Written by Grant Jackson from National Public Radio
This week’s Piano Jazz is a rebroadcast of a show that first aired in 1985, presented as a tribute to Blossom Dearie, who died in 2009 at age 82.
The aptly named singer and pianist Blossom Dearie had a unique, childlike voice that, along with truly swinging piano work, could deliver scathing wit wrapped in a sweet package.
A consummate performer, Dearie eschewed jazz improvisation. And while her harmonies were inspired by Frank Sinatra, her pixie-like voice was counterbalanced by the muscular rhythms she pounded out in the manner of Count Basie and Oscar Peterson.
Dearie avoided working in cabarets and nightclubs for much of her career; her delicate voice was no match for the smoky atmosphere of such venues. However, she was a fixture at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, where she performed regularly starting in 1983.
Dearie opened this session of Piano Jazz with a tune written specifically for her by Johnny Mercer: “My New Celebrity Is You.” In her nudge-and-wink vocal performance, she drops names from Modigliani and Montovani to Dean Martin and Mia Farrow. Dearie invites host Marian McPartland to play along; afterwards, McPartland remarks, “That was kind of a shame that I played on that at all — the thing is so perfect without me pussyfooting along.” To which the ever-charming Dearie replies, “I thought it was very tasty what you played.”
Dearie continues with another Johnny Mercer tune featuring her own melody, “I’m Shadowing You.” In this tune, Dearie has a different take on celebrity, in the role of a sweet stalker: “There’ll be no escape / I’m getting out a tape and video, too.” Her delicate vocal on this cleverly written Mercer tune is swinging, refreshing and hip.
McPartland gets together with Dearie for an easy, gentle duet on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and later they pick things up just a bit on the Rodgers and Hart tune “Everything I’ve Got Is Yours.” Dearie confesses to not being much of an improviser, but McPartland says, “You did too improvise. I caught you at it.”
The session wraps up with another duet featuring Dearie’s unmistakable voice, Frank Loesser‘s “If I Were a Bell.” McPartland has said that Dearie “made every song a musical gem,” and listening to her sing this well-known number, it’s easy to see why.