Double-album compilation from the divine Ms Lee.
Morag Reavley 2003
The female Frank Sinatra, as Tony Bennett described her, Peggy Lee was the jazz singer's jazz singer. Without having huge range, Lee had a unique, caramelly voice which was infinitely expressive and full of mystery. This double-album compilation of recordings from the early 1950s is a two-hour feast for aficionados of her low-key, high-charm jazz.
Classics convenes some of Lee's more celebrated recordings. It opens with 'Mr. Wonderful', Lee's biggest UK hit. A flurry of violins and a swirl of showtime brass sets the mood, ushering in an intimate, liquid vocal which is perfectly controlled, exquisitely paced and, despite fairly banal lyrics, intensely moving. Other hits included are 'Black Coffee', 'Lover' and 'Just One of Those Things', though the temperature-raising 'Fever' is absent.
The modernity of Lee's voice and phrasing is striking. A song like 'Johnny Guitar', an eerie lament in a minor key, could be a track by Emiliana Torrini. Though the singer with the most obvious similarities to Lee is Diana Krall, out-kralled here at every turn.
The triumph of jazz is to take the disposable, light-weight and occasionally ridiculous and turn it into a symphony. So the subtlety of Lee's voice and the exquisiteness of her interpretation are best illustrated by some of the lighter songs. Witness a ballad like 'Apple, Peaches and Cherries', a kitschy tale of young love on a fruit stall, which is invested with a knowingness and sexy insouciance which makes it sound as significant as Carmen.
The Collectibles half of the album is no less enjoyable, comprising tracks previously unreleased in the UK, interesting duets and outtakes from Lady and the Tramp, the 1955 Disney animation for which Lee gave speaking and singing voice to four characters.
Particularly memorable is the comic 'Merry Go Runaround' sung with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, perplexed by the elusiveness of their female co-singer. Lee could do humour as well as smouldering ice-queen.
This album is the aural equivalent of a fine liqueur. Turn the lights down low, put on your smoking jacket and settle in for two hours of perfect cabaret.