Helen Merrill Delivers Tribute To Croat Heritage

'Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill' features Croat folk songs and modern jazz.

Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill may not be the catchiest CD title in recent memory, but it makes the point that Helen Merrill, one of jazz's most original singers, is of Croat heritage.

Merrill is now exploring her roots on disc, but the CD is as much Merrill as it is Milcetic.

(Click here for's review of the album.)

"I couldn't do it just as an ethnic album, because I wasn't really that knowledgeable about real true ethnic music," Merrill, 70, said from her Manhattan home. "And I found that out when I went to Zagreb [Croatia] and spoke to the ethnomusicologists and realized how rich that music is. Folk music is endlessly rich, and I find it the most honest kind of music.

"Then I had to start rethinking the whole thing. I had to really dedicate the album to myself, to who I am and how did I become myself and why was I doing what I was doing," she said. "From there, I had to look to my parents and their ethnic background and the kind of music I was exposed to as a child, which brought me to today. And that was the hard part."

The album consists of Croatian pieces as well as American spirituals, folk and pop songs. It's quite a departure from her more than 50 previous jazz recordings.

An Early Start

Since singing in Reggie Childs' big band at the age of 16, Merrill has performed and recorded with a remarkable cast of musicians, from Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Earl Hines to Gil Evans, Elvin Jones and Ron Carter.

Her self-titled 1954 EmArcy debut album with trumpeter Clifford Brown, with arrangements of standards by Quincy Jones, is a favorite among fans of vocal and instrumental jazz. It contains the tune "What's New" (RealAudio excerpt).

"I've always had great, great respect for talent. And I've always been magnetically attracted to great talent, no matter what country I happen to land in — and they to me, which is very fortunate," Merrill said.

The talent on Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill is considerable, including soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, pianist Sir Roland Hanna, bassist George Mraz and percussionists Steve Kroon and Terry Clarke.

"Helen always surrounds herself with the greatest of musicians, as in this

project," says Mraz, the Czech-born bassist who is working on his own return-to-the-roots album to be titled Czech Mate, due from Milestone. "Working with her is not like accompanying a singer. She becomes

the extension of the music."

Merrill's disc opens with the song "Kirje (Kyrie)," a movement from the liturgical cantata "Telo Kristusevo" by Croatian composer Tomislav Uhlik. Interestingly, Merrill does not sing on the song, which features a performance by the Lado Folk Dance and Music Ensemble of Croatia and a drum solo by Clarke.

Merrill joins in on the next piece, "Imagining Krk" (RealAudio excerpt), written by Gil Goldstein, who plays accordion and piano and also contributes arrangements and piano to three other tracks.

Sifting Through The Past

"The record company sent me [to Zagreb and Krk] to do a little research about my music and myself," Merrill said. "I went there with my sister, and we had the most wonderful time. We went around and did a lot of sniffling and crying, like when your buttons are touched and you don't know why.

"I had a wonderful time and found out so much about my people," she said. "And I found out, also, about myself, my own feelings and how generous these proud people are. It was very good for me."

"I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," which features Mraz and Kroon and incorporates the oboe, English horn, accordion, harp, guitar and cello, is a song Merrill's mother, Antoinette, used to sing to her. "Songs like that reflected my mother's feelings," she said. "And then spirituals like 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' " — recorded with Hanna and Mraz — "I feel are universal. I think we all feel divorced from things."

"My Father" (RealAudio excerpt) is performed with the same group of musicians as "Kathleen" plus arranger and conductor Torrid Vito on Fender Rhodes piano. Originally written by Judy Collins for her father, it took on personal meaning for Merrill.

"It was appropriate about the way I felt about my father," she said. "It was a metaphor for my father's feelings and teachings and so on."

Merrill's father and mother immigrated to the United States from the island of Krk in the Adriatic Sea. Merrill was born in New York, and kept her Croat name, Jelena, until she started performing.

On the song "Tenneco," Merrill again sits out, letting the traditional Croatian folk song unfold via Lacy's soprano and a pair of unnamed sopilia players from Krk.

"The sopilia is a double-reed instrument and kind of a precursor to the oboe," Merrill said. "Who knows how old it is? Even the two men who were playing it didn't know.

"The sounds of that sound to me very much like so-called avant-garde jazz, which made it clear to me why I like very close harmony. When I heard Thelonious Monk, it sounded so natural to me.

"I didn't find anything strange about it," she said. "Different, perhaps. But not strange."

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