It was the summer of 1962 when Nana Mouskouri first journeyed from her home in Greece to the United States. She had been beckoned by a young Quincy Jones, just barely thirty years old and making history as the first black executive at an American music publisher (as an artistic director at Mercury Records).
Mouskouri, then 25, was strikingly young herself. She had already been a celebrity across the Continent for six years, after making her debut on Radio Athens. Trained in both the piano and voice, she had been educated in anticipation of a career in classical music. But between her youth and womanhood, sometime during a stint at an Athens conservatory, she heard jazz for the first time and the classical world’s loss was now the pop world’s gain.
For her debut record in America the decision was made to record an album of American standards. Jones encouraged Mouskouri to relax for three weeks after reaching New York, to walk Manhattan and absorb the city’s culture and atmosphere. Jones was encouraging her to soak up the American experience, to better understand the country whose musical heritage she planned to explore in the coming recordings.
The results of that experiment were only partially successful, as this album plainly attests. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these recordings in any way, shape, or form, but Nana Mouskouri could at no point be mistaken for an American. Her voice, her presence, is never less than distinctly exotic. Her accent is subdued but never diminished, her pronunciations clipped and precise, if occasionally peculiar.
But that is essentially immaterial. The American songbook has rarely had as deft an interpreter as Ms. Mouskouri.
The recordings themselves have dated remarkably well. The album unfolds in crystalline precision, but there’s nothing harsh or antiseptic about the sound. The sessions are steeped in the kind of warm, enveloping analog particular to recordings of this era, the last decade before advances in studio recording technology made sound recording as much a science as an art.
It’s an art, at least, that Quincy Jones mastered from an early age. Although the liner notes of the collection play up Jones’ involvement, Jones himself knew best to stay unobtrusive when dealing with a voice of Mouskouri’s caliber. The fine instrumentation never once threatens to overpower or upstage the singer. As is common for recordings of this era, Jones recorded Mouskouri’s vocals with a slight echo, in order to soften any harsh edges associated with recording powerful voices. The result is no less distinctive, but almost impossibly soft and supple.
Nana Mouskouri never overplays an emotion. There are no histrionics, no unnecessary vibrato or harshly trilled vocal contortions. She’s got a powerful voice, but she knows enough to underplay her strengths. There’s more than mere technique at work here. She has the bewitching ability to sell the most delicate whispers with the same gusto as the mightiest sustained climaxes.
She’s never better than on a classic such as Harry Noble’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”, which requires an intimacy and a sensuality that many singers would be tempted to overpower. Mouskouri wisely chooses restraint over technique, lingering in the lower registers of her alto for the duration of the song, only venturing up the register twice. She’s a good enough singer to know when not to sing, which is something that no amount of schooling could teach today’s class of singing demimonde.
Of course, there is a place for restraint, and then there’s “What Now, My Love”. If there was any doubt that she lacked the power of her convictions, she effortlessly lays them to waste in the space of these two-and-a-half minutes. It’s effortless virtuosity and it’s astonishing.
But that could describe the whole album quite succinctly. It’s hard to pick a favorite from such an embarrassment of riches, but the album-closing one-two punch of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Till There Was You” stands out. If there are two hoarier examples of 20th century American songcraft, I don’t know ‘em. But Mouskouri makes the songs her own, somehow managing to wipe away every bad memory you have of Time/Life TV commercials and overwrought high-school musical theater. Again, both of these tracks are merely perfect, with Mouskouri’s voice providing a languid beacon through the hazy fog of forty years passed. You can’t really overstate how much pleasure there is in hearing her sing.
There are three bonus tracks at the end of the disc, which present a jauntier and more contemporary jazz sound than the restrained orchestration that dominates the majority of the session. I can see why they were left off the album, if only because they stand at something of an obtuse angle to the overriding mood.
This is just a fantastic album, and I say that without any qualification. Nana Mouskouri was and remains an international treasure, and this album is a vital reminder of just what a good singer can accomplish in the hands of a sympathetic producer.
// Notes from the Road
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