CARMEN MCRAE has been busy tipping her hat of late -- first to Thelonious Monk and now to Sarah Vaughan.
A loving tribute, "Carmen Sings Monk" is nevertheless a slightly flawed one. McRae does a marvelous job of negotiating Thelonious Monk's angular melodies, each refitted with lyrics by either Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, Mike Ferro, Sally Swisher or Bernie Hanighen, and in some cases you could scarcely hope to improve upon the lyrics.
Indeed, familiar as it is, Hanighen's moody " 'Round Midnight," is still hard to beat, as is Swisher's poetic consolation, "Dear Ruby," better known to Monk fans as "Ruby, My Dear." (The music publishers, it seems, insisted on new titles once the words were added). Hendricks contributes the dispassionate kiss-off "It's Over Now," (based on Monk's "Well You Needn't") along with the moving confessional ballad "How I Wish" ("Ask Me Now"). Unfortunately, Swisher's "Get It Straight" ("Straight, No Chaser"), Lincoln's "Monkery's the Blues" ("Blue Monk") and other lyrics aren't in the same league.
All 15 performances (including two live concert tracks), however, benefit not only from McRae's obvious affinity for Monk's music but also from a first-rate ensemble that alternately features tenor and soprano saxman Clifford Jordan and the late tenor saxophonist (and Monk sideman) Charlie Rouse.
"Sarah -- Dedicated to You," on the other hand, is both more consistent and conventional -- one great singer saluting another. On it, McRae covers several songs associated with Vaughan, and though you may already have had your fill of some of the choices -- "Send in the Clowns" or "Misty," for instance -- her interpretations are so thoughtful that they rank as one-of-a-kind.
Of the standards, McRae's version of "Tenderly" stands out the most, a deliciously dreamy reverie, and capping this relaxed, intimate and occasionally swinging session are a couple of touching and personalized homages to Sassy. The often exquisite arrangements, by the way, are the work of pianist Shirley Horn, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams.