Patty Waters – Live (Blank Forms Editions, 2019) *****
Patty Waters – An Evening in Houston (Clean Feed Records, 2020) *****
By Cam Scott
Vocalist Patty Waters is an icon of avant-garde jazz, in spite of her relatively slim discography. Discovered by Albert Ayler in the early sixties, her 1965 debut on ESP-Disk matches a set of her own compositions, graced with the wisdom of longing, to a scalding rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.’ The song has been a jazz staple since Nina Simone’s sultry resuscitation, but Waters’ version is a different beast, pairing an alternately screamed and whispered vocal with tumultuous backing. Pianist Burton Greene is known for approaching the piano from the inside out, and here the entire group strains at the limits of musical idiom, maintaining a breakdown for almost a quarter hour. If the A side of ‘Sings’ is haunted, the B side is surely possessed.
In spite of only intermittent performances since her iconic recordings of the 1960s, Waters’ reputation has continued to grow, affirmed by the praise of subsequent generations of listeners and the warmth of reception that attends her few appearances. In a happy development for admirers, both of her 2018 live appearances—in Brooklyn and Houston respectively—were documented for release. Featuring Burton Greene on piano, Barry Altschul on drums, and Mario Pavone on bass, these two documents are distinctly indispensable in spite of slightly overlapping setlists; for a band of this pedigree is to be cherished.
Released by Blank Forms, a label and curatorial platform based out of New York, Live presents selections from the group’s April 5th performance at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn. From the first chords of ‘You’ve Changed,’ one of several standards altered forever by the voice of Billie Holiday, a mist of wistfulness envelops the listener. This is a coy choice of opener, addressing the passage of time before her multigenerational audience; and Waters sings with tremulous incredulity.
The album is almost entirely comprised of exquisitely weird, or deceptively subdued, standards; the emphatically slurred chords of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ purr below Greene’s fingers in response to Waters’ falling intonation, before the melody abruptly dissipates in a repetitive whimper; while Pavone and Altschul, who played together in Paul Bley’s trio, communicate deftly across a searching rendition of ‘Lover Man.’ Side A concludes with Waters’ best known composition, and the first track from her debut album, ‘Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight.’ The melody’s chromatic descent remains as haunting here as in its initial, stripped-down version, but Greene invites the lyric’s lovesick wanderer to come inside, as it were, contributing a bluesy warmth, as Altschul embellishes Waters’ spacious phrasing with almost scalar fills and beautiful brushwork.
The album continues with a deconstructed medley of ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Nature Boy’—two powerfully overdetermined staples of the Great American Songbook, popularized by Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole respectively. For this central statement, the music dissolves into an array of percussive effects distributed across the entire group, making the seam between the two songs a matter of lyric discretion. This sequence links two disparate pastorals: the upsetting scenery of ‘Strange Fruit,’ which describes a lynching by way of the disinterested landscape, and the mysterious visitation of ‘Nature Boy,’ which takes on a different, haunted character as a result. This suggestive pairing is followed by a version of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman,’ featuring Waters’ own words. This is one of two lyric versions in circulation; Waters’ version was previously recorded with The Marzette Watts Ensemble, while another lyric by Margo Guryan has been recorded by Chris Connor, Freda Payne, Radka Toneff, and others. Here in particular, Waters’ vocal weeps with a pathos that other, more restrained versions avoid; and skittish cymbals summon the inedible original.
Released by Clean Feed Records, An Evening in Houston was recorded only days after the Brooklyn concert, on April 9th, as part of the Nameless Sound series. The album opens with a palpitating version of ‘You’re My Thrill,’ a duo for voice and drums. Altschul’s brush work introduces the record, and Waters approaches the familiar lyric as a loose recitative, as though discovering the words in air. ‘Moon, Don’t Come Out Tonight’ is somehow woozier, more languid, as Waters’ voice—beseeching, searching, psithuristic—gives the impression of a whispered secret.
‘Lonely Woman,’ which began in Brooklyn as an ominous piano invocation, opens on unaccompanied tremor in the voice, a moment of mimetic inspiration. Moody and wounded, this take is a highlight. So is a stripped down version of the standard ‘Don’t Explain,’ in which Pavone’s bass and Waters’ vocal circle each other conversationally. “You know I love you,” Waters sings, at which point a simmering snare picks up beneath the duo; subtle as a change in temperature. Greene’s lightly prepared piano announces ‘Hush Little Baby,’ an abstracted nursery rhyme that originally appeared on Waters’ second album, 1966’s College Tour. On the original recording, a fricative hiss blends the sizzle of the cymbals in a menacing lullaby. Here, Waters repeats the lyric pleadingly, intelligibly, as the band fidgets beneath.
Each of these recent albums close on ‘Wild is the Wind,’ which appears on College Tour as a companion piece to ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.’ Both songs, after all, were staples of Nina Simone’s repertory, debuting on her 1959 album Nina Simone at Town Hall, and Waters and co. give them a similarly chilling treatment. Much as Waters makes a central incantation of the word ‘black’ in 1966, she catches upon the keyword ‘wild’ in these takes, becoming that keyword.
These releases are not companion pieces in any sense; perhaps they are echoes of a sort. But each setlist gives the uncanny feeling of hearing something familiar for the first time. Simply put, if you want either one, you’d best get both. A group this lean and yet meandering, with this much history behind them, is rare.