Anita O’Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart, originally released in 1960 and reissued on CD with beautiful repackaging, marked O’Day’s second record with arranger Billy May (their first encounter was a year prior for an album of Cole Porter tunes). From a fan’s standpoint, the album is peculiar because the hard-driving O’Day tackles atypically milky material, (O’Day is oft quoted as not being a ballad singer, having performed frequently in a throaty bop-oriented manner in her youth). Never flinching however, she rises to the challenge and May provides the perfect amount of accompaniment to create a magnificent body of recordings.
The album opens with a bustling reading of “Johnny One Note” that finds both O’Day and the listener in familiar waters. O’Day, who got her professional start as a singer for Gene Krupa’s big band, takes expert command as she dances lithely over the blaring horns and pumping reeds. Followed by the mid-tempo “Little Girl Blue,” the album quickly shifts gears and reveals a robust character. Over a supple backing of strings and brushed drums, O’Day sings with tenderness, her phrasing drifting off at key moments and bending notes with the grace of Billie Holiday. The slower selections are refreshing to hear as a contrast to her well-known up-tempo songs, but perhaps more because they provide the listener an opportunity to fully appreciate O’Day’s extraordinary abilities. On the ballad “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, she works with the strings as she builds and practically gushes at the song’s peaks, yet turns around on a dime to a near whisper. During the sparse opening to “Lover”, her words can be heard with breath-taking detail as she wanders up and down each lyric. In each case, O’Day is in synchronicity with the backing band, demonstrating a mastery of group performance as she both directs and responds to the music.
O’Day draws the most out of these compositions, applying her trademark charisma, sass, and humor to the material’s Sirkian melodrama. On “To Keep My Love Alive”, O’Day details with delicious charm the premature (and completely coincidental, of course) passing of her numerous husbands; such is her cool confidence that when she sings “I mixed one drink / He’s in memoriam,” she giggles ever so slightly. O’Day’s well-documented years of hard-living also adds poignancy to Hart’s lyrics, such as on “Bewitched” when she follows the line, “I’m vexed again / Perplexed again / Now I’m oversexed again”, with convincing and subtle doses of frustration, confusion, desire, and resign. At the time of these recordings, O’Day had already performed extensively with both large and small groups, and had experienced peaks and valleys in her career, the effect of which no doubt fuels her mature approach.
Capturing the overflowing energy of O’Day in studio has proven a difficult task (her rip-roaring live rendition of “Tea for Two” in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day remains one of her most powerful documents), which perhaps explains the peculiar lack of popularity surrounding her albums. In this sense, Swing Rodgers and Hart carries the same problem. O’Day cuts loose during her solo on “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and, as mentioned above, she demonstrates her considerable technique throughout, but there is not a tremendous amount of energy apparent on the whole.
That said, Swing Rodgers and Hart is another welcome addition to the recent reissues of O’Day’s Verve catalogue. Her recordings for the label are some of the most memorable of her career, but until recently much of her work has only been available on vinyl and/or difficult to locate on CD. Although bonus tracks would have been appreciated for what is a rather short album by CD standards, (full lengths that clocks in under a half hour are usually reserved for punk bands), the high quality digital transfer makes the price of admission worthwhile. Rounded out by the elegant Verve standard of packaging and design, in addition to liner notes that feature amusing observations from a recent interview with Anita, Swing Rodgers and Hart is a terrific document of one of the premier song interpreters.