. Jeri Southern, at the time, seemed like little more than one of the lesser derivatives of Peggy Lee and Anita O’Day. One got around to her AFTER one had already heard June Christy and Chris Connor. In the 21st century, though, female jazz singers are virtually the commercial spine of jazz as a recorded enterprise. We can hear Jeri Southern, then, in this never-before-released record of performances in Chicago, how utterly extraordinary she could be at her most intimate. On this trio gig from 1956 (the year America first completely swooned for Elvis), she accompanied herself daringly on piano with a bassist and a drummer. And then, shortly before the record’s close, she does a stunning a capella version of “Scarlet Ribbons” that silences the house and can be heard now as one of the great jazz performances of her time. She’s unexpectedly marvelous all the way through this record but on that one track you can’t help wondering “where did THAT come from?” This is a woman in total command of her art. The fact that what she does borders ever-so-slightly on cabaret performing is, in her case, all to the good. She is both a first-rate performer and hypnotizing to boot. In his notes, Kirk Silsbee tells a story about Southern doing a promotional interview with an obnoxious, fast-talking New York deejay, excusing herself to go to the ladie’s room and walking out of the radio studio never to be seen or heard from again. She just didn’t like show business we’re told. She left it for good in 1962 and died 30 years later. Listen to this record to hear what an incredible loss that was.

4 stars (out of four)

– (Jeff Simon)

Classical

J.S. Bach, “The French Suites BWV-812-817” (Harmonia Mundi, two discs).

The always-winning harpsichordist Richard Egarr has a persuasive theory about why Bach’s “French Suites” have been relatively unloved both on record and in live performance compared to so much other Bach keyboard music. For one thing, he points out, there’s nothing really French about them. “The six ‘French’ are no more French than the so-called ‘English’ suites or the six Partitas that form Clavierbung I for that matter.” Their miniature and intimate nature leads Egarr to the conclusion that they were “ the products of Papa Bach’s educational life with his various family members. As a set they lack the structure and ‘planning’ that went into creating the ‘English’ shites and particularly the extraordinary blueprint of the Partitas.” The music survives as copies by Anna Magadalena Bach, “various sons and students....The familiar and gentle nature of so much of the music contained in the set would make a perfectly inspiring present for his nearnest and dearest.” Egarr plays them that way. To him they are Bach’s “Family Suites.” They’re offered with “greatest admiration for Bach’s inimitable genius.” When you understand Egarr’s notion of these suites as the epitome of family pedagogy for the deity among Western composers, you don’t much miss that sonic expressivity that can often be found in the work of pianists when they play this music. The harpsichord, then, would be their authentic voice. Of that, Garr is nothing if not convincing, as great as so many piano versions are (Glenn Gould’s for instance.)

3 1/2 stars (out of four)

– (Jeff Simon)