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The memorable voice of an almost-forgotten Jeri Southern

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, we can hear 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 ladies 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)

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