Chris Connor has won every conceivable critical and popular accolade in her forty- year reign as one of the most gifted and distinctive vocalists in jazz history. To the delight of fans and fellow musicians, her singing has never been more satisfying. Her warm, cello-like tones glow with new luster, and her interpretation of lyrics is more deeply felt than ever before. In the past year, Connor’s concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, as well as her jazz club engagements and recent recordings have revealed an artist at the peak of her creative powers. This release is the first-ever Chris Connor career retrospective.
Born in 1021 in Kansas City, Missouri, Connor studied clarinet, but her career direction was clear at an early age. “I always knew I wanted be a singer, ” she says. “I never wanted to be anything else. ” After completing her schooling, she took a secretVerdana job, while commuting on weekends to the University of Missouri to perform with the Stan Kenton-influenced college jazz bands. An admirer of the Kenton singers Anita O’Day and June Christy, Connor recalls: “I had my sights set on singing with Kenton.”
Frustrated by the lack of musical opportunities in her hometown, Connor pulled up stakes and headed east in 1947. After a year of scuffling, she was hired by Claude Thornhill and spent the next five years touring with his orchestra. Then, while appearing with Jerry Wald’s band, she received the phone call she’d been dreaming of. June Christy, Stan Kenton’s current vocalist, had heard Connor on a radio broadcast and recommended her to the orchestra leader, who chose her from dozens of other vocalist eager for the job. “My voice seemed to fit the band with that low style like Anita and June,” remembers Connor.
Connor’s ten-month stint with Kenton during 1952-53 won her national recognition. Her haunting recording of Joe Green’s ballad “All About Ronnie” announced the arrival of a fresh new artist. But the years of one-night stands, fast food and interminable bus rides soured Connor’s enthusiasm for life on the road. “By that time, I’d endured about six years of one-righters, and I’d just about had it.” To this day, she values the musical training she received with Kenton, especially the skills relating to time, phrasing and “how to come in on exactly the right note while 18 or 20 musicians are playing their parts.”
Determined to forge a career as a solo artist, Connor returned to New York and signed with Bethlehem Records. Her three albums for that independent label, featuring Ellis Larkins, Herbie Mann, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson, established her as a major jazz voice. In 1956, she began a six-year association with Atlantic Records that produced a string of chart-topping recordings arranged by Ralph Burns, Al Cohn, Jimmy Jones and Ralph Sharon. The dates showcased a host of jazz legends – John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and, in a particularly memorable pairing, Maynard Ferguson’s big band.
The rock youthquake of the late ’60s and early ’70s derailed the careers of many jazz artists, but Connor persisted, performing in clubs, touring Japan and recording for a variety of labels. The early ’80s resurgence of interest in jazz singing revitalized her career, leading to a brace of highly acclaimed CDs for Contemporary Records, and a series of recordings for Japanese labels. Her most recent releases are My Funny Valentine, arranged by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Blue Moon, a collection of movie songs ranging from screen classics (“Singin’ In The Rain, ” “The Days Of Wine and Roses”) to recent hits (“The Lion King,” “The Crying Game”) arranged by Mike Abene.
Of her current singing, Connor says: “I haven’t changed my approach. I don’t experiment as much although my voice has gotten deeper and stronger. When you’re young, you overplay as a musician and you oversing as a singer because you’re trying all these ideas. And I was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. I’ve eliminated a great deal of the things I used to do. The simpler it is, the better it works for me. She remains, as critic Larry Kart proclaimed in the Chicago Tribune, “a dominating vocal presence whose music is full of hard-earned wisdom and truth.”