You're the Top
Top Ten Vocal CDs of 2005
In the Cole Porter lyric "You're the Top," the cream of the crop was something as satisfying as "the smile on the Mona Lisa" or "the purple light of a summer night in Spain" or "a Berlin ballad." Actually, one of those [Irving] Berlin ballads, now 80 years old, was the second most-recorded tune among the albums reviewed over the year: "Blue Skies," with nine appearances. The song most covered has a melody by Harold Arlen whose centennial year was 2005: "Over the Rainbow," on 13 albums reviewed. And I still love both songs. That brings me to one of my main considerations: Does the CD, after an initial impression, hold up? If the material is familiar from other recordings, does the singer bring something fresh to it? If it's a lesser-known song or one newly written, does it start to feel like an old friend (new standard) after repeated listenings? The quality of the production, arrangements and work of the instrumentalists are crucial considerations. Above all, the singer must have a special sound and quality, something real and unique that comes through. And that singer must know how to use it. I loved the following, not listed in any particular order.
Some singers just sing. In his debut album (on Sh-K-Boom Records), Jason Robert Brown sings, plays piano, is associate producer, did all the arrangements and orchestrations except one, conducted one of the orchestral tracks, and wrote all the music and lyrics! And he does it all impressively, with enormous energy on an always exciting and often explosive album. Yes, he's wearing many hats and in the title song talks about Wearing Someone Else's Clothes "and feeling fine." I feel fine every time I listen to this album.
The composer-lyricist of Parade, The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World is not putting his own spin on songs heard on those cast albums. There's new-to-disc stuff here - and open-heartedness, rage, wit, joy, and humor. Above all, there is passion. Jason has a strong and compelling singing voice, unlike many songwriters. No disclaimer is necessary; he is very much the dynamic performer and a fearless one (in person, too). His subject matter includes family and romantic relationships, the music business (an eyes-wide-open "Getting Out") and even a touch of "Heaven." When he lays his heart on the line, it can touch yours. When he's on fire, fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.
Another singer-songwriter with a wow of a solo album debut is the terrifically talented Johnny Rodgers, whose Box of Photographs is on the PS Classics label. He writes alone and in collaboration with others, including his album's producer, Richard Barone. Reflecting his Southern background and eclectic musical influences, there's a bit of everything here: hard-driving feel-good pop, folky strains and sultry tropical grooves. There's an intelligence, a sense of yearning and questioning that peek out from many corners in these original songs which are well constructed but neither slick nor simplistic. With a voice that can show an attractive plaintiveness or the solid confidence of a rocker, he'd be engaging enough just as a vocalist. But Rodgers is an all-around musician, as his work here and elsewhere indicate: he plays piano not only for himself but also for singers like Liza Minnelli and Sally Mayes. (He and his band play on another fine 2005 album - Lee Lessack's collection of duets, In Good Company which Rodgers co-produced, and he performs on a duet track, too.)
Box of Photographs is an impressive start for someone who should have a long and strong career. The material is not Broadwayish, but in an interview this summer, Johnny told me he has an interest in writing musical theater, so it's intriguing that he's already thinking outside the Box. Like Jason Robert Brown, he's a musician whose many talents are shown to good advantage on a first solo album. (Fun fact: they both have soul mates named Georgia who are musicians.)
Moving from vocalists who sing their own material to those who mine The Great American Songbook, cheers to Barbara Brussell whose CD is virtually all love songs, all the time. She's come up with a radiant and smart love fest. Although mostly ardent, she has the variety of some trouble in paradise. Lerner in Love is her second album and it's delicious. Surveying songs with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, she visits Camelot, Brigadoon and more. With classic show tunes and a few rarely done, she sings with an actress's instincts and a canny cabaret singer's skills. Barbara is very present in a moment-by-moment way in her interpretations, sounding very wrapped up in whatever point a love song's lyric finds her. She clearly loves to explore a lyric and finds new ways to phrase and shade familiar lines. She can also belt!
With musical director-pianist Tedd Firth and other fine musicians like the veteran guitarist Gene Bertoncini, this is a class act. With the man who wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Gigi, etc. - all represented here - Barbara had a wealth of literate lyrics on love to choose from and gets to 25 of them (five tracks are pairings). The album is from LML Records, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2005.
Also focusing on romance was one of 2005's earliest releases. This is her debut solo album, but Rachel York is no stranger to cast albums and theater singing. Titled Let's Fall in Love and available exclusively at Barnes and Noble on a label called Hylo, it's a romantic Rachel all the way. The album does not make use of her skill for drama and expression of complex emotions, as the song selections are basically about being content and comfortable in love. No struggle or torch here, it's all perky and plucky pronouncements or warm and cozy time with material like "My Funny Valentine," "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)," "All The Things You Are," and "Someone To Watch Over Me" (all from Broadway shows). Her voice is strong with a great energetic belt on a few cuts, but it's more often lustrous and luscious. The arrangements on the ballads give her room to stretch out and cuddle up to the lyrics and relish the melodic lines. The upbeat numbers kick into pretty high gear and lend variety to contrast to the make-out sessions. In good voice and sounding comfortable, she presents an attitude that love can be relaxed and quietly satisfying (the gratitude of "I Love How You Love Me") or playful (revisiting Sondheim's "Sooner or Later" which she sang in the first New York version of the revue Putting It Together). No angst here. Her love songs are all happy ones and happily ever after is fine by me with this pro with a gorgeous sound.
More bittersweet, and thus more powerful, is my favorite tribute album of the year. In 2005, I reviewed singers' salutes to Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, Fred Astaire, Nina Simone and Judy Garland. Tender loving care is abundantly present in a tribute to Rosemary Clooney by her daughter-in-law, Debby Boone. Although she's done some stage work in musicals, because of her earlier work in pop and religious music, Debby had not been well known for her grace with standards. Reflections of Rosemary shows that she gleaned a lot from Rosemary's style. Wisely steering clear of the light pop tunes that dominated the early Clooney career (such as her first hit, the novelty "Come On-a My House," which happens to show up on Rachel York's CD), Debby draws on the material Rosemary sang when they knew each other. That means solid classics like "Time After Time" and "The Best Is Yet to Come" (both also on Rachel's album, coincidentally).
Singing thoughtfully, showing great care with the lyrics, Debby rises to the challenges. Her innate sweetness is tempered with maturity and the jazz-inflected arrangements. She's in the company of Rosemary's longtime musical director/pianist, John Oddo, and many musicians she worked with, including John Pizzarelli, and that is a big part of why this all works so well. Debby seems to have absorbed many Rosemaryisms. Whatever effort there may be doesn't show.
The album begins with "Blue Skies" and ends with a one-chorus "hidden track" of the same song, a private tape Rosemary made for her grandson, Debby's child. The liner notes explain the personal connections with each song. On her mother-in-law's record label, Concord Records, the album was produced by Allen Sviridoff, Rosemary's manager-producer.
Switching from mother-in-law to mother, we come to a stunningly beautiful album of pianist Bill Charlap joining with his mother, the sublime Sandy Stewart. Their Love Is Here to Stay is on Blue Note Records. Either is excellent without the other, but together they are exquisite. Bill played on one of her earlier albums, Sandy Stewart & Family, but this time it's just the two of them. Completing the family connection are two songs with music by Bill's father, the late composer Moose Charlap, both previously recorded by Bill's mother.
Sandy is the top, and her Berlin ballad is "Always," but she's always glorious. What makes her so special? She has a rare elegance and a sound that is spare but full of emotion. An expert in pianissimo, she knows how to combine tenderness with a kind of tension that makes a listener really listen harder. And her basic vocal quality is so musical - pure without being at all antiseptic. There's a lot of vulnerability and a human soul radiating through the professionalism, plus a warm kind of wisdom working.
Bill is one of the great pianists in the jazz world, with an intensity and a cerebral style, though much of that is held in check when he is an accompanist instead of a soloist or leader. His Gershwin album earlier this year is masterful, and there are three tunes by the Gershwin brothers on tap here: the title song and "I've Got a Crush on You" in a medley with "Do It Again." This CD is pure and simple; and it is mature, graceful and the perfect balm after the noise and headaches of the day. It is, pure and simple, a beauty.
The opposite of the one singer/one pianist album is Carols for a Cure. Yes, it's a Christmas album with dozens and dozens of artists. The annual holiday release from the cast members and musicians of the year's Broadway and off-Broadway shows (including holdovers from past seasons) is made to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The 2005 edition, Volume 7, is especially good. In addition to some well-sung versions of Christmas standbys in new arrangements, there's a great deal of original material. Many of the selections reflect the tone of the show whose cast contributed the track. I was happy to find "Snow Song" ("It's Coming Down") from Striking 12 (an exciting musical recorded this year) sung by the company of The Light in the Piazza; and surprising choices (sincere carols from shows known for comedy) and what a laugh-riot are "The Annoying Drummer Boy" and "Christmas in My Mobile Home" (that one from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, of course)!
A lot of great theater talent handles a big slice of Christmas pie in this 2-CD set. I suspect that in future years, as many will feel nostalgic and miss the current crop of shows, this will become a welcome reminder of the theater season - in a seasonal mood. On the Rock-it Science label, it should be available from the BC/EFA website if your store has stored the Christmas albums for the year.
As a non-Christmas gift to listeners, the charming and winning ways of Tony DeSare are on display in his first CD, Want You. This is a perfect example of an album that grabbed me right away, that I never tire of, and just seem to enjoy more each time I play it. He is a very hip singer. Especially ingratiating, this is the kind of album that doesn't wear out its welcome, although your fingers might get a bit sore from snapping them.
The opening track is "Baby, Dream Your Dream" from Sweet Charity and it sets the tone for a thoroughly cool and musically polished set. Tony is also a pianist, playing great little figures and phrases. On two tracks, however, Tedd Firth does the honors (as he does on the Barbara Brussell album discussed above). Both are wonderful showcases for Tedd: One is the Broadway song "Just in Time"; the other is the tender movie title song, "Two for the Road" (Henry Mancini/ Leslie Bricusse).
What makes this album extra-special is this: the guy is a talented songwriter. He wrote one song alone, "Marry Me," a proposal in song, and five more here with his bassist, Mike Lee. These originals show real facility in construction and are in the tradition of "the kind of songs they don't write anymore" (they do! they do!). All is not jazzy swing, however; vulnerability is on display as well, in the nature of the material and the interpretation. Overall, Tony projects an upbeat, optimistic look at life. His glass is half full, and his heart is very full. The icing on the cake of this Telarc release is the presence of the veteran guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. What's the bad news? There isn't any.
On another Telarc album, Bucky Pizzarelli returns, this time the star is his son, John Pizzarelli, who has a habit of making wonderful recordings. This year's Knowing You is special because the songs have connections to important musician friends in his life. A deeper emotional fabric has been increasingly evident in John's singing in the last few years. That's all to the good, adding colors to his palette as he retains his other qualities: high-energy hipness, unpretentiousness, spunky humor, immense likability and of course ferocious guitar skills.
With songs from stage and movie musicals (among others, "Pick Yourself Up," "New Sun in the Sky" and Big's "Coffee, Black") percolating, it's a mostly sprightly go-round. But there are effective ballad moments, too, plus another two delicious tastes of John's songwriting, one on his own and the title song co-written with his wife, Jessica Molaskey. She joins him on Dave Frishberg's tune, the witty, contemporary "Quality Time" (about the lack thereof). As in the past, their duet is savvy and savory. A smashing singer with three outstanding solo CDs herself, Jessica isn't on the 2005 top 10 list year for the simple reason that she didn't release a CD last year. John's next one is already a fait accompli: a Sinatra tribute.
When a little-known singer can stand up among the heavyweights with some of the same material, she must be good. Debra Wagoner is one such singer. She has a solid, rich voice that has an unaffected sweet quality. She's a musical theater performer who tours the country in lead roles, and her debut album, The Hopeful Romantic, is aptly titled: it sums up the attitude in the material she's chosen. Some of the numbers are covered in albums on this list: "My Funny Valentine" (on Rachel York's and one of the most recorded standards over the years). The Gershwins' "Love Is Here to Stay," and the Arlen/Harburg "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" (both on Sandy Stewart's album) are here, plus more by the Gershwins ("The Man I Love") and Arlen ("Come Rain or Come Shine" and, yes, "Over the Rainbow."
Debra's sincerity shines through, and she also has a good sense of theater. A song from the musical Violet, "Lay Down Your Head," is throbbing and full of emotion (it's one of the shows she's been in). With fine accompaniment by a trio, the recording is well executed and a treat. This is one of the albums I've especially enjoyed discovering and spreading the word about this year. Our Under the Radar feature at the end of each column brings your attention to a singer (or show) that doesn't have a major label (or maybe no label at all) and may be released quietly. But there's a lot of talent out there and it's very rewarding to sift through and find the gems. Debra is one of them, and I hope we'll hear more from her.
NOT "ELIGIBLE" BUT
Because of the self-imposed rules of not considering CDs with material recorded much earlier, I didn't include two CDs I anticipated most this year and adore! I just don't think older material should "compete" with new recordings. But they're so historic and so worth having, I want to honor them.
Nancy Lamott, the much-missed cabaret singer, was recorded in a club engagement in her final year (1995) and the resultant CD, Live at Tavern on the Green, was issued this year. Her earlier albums (they're all on the label Midder Music) are finally widely available again, too. Although most of the songs are available on her other CDs, considered as a separate entity, this is a lovely and thrilling recording. It includes some of her casual patter, which gives a sense of her personality for those who were not lucky enough to have seen her work in person, which was very emotionally involving. The set list is a good cross section of her repertoire and a fine document of her open-hearted singing style and the way she connected so strongly with songs and audiences.
Twenty more tracks, previously unreleased commercially, are scheduled for issue on CD in the new year. And several DVDs are also being released of her performances. This is tied to a June concert at Symphony Space in Nancy's memory, featuring cabaret singers interpreting her material. Meanwhile, the posthumous in-concert album, with "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "The Promise" is a treasure, here finally ten years after its recording, but a treasure for any year.
One top-drawer album that would easily be on the top 10 if it had been submitted for review is Barbara Cook's latest, Tribute. It is yet another perfectly polished jewel in what has become a mighty body of work. This latest album includes salutes to those she admires, including Harold Arlen, opening with "I've Got the World on a String." Musically, she does. She is in a class by herself. No one has her combination of pathos, involvement and know-how as she inhabits a lyric so fully and shapes a melody with such honed skill. The timbre of her voice and its natural beauty still captivate. Whether she's relaxing and cutting loose in a tip of the hat to a fun song associated with the late Bobby Short or simply ending with a "Smile," this is a dream. Also Tributed here is her longtime musical director and friend, Wally Harper, whose arrangements have been such a part of her signature. But she carries on, with a live concert this month scheduled to be her next album, in March.
This flashback feels a bit like stumbling upon something in the attic that you'd always wondered about and then finally experienced. Sondheim Sings Vol. 1: 1962-72 and Sondheim Sings (Volume II: 1946-60), released amid the celebrations of the writer's 75th birthday, have been lovingly produced and packaged by PS Classics. Lyrics and historical background are supplied in booklets, and Volume 3 (the final one) is promised for this year. I can't wait.
Lastly, my rules prevented me from considering half-length albums (EPs), but two were exceptional: Spencer Day (The Movie of Your Life) is a red-hot singer-songwriter who is growing by leaps and bounds. We'll be hearing a lot more from him. Nicole Dillenberg's abbreviated recording Just Like Heaven proves that good things come in small packages: only a few tracks, but a real pleasure.
Thanks to all the great singers and their musicians in our Top Ten. "You're the top/ you're a Waldorf salad ... You're a Berlin ballad ..." Now that we've gotten Over the Rainbow with the Arlen centennial, we've begun the 100th birthday celebration for composer Jule Styne, born on New Year's Eve: Just In Time.