All that the great jazz singer, Helen Merrill, needed to do was open her mouth once and she was a star.
This recently re-released rare Italian recording is nothing short of sublime: a noir-ish jazz singer combined with Piero Umiliani, an arranger and composer of Italian exploitation and spaghetti western film scores.
This is the most haunting recording I’ve heard in ages. Every other track is musically backed spoken word in Italian leading into alluring American standards sung by Merrill. The spoken word from Fernando Caiati is as dark as the cinema of the time, his baritone voice sternly voicing Italian phrases. It’s Humphrey Bogart Sexy. Then Lauren Bacall enters the room and your heart skips a beat.
“Perché Non Fai Di Tutto,” which I suppose is the Italian translation for “Why Don’t You Do Right” begins with an eerie saxophone from Gino Marinacci backing a Caiati minute of spoken word leading directly into Merrill’s steaming version of the standard. After this version of this song, you’ll want to lavishly shower Merrill with the money she demands throughout the song.
The album opens with “Notte e Giorne,” Caiati cooing, purring “Notte Giorne, Giorne, Notte, Gionrne Notte, Notte, Notte, Giorne…” Snap. Snap. Snap, enters Bacall, I mean Helen Merrill. She sensually purrs Night and Day, this time in English, backed by a cool, Italian band, with Umiliani on piano. With a bluesy Kenny Burrell-inspired guitar riff from Enzo Grillini.
“Aprile a Parigi” begins again with the earnest purr of Caiti backed this time by Grillini’s guitar and heading into an eerie music box, which is Umiliani on the celesta, which is basically a large wooden music box, piano-like instrument. The effect creates a lullaby effect, where of course, you’re basically sung to sleep from the confident, yet earthy maternal coo of Merrill.
David Lynch wishes he could have created this.
Helen Merrill, “Parole e Musica,” RCA Italiana, Re-released 2014 (original release 1960)