These are my original English language liner notes that have been translated into Japanese for the new SSJ Records release "Afterthoughts," by singer-pianist Audrey Morris.
Jazz lore abounds with strictly-jazz pianists who added singing to their bag of tricks at the behest of overeager club owners and band managers. Most famously leaping to mind are Nat King Cole and Jeri Southern. Add to that list also, singer-pianist Audrey Morris. It was 1947, she was right out of high school and touring as (strictly) a pianist with all-girl band, the Chordettes (not the vocal group). Six months into her tenure, the band's arranger Gene Gifford insisted that Morris sing his chart of Peggy Lee's “What More Can a Woman Do?” “I don't sing,” Morris insisted. “You do now,” he said. And she's been singing ever since.
“I was pretty terrible,” she recalled to reported journalist Justin Hayford in 2002. How good or bad she actually was that night in Watertown, New York is now lost within the dim recesses of time. But there's no question that by the time she made her disc debut in 1955 on “X” Records she had little to be embarrassed about in the singing department. Nor in her piano playing as well. For no less than the great Oscar Peterson wrote the following note to her in 2004:
“I learned a lot. . .about approaching ballad playing and trying to interpret the meaning of its lyrics through the piano and my group. You may not know it, but you have been held in great esteem by the various members of the jazz world that have appeared with you in the London House [in Chicago] , including yours truly. All I can say is, Chicago be proud, for Audrey is in the house.”
The musician went on record several other times with similar praise of Morris, as have many other musicians and jazz journalists, with more than a few of them describing her along the lines of a Chicago living jazz legend. It should be noted that the deeply modest singer-pianist will alert you to incidents of such praise only with great reluctance.
Born on that city's south side, Morris began piano lessons at age nine. After finishing grade school, she commenced music studies at the city's American Conservatory of Music. But the Morrises didn't have much money, and by the time she was fifteen her formal studies came to an end. Not long after that, we pick up her story on the road with the seven-piece aforementioned Chordettes. Followed a year later by her return to Chicago and a strong two decades of work in nearly every one of that city's (also) legendary night spots, the Sherman House, the London House, and Mister Kelly's. . .just for starters. But during that time, she made only one more foray, after her '55 debut, into the recording studio, in the summer of 1956, and her memorable meet-up with Marty Paich and the Hollywood String Quartet for her The Voice of Audrey Morris on Bethlehem. This having taken place four month's before Frank Sinatra's match-up with the Quartet on his benchmark Close to You album.
And then. . .it was radio silence for the next thirty years (paralleled by the rise of rock and roll) until Morris decided to take matters into her own hands and record her music herself. The first product of her undertaking, for her Fancy Faire label, is this one, Afterthoughts, recorded as an LP in 1984 and featuring herself on piano and her (late) husband of three decades, sax man Stu Genovese
I asked how she'd arrived at this decision to record herself.
“It really wasn't a decision. A friend ran a recording studio and offered me the time for free after hours. There had been a few songs that friends had wanted me to record and so I went into the studio and did them. And that was that. But then when I played them for. . ..” At this point Morris' overwhelming modesty kicks in again. “I hope this doesn't sound self-serving, but I played the four-track CD for Oscar [Peterson] and he insisted, 'Get back in there!' Meaning the recording studio. And that was the beginning of Afterthoughts. It was subsequently played of radio stations around here [Chicago]. And it did okay.”
Afterthoughts mostly features Bruce Robbins on piano (except on five CD bonus tracks). As for why a first-rank player should chose another pianist to back her on vocals, Morris explains:
“I'm afraid,” she tell me somewhat abruptly.
“Of everything,” she says. “Including accompanying myself on piano. “
Hard to believe.
While a few of the songs on this release are inarguable chapters of the Great American Songbook such as “I'm a Dreamer Aren't We All,” “These Foolish Things,” and “A Ghost of a Chance” and a few others are arguably standards such as Arthur Hamilton's “Rain Sometimes,” and “You Are for Loving,” the bulk of the repertoire might be unfamiliar to many listeners. I asked Morris if she could recall how such offbeat items as “Mira,” “His Own Little Island” and several others came her way.
“'Mira” I picked picked up from the stage version of Lili, 'But I Loved You' I got from a recording by Jack Jones, who recorded it before Frank Sinatra did. But most of my knowledge of songs comes from [noted Chicago personality] Studs Terkel's radio program, The Wax Museum, where he played all kinds of interesting recordings. A beautiful show. A beautiful man. That's where I first heard 'His Own Little Island'” (The program debuted on Chicago radio in 1944 and ran for many years.)
Afterthoughts has since been followed by three other self-produced projects concluding with 1999's Round About. All four are each so masterful that they go a ways toward making up for thirty years of lost recording time.
Not long before I contacted her on behalf of SSJ Records, Morris told me she'd received a phone call from her brother who was in Japan.:
“He was in a restaurant and on the sound system came Afterthoughts. He almost fainted.” Morris told me that the phone call had played into her decision to have SSJ reissue the album. Amazing that your [and SSJ's] phone call came to me just a few days later.” She added, “It all reminds me of how Japan has always been very good to me from the very beginning when I started to release my own recordings”