Lilac Wine

SSC3020 2003-05-21

Track List

Lilac Wine - 4:51
Wild Is The Wind - 4:23
Pierre - 5:22
Something I Dreamed Last Night - 6:13
Love Me Tender/ How Sweet You Are - 5:30
The Island - 4:57
One More Walk Around The Garden - 4:31
Portrait Of Helen Merrill - 5:33
You - 3:22


George Mraz - double bass, bass
Torrie Zito - arranger, keyboards, piano electric, piano
Jan Dudek - violin
Petr MalĂ­sek - cello, celli
Andrea Bekova - violin
Alan Merrill - vocals, guitar
Helen Merrill - vocals, producer
Lew Soloff - trumpet


The title, "Lilac Wine", provides perhaps the most accurate of metaphors for Helen Merrill's voice. Her singing has a delicious uncertainty, sliding beyond definition. Its pale shades are never insipid; its subtlety and complexity are never forced. It shares the exquisite soft grain of velvet, yet the rough edges of a past scar can be discerned beneath its fabric. Its texture shares nothing of the smoothness of synthetic fibres, just as it has nothing in common with those so-called "cool-jazz" voices that waft un-memorably by and listlessly clog up our sound environment.

Helen Merrill,
formerly Jelena Milcetic, has a full-bodied voice (again like wine) that is crammed with jazz. Even her simplest "la-la-la"s are never meaningless. She has a voice that grazes imperfection and flirts with misfortune; a voice that, for almost half a century, whatever the music and words, has only ever sung one song, with one storyline, albeit with varying intensities and senses of drama: the song of love's changing phases, its instances of happiness that, as is the wont of human love, can never survive in a state of perfect constant bliss.

The wind does indeed blow wild, as the master female portraitist George Cukor showed in his 1957 film, Wild is the Wind; it was Helen who
provided the title-song, composed by her near-compatriot, the Ukrainian-born American, Dimitri Tiomkin. As time has passed by, she has delved deeper into her life and soul and acquired new pigments and brushstrokes to enable her to paint new portraits of herself, each one more precise, each one raising further questions and uncertainty. Her love for France, for example, reciprocated from her first visit, and more particularly with the French language, as demonstrated in previous recordings, attains a new fertile, secret dimension, through the lyrics of the legendary French
songstress, Barbara.

Like every true lady of jazz, she needs no drumbeat: her phrasing is her
percussion and her heart marks her tempo. However, Helen Merrill has long fostered a special empathy with the trumpet: From Jonah Jones (in the Earl Hines Orchestra) when she was still a teenager, to Tom Harrell and Roy Hargrove, via Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, and Thad Jones. And with virtuosos, such as Lew Soloff here, with whom she has worked for a short while, whose playing, as Jean-Pierre Moussaron has so elegantly said, "marries tones that are
iridescent and, by turns, silver-tinted and misty, with a refined diction, making frequent use of understatement, reminiscent of the writing and mood of Francis Scott Fitzgerald's work."

And while Alan Merrill, her son and guitarist, provides her with vocal cues, warmth and gravity, it is one of her most harmonically elegant musicians, a woman marvellously open to creating new sounds, who offers the final portrait of Helen, this time, an orchestral vision, within which we find her phrasing, inflections, and modulated sustained cries that always threaten to crack. It is as though Marian McPartland, her pianist and composer, (who has already accompanied her, with the Harold "Hal" Mooney orchestra, for the album At Midnight) has taken her pen and written everything musically conceivable about Helen. Or almost everything.
Philippe Carles - Jazz Magazine