Elegy in Red and Gold

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The D.C.-area chanteuse Eva Cassidy (1963–1996) died young of cancer, so we can enjoy her work only elegiacally and with the kind of autumnal wistfulness with which we listen to Sandy Denny, a similar and even greater singer-songwriter who departed all too soon. I stumbled upon Cassidy’s epochal version of “Autumn Leaves” only because my daughter happened to be learning the song on the piano. I was stunned. Nearly seventy years after the song was written, Cassidy reinvents it and claims it utterly, much as John Coltrane claims “My Favorite Things” and Jimi Hendrix claims Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Her talent is not quite theirs, but her desire to speak through the song is enormous and urgent. She recorded the song at Blues Alley in Washington on Jan. 2, 1996. Did she know she was dying? Perhaps she did, in which case the image of “autumn leaves” is poignant indeed.

Yves Montand debuted “Autumn Leaves”—originally called “Les Feuilles Mortes” (“The Dead Leaves”)—in Marcel Carne’s 1946 film Les Portes de La Nuit and reprised the tune in the 1951 film Paris Is Always Paris. In 1947, Johnny Mercer rewrote the song in English and it has been a jazz standard ever since. I hazard to say that nobody has ever taken the song as seriously as Eva or so fully grasped its expressive possibilities. “Autumn Leaves” was supposed to be a smoke-ring of 40s-era café sentimentality; it was never meant to have the emotional weight she gives it. Compare Eva’s life-and-death version to Montand’s unctuous crooning. She sings closed-eyed with the effort of permanent statement.

Thankfully, the entire thirty-one-song Blues Alley concert has been recently issued on CD under the title Nightbird. It ranks with the four-disc edition of Van Morrison’s titanic It’s Too Late to Sop Now (1974)—vastly expanded and glimmeringly remastered after years of inexplicable unavailability—as one of the digital era’s great excavations of buried treasure.

Montand in Paris is Always Paris:

Eva’s version of “Autumn Leaves”:

Eva’s likewise transcendent cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Tall Trees in Georgia”:

A parsimonious hall of fame of live albums:

Thelonious Monk, Thelonious in Action/Misterioso (1958)
Ella Fitzgerald, Live in Rome (recorded 1958)
Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby/Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)
John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard  (1961)
John Coltrane, Live at Birdland (1963)
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963)
Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Jerry Lee Lewis, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (1964)
Charles Mingus, Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop (1964)
Jimi Hendrix, Live at Monterey (recorded 1967)
Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills (1968)
Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1970)
The Allman Brothers, Live at Fillmore East (1971)
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace (1972)
Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Bob Marley, Live! (1975)
Bruce Springsteen, Live at the Hammersmith Odeon (1975)=
Eva Cassidy, Nightbird (recorded 1996)

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David Ross

Dr. David A. Ross is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats (2009) and the co-editor/co-translator of The Search for the Avant-Garde, 1946­–1969 (2012), the descriptive catalogue of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies and has served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. His enthusiasms include high modernism, modal jazz, Chinese ink-brush painting, and really well-made pizza.