Patty Waters Sings


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  • March News 2005
  • PARIS Transatlantic Magazine
  • JAZZ
  • Patty Waters
  • You Thrill Me
  • Water 137

The importance of figures like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in the history of jazz is that they not only influenced scores of saxophonists ¬≠Ayler himself was called “Little Bird” as a Cleveland upstart - but their influence extended beyond to other instruments. Bird’s influence on pianists like Bud Powell has been well documented, as has Coltrane's. Ayler's impact was obvious not only on tenor saxophonists like Frank Wright and Frank Smith, and trumpeters like his brother Don, but on figures like singer Patty Waters, whose concept and delivery both owe much to Ayler's approach. Born in Iowa, raised in Denver, and musically trained in Southern California, Waters moved to New York in the early 1960s, where, after working with Jaki Byard and sitting in with Charles Mingus (one can only assume she was singing “Weird Nightmare”!), Ayler heard her and recommended her to Bernard Stollman as an ESP-Disk' possibility. She recorded Patty Waters Sings for the label on December 19, 1965, accompanying herself on piano for seven short, moody tracks on side one, and for side two, engaged pianist Burton Greene and his usual working trio (with drummer Tom Price and bassist Steve Tintweiss) on the mythic side-long exposition of “Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair.” Waters, with the trio rustling behind and around her, recites the first verse of the tune in a hushed vibrato, then after a brief Greene solo, focuses on the word “black,” abstracting it first into elongated tendrils of sound, then becoming wordless as she sighs, wails like a banshee, screams and shouts, hinging upon “black” again as the music's intensity builds and - eventually explodes. Like Ayler, she uses simple folk song motifs for most of her free explorations (“Hush Little Baby” being another favorite - see the follow up LP, College Tour), taking a phrase and repeating it naggingly, at the same time altering it into cathartic shouts and wails of pure emotion. At a fundamental level, Waters took it farther 'out' than Ayler; the saxophone~ after all, separates the human from the sound being produced - it is a machine. But when the sound is coming from human vocal chords, its connection to our feelings is purer, more naked. Waters' music is extremely direct, and this is probably the most bone-chilling music ever recorded under the banner of free improvisation. Most listeners of Waters' music instinctively head for College Tour or side two of Sings, yearning for sounds of soul-baring and soul-probing intensity. We often forget about the music that takes up side one of Sings, short ballads of love and loss sung in a hushed voice, full of contradiction. The music on side one is in effect 'straight,' not improvised upon, and yet it is in some ways more impenetrably mysterious than her free singing. Simultaneously smooth and gravelly, words are bent and extended in ways that hint at what she is capable of, but stop short of the pyrotechnics.

You Thrill Me, a collection of previously unissued demo takes and personal recordings, continues in this vein, proving that this “side one” of her music is just as worth investigating.

Beginning with a jingle for Jax Beer (!?!), the disc follows with 1964 demos for Columbia including “You Thrill Me,” “Why Can’t I Come To You” (both of which grace side one of Sings) and “At Last I Found You.“ Waters had not yet reached her more experimental“ side, and though differences between the recordings (beyond between-take banter) might seem superficial, these are far straighter versions than appear on the ESP date, particularly “Why Can’t I Come To You”, whose tonality wavers far less than it does on Sings. Waters returned to California in the late '60s, probably shortly after recording with tenorman Marzette Watts for Savoy in 1968 (notably an earth-shattering,lyrical version of “Lonely Woman”), and the remainder of the disc comes from her previously undocumented 1970s sojourn on the West Coast. Apart from a lengthy, minimal solo piano piece, “Touched by Rodin in a Paris Museum,“ the music consists of fairly brief voice-and-piano pieces. Her subtle intervallic jumps, dissonant (vocal) chords and wavering notes are all here, the way she growls and elides through “For All We Know“ and breathily futzes with “Love is the Warmth of Togetherness” are proof that the experiments of 1965-66 made her into one of the most startling and unique vocalists of the post-Billie Holiday era.

In theory, one could say that Waters’ love songs are. like Ayler’s standards on Something Different! and My Name Is Albert Ayler, a way to familiarize oneself with forms before tearing them apart, but also a reinvigoration of the forms themselves through experimentation. Ayler left an indelible mark on “Summertime” — so much so that his is just about the only version worth hearing - and Waters does.the same, both on standards and her own ballads. Ironic though that an album of unissued recordings only serves to make her an even more enigmatic and curious figure than she was before. -CA

-Clifford Allen

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