An innocuous but oddly touching moment arrives not quite halfway through Normal As Blueberry Pie, the new Verve platter by Nellie McKay. It’s an ostensible ad-lib on the Broadway standard “Crazy Rhythm,” which she tackles with an old-fashioned insouciance. Addressing the subject of the song as if it were animate, she assumes the inflection of someone urging a stray mutt out of the kitchen. “Get on now, go,” she coos. And then, a moment later: “Shoo! Shoo!”
The animal realm holds a lot of appeal for McKay, as you probably gathered if you read my recent feature. It’s a big part of the reason for her love of Doris Day, the new album’s inspiration and patron spirit. (As I mention in the piece, McKay once received an award in Day’s name from the Humane Society, for “The Dog Song.”) Walking Bessie and Hank in the park was her idea -- and for the record, those were their names when she got them. Hank is still up for adoption.
Beyond the dog angle, Blueberry Pie should be of some interest to jazz folk, including those who have always viewed McKay with one eyebrow arched. It is, unmistakably and happily, stamped with her quirky personality. But it’s also a good indication of what she can do with something approaching a standard repertoire, and it reflects a serious investment in the era that Day represents. Here is a snippet from our conversation at Blossom, a vegan café near her apartment:
I find it interesting that she singles out “Close Your Eyes” as a challenge, because to my ears that may be the album’s best example of sure-footed jazz singing. Get a taste via this video EPK, which also shows Nellie giving Jobim’s “Meditation” a ukulele makeover.
The arrangement for “Close Your Eyes” is by Bob Dorough, the raconteur-tunesmith of Schoolhouse Rock notoriety. McKay and Dorough separately told me that she came armed with instructions: “Make it kinda Monkish.” Some of what I left out of my piece had to do with Dorough, who also appeared, in a more prominent capacity, on Obligatory Villagers, her last album.
“She’s a very funny dame, as you know,” Dorough told me. He
granted that the album hook made sense: “Of course musicians
in general did admire Doris Day a little bit, because she did sing well.” And
he went into his history with McKay, which stretches back to her gangly
teenage years in the Poconos:
I knew Nellie when she was just a high school kid in our neighborhood. We have a jazz education factory here started by several people, Phil Woods and the COTA Cats. Each year there’s a competition among the high school players, with a big band. Nellie was in that. As a young lady they assigned her to sing something. Just like her, she’s so weird, she had to sing it in French. So for some reason Phil Woods thought I could help her with her diction. I did spend a lot of time in Paris. I coached her for the afternoon. But she insisted on playing the piano for herself.
He added, “I think she’s a better pianist than I am, and an interesting songwriter. I’d love to claim her as a protégé, but I don’t think I can.”
The Real McKay -- JazzTimes profile, 2006