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That Old Black Magic

Written: 1942

Music by: Harold Arlen

Words by: Johnny Mercer

Written for: Star Spangled Rhythm
(movie, 1942)

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Carmen McRae


"That Old Black Magic"

August, 1986 concert in Japan at Tokyo's Kan-I Hoken Hall, with her trio (Pat Coil, piano; Bob Bowman, bass; Mark Pulice, drums)


More Performances of "That Old Black Magic"
in the Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet
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Cafe Songbook Reading Room

"That Old Black Magic"

Critics Corner || Lyrics Lounge

About the Movie Star Spangled Rhythm / Origins of the Song

My Favorite Blonde /
Star Spangled Rhythm Double Feature (DVD)




Other songs written for Star Spangled Rhythm currently included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook:

1. Hit the Road to Dreamland


For a complete listing of songs used in the this movie, see IMDB Soundtrack.


That Old Black Magic in other films:

In 1944, Bing Crosby sang "That Old Black Magic" in Here Come the Waves, a film from the next year after Star Spangled Rhythm and also having an Arlen-Mercer score.


In 1951, Sinatra sings it in Meet Danny Wilson.


In 1956, fourteen years after the introduction of "That Old Black Magic" in "Star Spangled Rhythm," Marilyn Monroe performs the song in the film Bus Stop.




Early recordings of "That Old Black Magic" that made
the charts


Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with vocal by Skip Nelson and the Modernaires (Victor 1523): first charted 2/20/43, remained on charts for 19 weeks peaking at number #1.


Freddie Slack and His Orchestra / vocal by The Mellowaires with a short solo by Margaret Whiting (Capitol 126): first charted 2/13/43, remained on charts for 8 weeks peaking at number 10.
(A side of "Hit the Road to Dreamland."


Horace Heidt and His Orchestra (Columbia 36670): first charted 4/03/43, remained on charts for 3 weeks peaking at number #11.


Source: Joel Whitburn,
Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music
, 1986

"That Old Black Magic" was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) specifically for the score of the movie Star Spangled Rhythm and is introduced in the movie by Johnny Johnston singing and Vera Zorina dancing.

The movie tells the story of Johnny Webster (Eddie Bracken), a sailor whose crew is given shore leave in the vicinity of Hollywood. Webster's father (Victor Moore) works as a security guard at Paramount studios and with the help of Polly Judson (Betty Hutton) a pretty telephone operator at the studio, has convinced young Webster that his father has moved up to a major executive/producer position at Paramount -- so he will be proud of his father while off fighting the war. When the crew is given leave, Johnny decides to bring a bunch of his buddies up to Hollywood to meet the stars (and starlets). He assumes his father can easily arrange it all for them. When Polly learns what the sailor-boys are up to she convinces Johnny's father that they have to somehow bring off the ruse, and the plot flows, with the expected successes and disasters, from their efforts.

As it happens in the movie, Paramount is in the process of making a musical and so we see the musical numbers written by Arlen and Mercer for Star Spangled Rhythm, which is a Hollywood version of abackstager, preformed as rehearsals for or early takes of the final cut of the movie that is being made within Star-Spangled Rhythm." Or, in some cases, we see them performed by Paramount stars as part of a show they put on for the entire crew of Johnny Webster's ship. In the case of "That Old Black Magic," the song is a number in this show. Johnny Johnston, a one time band and radio singer, sings it playing the part of a star-struck soldier who is having a dream about his love object, ballet dancer Vera Zorina, who comes to life in his dream and dances to Arlen's music for "Black Magic." (The dance is choreographed by George Balanchine who was then Zorina's real life husband and places Zorina, dressed all in black, in a snow setting.) Otherwise "That Old Black Magic" bears no relationship to the story (such as it is) that serves as the main plot of "Star Spangled Rhythm."

Johnny Johnston sings "That Old Black Magic" followed by its melody being used for musical accompaniment to Vera Zorina's dance -- audio only (from the soundtrack for Star Spangled Rhythm).

Two Classic Live Performances

Soundtrack recording of Marilyn Monroe in the film Bus Stop (1956) heard over montage of Milton Green photos (1956). In the film, Marilyn plays Cherie a saloon singer and dancer performing, under duress, "That Old Black Magic." To view an extended clip from the movie including Marilyn's rendition of "That Old Black Magic," go to Youtube.
(audio recording: Marilyn, Greatest Hits; DVD: Bus Stop)

Louis Prima and Keely Smith in a 1959 TV performance, which came after their 1958 hit recording on Capitol
(featuring Sam Butera on tenor sax).


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Critics Corner

Edward Jablonski
Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, Boston: Northeaster UP, 1996
(paper bound ed. 1998 shown).

Arlen's biographer Edward Jablonski lets us in on the process of creating "That Old Black Magic." Arlen and Mercer had to produce a dance number for the film Star Spangled Rhythm for which they were doing the score for Paramount. It was to be a major production number with vocal by band singer Johnny Johnson and featuring a dance by ballet star Vera Zorina choreographed by her then husband, George Balanchine. In response to this requirement, Arlen came up with a "'possible' for Mercer, an insistent melody over a reiterating bass figure." It was already long for a movie song but the lyricist wanted it to be even a little longer to fit the ballad form he had in mind. Arlen complied.

"I played the melody for John. He went away." Mercer took seventy-two bars of music with him and when he returned, he had a song entitled "That Old Black Magic." [some accounts suggest Mercer took those seventy-two bars with him in his head only, having a fantastic retentiveness for music.]

Max Wilk, They're Playing Our Song: Conversations with America's Classic Songwriters (originally published 1973 as They're Playing Our Song: From Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim—The Stories behind the Words and Music of Two Generations), New York and Stratford, CT: Easton Studio Press, 2008.

book cover: Gene Lees, Portrait of Johnny [Mercer]
Gene Lees,
Portrait of Johnny
The Life of
John Herndon Mercer
New York:
Pantheon Books, 2004.


Here's what happened when Mercer "went away." Three sources of inspiration were at work in the lyricist's mind: The melody Arlen gave him (in Arlen's own words "a sultry and lush song") that winds its sensual way through more than twice the typical 32 bars of popular songs of the era; the lyricist's passionate on again/off again affair with Judy Garland that was underway at the time he was writing the lyric; and a line from Cole Porter's lyric for "You Do Something to Me," the line that so wittily evokes the black magic of passion, "Do, do that Voodoo that you do so well" -- which had been lodged in Mercer's mind for years. Mercer told interviewer Max Wilk that he heard Porter's song when he first came to New York:

I've always loved Porter--those early songs of his were so clever, and later on his melodies became so rich and full. Anyway that thing about voodoo must have stuck with me, because I paraphrased it in "Old Black Magic" (Wilk, p. 151, soft cover revised edition).

Mercer biographer Gene Lees, adds to the quotation about Mercer and his use of Porter's word "Voodoo," to include Mercer saying, "Gee that's a great idea to be wasted on one word in a song . . . "and I thought perhaps if I could incorporate that into a tune someday, it might work. Well, this tune [Arlen's for "Old Black Magic"] just seemed to fit the bill."

Then Lees claims that once the inspiration formed an idea in Mercer's mind, and the lyric was penned, Mercer went back to Arlen's house and the song was finished in an hour. Mercer and Arlen left the composer's place and drove to the lyricist's where Mercer said you have to come in and play this for Ginger (Mercer's wife), who thus became the first person to hear "That Old Black Magic" both words and music together. Ginger recalls, "I knew they had something good, because they came in and stood around like little boys," finally saying, "'Don't you want to hear what we wrote today'? and when they say that, you know they've got a big song" (Lees, p. 146).

Editor's Note: Lees suggests that Arlen had the melody for what became "That Old Black Magic" before he knew about Paramount's requirement for the score and that the studio assigned the song to Johnny Johnson and Vera Zorina after hearing Arlen present it (Lees, p. 146).

book cover: Philip Furia Skylark The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
Philip Furia,
The Life and Times
of Johnny Mercer
New York: St. Martins Press,

Another Mercer biographer, Philip Furia, concludes from his sources that the main source of inspiration for Mercer's lyric for "That Old Black Magic" was his affair with Garland. He also fleshes out just how he and Mercer worked together by quoting Arlen:

After we got a script and the spots for the songs were blocked out, we'd get together for an hour or so every day. While Johnny made himself comfortable on the couch, I'd play the tunes for him. He has a wonderfully retentive memory. After I would finish playing the songs, he'd just go away without a comment. I wouldn't hear from him for a couple of weeks, then he'd come around with the completed lyrics (Furia, Skylark, p. 129).

Book cover Wilfred Sheed "The House That George: Built"
Wilfred Sheed, The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, New York: Random House, 2007 (paperback edition, 2008)

Wilfred Sheed also takes up the issue of the length of "That Old Black Magic" -- as Jablonski does above. Sheed also sees it as the composer responding to the lyricist but not so much because Mercer needed to tell a longer story but because Arlen tended to include his "extra-long riffs" when Mercer was his lyricist and when "he [Mercer] is most likely addressing himself to the space requirements of jazz licks, to wit: Ziggy Elman's great trumpet solo that became 'And the Angels Sing,' Rube Bloom's "Day In, Day Out," and the super suspension bridge of Hoagy Carmichael's 'Skylark.'"

Sheed explains this inclination with regard to "That Old Black Magic":

It sounds as if the words are . . . taking their time, and . . . the melodist is just supplying notes to accommodate Mercer's long-winded poem. But if you separate the elements, you'll see that Johnny is the one who's vamping, virtually ad-libbing extra lines, and the tunesmith is the one writing the poem and providing the continuity and momentum (Sheed, pp. 87-88, hard cover ed.).


Book cover: Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley"

Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Given both Porter's and Mercer's interest in matters voodoo, Philip Furia has created a genre name for songs like "You Do Something to Me" and "That Old Black Magic." He terms it the "Witchcraft" genre. Furia characterizes Mercer's technique here as infused with paradox that begins with the title that combines the commonplace "that old" with the exotic "black magic" and continues through imagery in which "icy fingers up and down my spine" create "such a burning desire, / That only your kiss can put out the fire" and the "down and down" and "round and round" motion, which matches the movement of Arlen's music, is extended by the spinning of "a leaf / that's caught in the tide." The figures of speech conjure up a set of inescapable, relentless forces that add up to the passion that only something like witchcraft (or more directly, sex) could produce (Furia, Poets of Tin Pan Alley, p. 272-273).

book cover: David Lehman "A Fine Romance"

David Lehman. A Fine Romance Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. New York: Next Book/Schocken, 2009.

David Lehman, in his book A Fine Romance, Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, says he likes to think of Mercer as an honorary Jew. So close were Mercer and Arlen (the Jewish member of the team) in the way they worked together that Lehman often thinks of them as one figure called "Merlen." Lehman notes as do other commentators, their method of collaboration as beginning with Arlen playing a melody for the lyricist. Then John after having absorbed the music would take his leave. When he returned he had the lyric. Lehman, also like the others was impressed by Mercer's powers of recall but also that he could produce "verbal complexities to rival the musical ones of his partner."

One of those complexities that Lehman particularly admires is a couplet from "That Old Black Magic" that he says "a groom might recite to his bride on their wedding day":

For you're the lover I have waited for,
The mate fate had me created for.

Lehman explains how Mercer marshals the sounds in his lines to attain a musicality of their own:

The exquisite multisyllabic end rhymes ("waited for / created for") reinforce the internal rhyme of "mate" and "fate" and lead to the kiss that captures the lover's heart. It is that rare song that conveys all the romantic enchantment of falling passionately in love at the same time that it hints at the tyrannical nature of Eros" (Lehman, p. 87).

bood cover: Allen Forte, "Listening to Classic American Popular Songs"
Alan Forte
Listening To Classic American Popular Songs
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press
For a thorough commentary on the musical structure of "That Old Black Magic" (as well as other standards) and its relationship to its lyrics, see Alan Forte's book Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. Like so many other commentators, Forte is struck by the length of the song attributing this to it being designed for a specific scene in Star Spangled Rhythm. Also like others he is particularly cognizant of Arlen's use of repeated notes. To help understand the points he makes, he "indicates them on the displayed lyrics by the usual letters and includes their corresponding bar numbers in parentheses."
book cover: Margaret Whiting: "It Might As Well Be Spring" (autobiography)
Margaret Whiting
and Will Holt
It Might As Well Be Spring: A Musical Autobiography
New York: William Morrow

Margaret Whiting's Account of cutting her second record,
"That Old Black Magic" at Capitol Records in Los Angeles on July 31, 1942

In the first half of 1942, Capitol Records had started up having been founded by Johnny Mercer and his associates, and by July they wanted a record of Mercer's and Harold Arlen's new song "That Old Black Magic" out as quickly as possible. They doubted that the performers in the movie, who had given it a classical flavor because it was danced to by ballet star Vera Zorina, would make it a hit. As their resident girl singer Ella Mae Morse was pregnant and unavailable, they picked Margaret Whiting, daughter of the late Richard Whiting, one of Mercer's songwriting partners, even though she was still a high school student known around the studio as The Kid.

As she described it in her autobiography, "both Johnny and Harold coached me." After all, being so young "I had no first hand experience of 'that old black magic called love'." Arlen, she recalled, " had a fabulous style of singing" and instructed her to "'pulsate it.'" Both songwriters wanted her to convey a sense of "urgency, the highs and lows, the crescendos that spelled elevator rides and excitement." She continues:

So The Kid got the best kind of coaching, and then I was brought into the studio. It took maybe an hour and a half to set up the mechanics. And there were a few decisions to be made: Put The Kid into an isolation booth. Get her away from the band. Get her a little closer. Now let's go for a take.

We did it in three . . . I got seventy -five dollars a side, and no royalties. But I did get split billing with the band.

Because Capitol was Johnny's company, this record came out immediately before "My Ideal" [which she had already recorded with Billy Butterfield]. I was not prepared for my reaction.

The first time I heard the record was on the radio. Al Jarvis was the big disc jockey in Los Angeles at the time. I heard him talking with Artie Shaw, who was a guest on his program, about the new Arlen-Mercer song, which he proceeded to play. And then I heard my own voice, and I thought with horror, What have they done to the record? I don't sound like that. They've speeded it up. No, they've slowed it down. What is that phrasing? I never phrased that way. That's not my voice And then I thought with even more horror, Oh yes it is. That is your voice and it sounds terrible. My response was immediate. I dashed into the bathroom and threw up in the toilet.

The record was over and Artie Shaw began to speak. He could be ruthless, although accurate, in his criticism. I heard him say words like "an instant standard--a great record . . ." And when I heard that, I lifted my face from the toilet bowl and thought, Well, maybe. Then the phone rang and it was Paul Weston, calling to congratulate me.

"Is that how I sound?" I wailed. "I think it's terrible!"

"Yes, that's how you sound," Paul said,, "and you're crazy. It's great."

Video: The track referred to above by Margaret Whiting (Capitol, #126 recorded July 31, 1942), is the same one that appears remastered on the CD Margaret Whiting Capitol Collectors Series.

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Lyrics Lounge

Click here to read the lyrics for "That Old Black Magic," as sung by Ella Fitzgerald

album cover: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook, Vol. 1
on the album
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook, Vol. 1
and at iTunes on The Harold Arlen Songbook

The complete, authoritative lyrics for "That Old Black Magic" can be found in:

Book Cover: The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis (Eds.),
New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2009.

Click here to read Cafe Songbook lyrics policy.

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("That Old Black Magic" page)


Credits for Videomakers of videos used on this page:

  • Carmen McRae:
  • Johnny Johnston:  
  • Marilyn Monroe:  
  • Louis Prima and Keely Smith: Michael Koreli
  • Frank Sinatra (1943 radio):
  • Frank Sinatra 1961: Sinatra Fan and paraphrased text are cited. Such content is used under the rules of fair use to further the educational objectives of CafeSongbook.com. CafeSongbook.com makes no claims to rights of any kind in this content or the sources from which it comes.


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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet:
Selected Recordings of

"That Old Black Magic"

(All Record/Video Cabinet entries below
include a music-video
of this page's featured song.
The year given is for when the studio
track was originally laid down
or when the live performance was given.)

Performer/Recording Index
(*indicates accompanying music-video)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
(vocal by Skip Nelson and The Modernaires)
album: Greatest Hits

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: The most popular if not the definitive Miller anthology. This recording of "That Old Black Magic" was the first big hit for the song, the one that established it at the beginning of its life.
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Margaret Whiting
(with the Freddie Slack Orchestra)
album: Capitol Collectors Series

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Although the track of "That Old Black Magic" on this album was originally released in February of 1943, the recording was made on July 31, 1942. For Whiting's acount of the making of the recording and the recording itself, see below.

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Frank Sinatra

album: The Best of the Columbia Years

album cover: Frank Sinatra: "The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1955"

Amazon iTunes

album: Come Swing with Me
Frank Sinatra Album Cover: "Come Swing with Me"

Amazon iTunes icon

Notes: Sinatra recorded "That Old Black Magic" twice, the 1946 Columbia version on the first album above arranged by Axel Stordahl; and the 1961 Capitol studio recording arranged by Heinie Beau with orchestra conducted by Billy May for the 1961 album Come Swing With Me. (During this same year, Sinatra, who was enamored of the new President Kennedy, sometimes changed the lyric when singing it live to "That old Jack magic" -- but not on the album. See Will Friedwald, Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art , p. 307, hardcover Ed.).
Video 1: Sinatra sings "That Old Black Magic" on the radio, New Years Eve 1943, the year after the song was introduced in the wartime movie Star Spangled Rhythm, but three years before he recorded "That Old Black Magic" for Columbia. This is, as he tells us, like his later Columbia recording of the song, an Axel Stordahl arrangement. It's interesting to note that his characteristic habit of crediting the songwriters and arrangers of the songs he sings dates as far back as this. (He closes his show "Songs by Sinatra" with its theme, "Put Your Dreams Away."

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Video 2: The 1961 Come Swing with Me track of "That Old Black Magic" with arrangement by Billy May.

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1947, 1951
Billy Daniels
album: Around Midnight

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes icon

Notes: Billy Daniels, cabaret singer extraordinaire of the 1950s was often billed as Mr. Black Magic, a play on his famous renditions of the song. Two recordings, from 1947 and 1951, can be found on the album pictured above. Harold Arlen, the composer himself, commented to interviewer Max Wilk, "The singer Billy Daniels got hold of it ["That Old Black Magic"], and he did it not the way I wrote it, but in an up tempo. Mine was a sultry, lush song; Billy's version was rhythmic and terribly original. Still is" (Wilk, p. 175).
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Sarah Vaughan
album: Sarah Vaughan

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Sarah Vaughan recorded "That Old Black Magic" only once, in New York, November 26, 1957 with Hal Mooney and His Studio Orchestra, a track available on several Vaughan compilations. During that session she also recorded two other Arlen Tunes, "Hit the Road to Dreamland" (from the same movie --Star Spangled Rhythm--as "Black Magic" as well as "I've Got the World on a String."
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Louis Prima and Keely Smith
with Sam Butera (on tenor sax) and The Witnesses
album: Keely Smith
The Essential Capitol Collection

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: The Prima/Smith/Butera version of "That Old Black Magic" also appears on the album Jump, Jive an' Wail: The Essential Louis Prima.
Video: View live 1959 performance in center column (same personel but different performance than on the above albums.)
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Ella Fitzgerald
albums: Ella in Rome --
The Birthday Concert

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunesicon

Notes: This concert performance finds Ella Fitzgerald celebrating her 40th birthday. A top singer for 23 years at that point, she was at the peak of her powers. Backed by her regular rhythm section (with pianist Lou Levy, bassist Max Bennett, and drummer Gus Johnson) -- from iTunes Review
Ella recorded "That Old Black Magic" some twenty times between 1954 and 1986. They include the live 1958 concert album recorded in Rome above, for Decca in Los Angleles with a studio orchestra conducted by Benny Carter in 1955, and of course for her Harold Arlen Songbook album with Billy May in 1961 on Verve.
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Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett
album: Bennett and Brubeck The White House Sessions

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

notes: Bennett with Brubeck live in 1962, performance from the White House Seminar American Jazz Concert, held on August 28, 1962. The concert was an end-of-summer event thrown by the John F. Kennedy White House for college students who'd been working as interns in the nation's capital. With the Washington Monument as the evening's backdrop, the show was moved from its original Rose Garden location to the larger Sylvan Theater grounds nearby to accommodate the crowd.
(Bennett also sang "That Old Black Magic" in his 1962 Carnegie Hall Concert with Ralph Sharon and His Orchestra.)
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Nancy LaMott

Album: Come Rain or Come Shine

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes icon

Notes: "As an interpreter, Nancy LaMott shunned extremes . . . . And so her tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer typically avoids emotional extremes, exploring instead subtle in-betweens . . . . She basically engages in duets with carefully selected instruments (an acoustic guitar and a stand-up bass, respectively)" --Elisabeth Vincentelli, Amazon Editorial reviewer.

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Roberta Gambarini
album: So In Love

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes icon

Notes: It seems incredible that Roberta Gambarini didn't win the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition but she was new to the U. S., having just arrived from her native Italy. But with each new release, she has demonstrated that she is easily the most accomplished vocalist of the competitors for the prize. Pianist Hank Jones, who knows a thing or two about great singers, refers to her as the "greatest vocalist to come along in the past 60 years." On 2009's SO IN LOVE, with a rhythm section rotating among three talented up-and-coming pianists (Tamir Hendeman, Eric Gunnison, and Gerald Clayton), Gambarini works her magic with familiar standards and a few unexpected choices. She has a love of Cole Porter's songs, opening with a touching, richly textured version of the title song. She also restores the oft-omitted verse to "Get Out of Town," then delivers a driving rendition that shows off her gift for interpreting a song that has likely been recorded by all jazz vocal greats before her, accentuated this time by the soft tenor sax of James Moody. Gambarini is also comfortable looking outside of jazz for material, adapting Willie Nelson's "Crazy," with subtle trumpet added by Roy Hargrove. She has equal success with a medley of Beatles songs, including a moving "Golden Slumbers" that segues into a breezy "Here, There and Everywhere." (from CDUniverse.com Product Description)

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