Tout Doucement

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Why do we remember Blossom Dearie? A supper-club singer and pianist, a pure product of the 1950s with a Village haircut, an average piano style and a voice reminiscent of of a brassy Fred Astaire’s, she demonstrated over the years an unshakable commitment to lightweight material and the French language.

Just one Blossom Dearie song, or even two, fails to convince. Why did her name end up famous when so many of her colleagues in the Paris or New York clubs receded into obscurity?

She may have shared Mel Tormé and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s affinity and enthusiasm for bad material, but surely their superior technical skill and A-list friends (Judy Garland, Sinatra) elevate them far beyond the supper clubs?

Why have we forgotten Ruth Price and Lucy Reed, but remember Blossom? And what makes her 1956 Verve debut, Blossom Dearie, so great?

Her voice, first of all. It holds an innocence that makes her reading of the smirking, spunky lines of ”Everything I’ve Got” even punchier, and a guileless enthusiasm that somehow redeems songs like ”Comment Allez-Vous,” one of the three French songs on the record (”It Might As Well Be Spring” is sung in an American-accented French which belies her fluency).

Is it great jazz? Maybe not. Blossom’s Wikipedia page tells us that she often recorded in the bebop idiom, a laughable claim. Despite being married to Belgian tenorman/flautist Bobby Jaspar, an original improviser styled after Coltrane, until his early death in 1963, her own playing is decidedly background music, though it has its moments (the instrumental ”More Than You Know” is supremely tasteful).

Her singing, too, occupies a no-man’s-land of style. Its amateurish beauty could be likened to Chet Baker’s, but Baker’s readings were – for all their beauty – flat and dead; bandmates have described him as an idiot savant, not absorbing a single lyric beyond its note on the page. The only voice I’ve heard that comes close is Fred Astaire’s; not Astaire at his peak, but Astaire in 1952 with Ellis, Brown, Oscar Peterson and Alvin Stoller. His voice is thinly confident, nearing the realm of singers but always remaining conversational. Dearie is stronger here, but that conversational quality exists, as does the charm. She even sings an Astaire flagship tune, ”I Won’t Dance.”

The standout track, for me, is ”Thou Swell.” It shows Dearie’s voice at its best; threatening to slide off-key but never quite taking the plunge, devoid of vibrato, girlish but wise. Its casualness is not studied, and its amateurishness only enhances its beauty; like Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Blossom’s voice was something true to life, and that made it all the more unreachable. The arrangement is perfect, well executed but with rounded edges.

Blossom Dearie is, at heart, dinner music without dinner, background music with the foreground removed. Its continental aspirations, silly songs, and lightfooted approach may seem a bit dated now, but the voice that sing it all has aged gracefully; supper-club music it maybe be, but I’ve never wished I had the supper-club between me and that music. It’s a testament to that something, whatever it is, that makes us remember Blossom Dearie.

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