If Billie Holiday had never existed,” the late jazz vocalist Carmen McRae once said of her mentor, “I probably wouldn’t have either.” Luckily they both did, and on New Year’s Eve 1983—in what is regarded as McRae’s last great live performance—she paid fitting tribute to her longtime friend at New York City’s Blue Note nightclub. More than a decade later, this concert album vividly re-creates parts of that memorable evening. The result: a lush, smoky and intimate homage that not only honors Holiday but also proves a worthy memorial for McRae herself, who died at age 74 last November of complications following a stroke.
The diva is at her mature best here, her big contralto both brassy and subtle on such Holiday classics as “God Bless the Child,” “Them There Eyes” and “Good Morning Heartache.” A classically trained pianist, McRae accompanies herself on the compelling solo “I’m Pulling Through.” Happily this disc is only the first installment of a planned two-volume set. The second album, culled from the same celebrated Blue Note concert, will be released next fall. (RCA/Novus)