Carmen McRae's nightclub gigs often climaxed with a magical moment in which she sent her back-up band off-stage and sat down to accompany herself at the piano.
There was something exquisite that happened when McRae, who died Thursday at the age of 72, accompanied herself, a creative clarity that perfectly illuminated her enormous strengths as a musical storyteller. If, of the three jazz singers most prominent since World War II, Sarah Vaughan had the most sumptuous voice, and Ella Fitzgerald the most rhythmically engaged sense of time, McRae was surely the best at marrying the imagery of words and music within a jazz context.
Starting late--she did not make a recording under her own name until she was 32 (in 1954)--McRae quickly established herself as a singer who could legitimately claim comparison with Vaughan and Fitzgerald. In the same year, Down Beat magazine named her "best new female singer."
She went on to record a superb series of sessions for Decca in the '50s (some of which have been reissued on GRP), and continued to refine her style for the next three decades, unfazed by the changing currents of the popular music scene. In 1988, she created a remarkable collection of Thelonious Monk readings ("Carmen Sings Monk," RCA Novus), and in 1990 a highly personal tribute to Vaughan ("Sarah--Dedicated to You," RCA Novus).
McRae clearly was comfortable in a wide array of settings, from lush orchestral backings to pure jazz rhythm sections. Like Vaughan, she was fully capable of altering melody lines, and, like Fitzgerald, she could scat sing with the soaring skill of an instrumentalist. But her greatest strength was that she never did so at the cost of the total song or the sacrifice of the underlying story.
McRae's voice thickened a bit in recent years, but the lucidity of her interpretations never wavered. She was one of the finest artists in jazz history's small ensemble of world-class singers.