Singer, composer and keyboard player Kiki Ebsen is perhaps best known as a contemporary jazz performer but she also happens to be the daughter of Buddy Ebsen who, in a long and versatile acting career, took a starring role in the hit television show, The Beverley Hillbillies. As Kiki was taking her first steps toward what has long since blossomed into an outstanding musical career she repeatedly refused her famous father’s suggestions that she should learn how to sing jazz standards. Now, eleven years after the passing of her dad, Kiki pays tribute to him by releasing ‘Scarecrow Sessions’ a body of work taken from The Great American Songbook and exactly the type of collection he fervently urged her to record.
The title comes from a little known story of how Buddy Ebsen, who was originally cast as the Scarecrow in the movie ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, yielded the role to Ray Bolger while agreeing to play the Tin Man instead. However, Ebsen suffered a toxic reaction to having his hands and face dusted in the aluminum that the part required. As his lungs became full of metallic particles he was unable to adequately breathe and as a result landed in hospital where, for several days, he breathed only with the aid of a respirator. He had no choice but to relinquish the role.
In terms of her own career, Kiki Ebsen has performed with Al Jarreau, Chicago, Boz Scaggs, Belinda Carlisle, Kenny Loggins. Michael McDonald, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne, Dave Koz, Steven Bishop, Peter Cetera and Christopher Cross. She appeared in the 1997 Grammy Awards with Tracy Chapman and her featured backing vocals can be found on both of Peter White’s ‘retrospective albums, the 2003 ‘Reflections’ and ‘Playin Favorites’ that followed three years later. Not only that, Kiki’s journey as a solo performer has been characterized by a series of timely and opportune interactions.
Perhaps her most significant musical ally has been smooth sax superstar Boney James with whom Kiki played before either of them had signed their first record deal. When James recorded his debut CD ‘Trust’ in 1992 it was produced by Paul Brown and featured Kiki on keys. Consequently Brown became aware of Ebsen’s music and a year later, when Ebsen released ‘Red’, it had Brown at the helm. Kiki’s sophomore project ‘Love Loud’ followed in 2000 when, in 2005, she again returned to the recording studio it was for another musical collaboration with Paul Brown.
The result, the Brown produced ‘Kiki’, proved to be a rich blend of four covers, six of her own compositions, and one song, ‘Missing You’ that was written by her father.
In fact for ‘Scarecrow Sessions’ Kiki reimagines this reflective and extremely poignant charmer to wonderful effect and another number with strong links to her dad is a stunning take on ‘Moon River’ from the film ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ in which Buddy Ebsen starred opposite Katherine Hepburn.
Elsewhere ‘At The Codfish Ball’ evokes the time when Ebsen sang and danced with Shirley Temple in the film ‘Captain January’while ‘St. Louis Blues’ is from Ebsen’s first motion picture, ‘Banjo On My Knee’, that found him starring alongside screen legends Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck. As well as being a star of the big screen, Ebsen was also a highly rated stage performer and the inclusion of ‘Tea For Two’ acknowledges that this was the tune to which he often performed his signature tap routine. Similarly ‘Comes Love’ originated in the Broadway production of ‘Yokel Boy’ in which Ebsen appeared with Judy Canova.
Kiki also includes ‘Laura’ (from the 1944 motion picture of the same name) as this was Buddy’s all time favorite tune and although the sultry ‘Easy To Love’ sends shivers down the spine, her a smoky rendition of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ features a sax solo from David Mann who also produces all twelve tracks.
However, as the title of the project suggests, this is an anthology that is never too far removed from Ebsen’s bittersweet experience with the ‘Wizard Of Oz’. Consequently the inclusion of ‘Over The Rainbow’ is totally appropriate as is ‘If I Only Had A Brain’ which, by some distance, I have selected as the Smooth Jazz Therapy top track. This sensationally melodic makeover owes everything to the collective talents of Ebsen and stellar input of pianist Henry Hay, that immaculate guitarist Chuck Loeb, bass-player John Patitucci and of course the incomparable David Mann.
Everything about ‘Scarecrow Sessions’ oozes class, from the selection of the songs, to the contribution of the musicians and even to the quality of the comprehensive liner notes booklet that accompanies the CD.
Without doubt this is a release with ‘must have’ written all over it.