John Pizzarelli's latest CD is mostly another example of his trademark - pure musical joy. A woman named Joy - Joy Nichols - is the leading lady and is heard in 10 bonus commercial tracks on the resurfacing 1955 London cast album of The Pajama Game. A look at that tale of love and pajamas is followed coincidentally enough by a CD recorded at Pajama Studios in California by Lisa B. Cats is her subject - not the musical but the actual creatures now and forever filling our lives with purr and fur.
Another tribute to Frank Sinatra? Recent years have seen the superstar saluted on CDs by Michael Bolton, Keely Smith, Lou Rawls, Steve Lawrence, Steve Tyrell, Betsy Faiella, Barry Manilow, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and many little-known but well-meaning, worshipful wannabe swingers with their eyes on "Ol' Blue Eyes." Sinatra's own two late-career Duets albums, revisiting his signature songs, served as a kind of tribute, too, with a bevy of recording artists singing his repertoire with him. After all this, would another musical trip down such a familiar road be redundant? To borrow a lyric from "Nice 'n' Easy," one of the included songs: "Relax, and don't you worry!"
This is the accomplished singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli who doesn't try to copy Sinatra in attitude or vocal stylings, nor can you sense him self-consciously trying to avoid the influence at all costs. As we've come to suspect from his many albums, John sounds comfortable and confident. His confidence doesn't manifest itself in a Sinatra style swagger (not that there's anything wrong with that), but rather with a relaxed, psychologically uncomplicated presence. Not all the titles on this album are the ones most closely associated with Sinatra; songs like "How About You" or "If I Had You" could easily be on another Pizzarelli album. Of all the selections, Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" is the one most common as a long-surviving Sinatra concert staple, and it's perhaps the one handled most differently from that familiar bombastic approach. John takes it at a slower tempo, but listen carefully and you'll hear subtle figures in the arrangement and phrasing choices that acknowledge the reference point. A carefree party invitation, "Ring-A-Ding Ding" is the perfect showcase for John's ebullience and it's bursting with energy and good spirits. Elsewhere, he is vocally more laidback than usual, but there's also a nice wistfulness in the more serious songs. Gloom, however, is not in the picture.
Joining John is the smashing Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, with many of the creative arrangements provided by John Clayton. It's too bad they didn't take advantage of the big band sound and choose a few things from the earliest Sinatra repertoire, when he sang with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands. Still, you feel that influence as the singer becomes part of the band rather than the sole focus. (Another influence, Bucky Pizzarelli, sits in on guitar.) A Don Sebesky chart for Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh's "Witchcraft," which begins with a generous instrumental section, feels like a celebration. There's a complex and intriguing chart Quincy Jones wrote for Sinatra borrowed for "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," quite different from the original moody one by Nelson Riddle.
John's well-done Nat King Cole tribute, Dear Mr. Cole, had a follow-up called P.S. Mr. Cole - so with this similarly titled theme album, I have high hopes that history will repeat itself. It's a match that could comfortably expand beyond these 11 tracks. It's interesting that the two men, both from Italian backgrounds and raised in New Jersey, also shared the bill regularly for a while about 15 years ago. Maybe there's something to be said for osmosis.
Hey there ... Sepia Records has reissued the 1955 London cast recording of The Pajama Game (just weeks after the release of this past season's Broadway revival cast album on Sony). With the exception of including the reprise of the show's hit ballad "Hey There" for female star Joy Nichols, the recording closely follows the blueprint laid out by the 1954 Broadway cast recording of the Richard Adler/ Jerry Ross score, with some breathing room for interpretation. The Don Walker orchestrations are again used, but if you know them well, you'll hear some liberties taken - several jazzier flourishes with brass and reeds in some places, and less pumped-up energy on the big company numbers.
The company is strong, but less quirky in the character roles. British comedian Max Wall was top billed as Hines, the efficiency expert of the pajama factory, and handles his singing chores competently. Elizabeth Seal (later to play the title role in Irma La Douce) is secretary Gladys, lending some exuberance to "Steam Heat" (the other singers on this track are uncredited) and her other appearances. By the way, she's an exception to the general rule that most of the cast members manage to adapt their English accents and sound convincingly American.
The leads are both robust in voice: Edmund Hockridge (heard on the British Can Can and several studio cast albums) is a tad reserved, but a stalwart and strong leading man. Although his "A New Town Is a Blue Town" presents his character as neither especially vulnerable nor especially determined, it's still well sung (trivia point of the week: he sings "darn well" instead of "damn well" in this lyric). He's more successful with his version of "Hey There," as is his very likeable and belty leading lady, Joy Nichols, in a rather deep voice. They work well together in their duets, too, despite not breaking new ground in interpretation or phrasing. They get nice and rowdy on "There Once Was a Man."
The ten bonus tracks, all featuring Joy Nichols and pre-dating her work in The Pajama Game, are an extra incentive to buy this album, if you're entertained by the innocently cute novelty songs so popular in the 1950s. That's the category several of these fit into, some echoing older eras, like "The Old Soft Shoe," a vaudeville-style charmer, a duet with her husband, Wally Peterson. Two tracks, "The Little Red Monkey" (OK, I confess this one is a bit annoying but it would make your favorite three-year-old quite happy) and "Me an' Johnny," feature co-stars Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley from a radio series she did, and the camaraderie is notable in their ease with each other and the teasing spoken asides. These are on the mindlessly silly side, but I can't resist that comical ode to the merits of mud, "The Hippopotamus Song" by Flanders & Swann, with Joy's super-deep character voice. A sole serious song is among the ten bonus tracks, the Lerner and Loewe ballad "I Talk to the Trees" from Paint Your Wagon, a sweet and straightforward version.
Following these recordings, Joy Nichols traveled the ocean and appeared in several Broadway shows. I am happy to get to hear her recordings, transferred from old 78 rpm records and sounding quite clear, as well as the enjoyable performances by the lady and her castmates on Pajama Game. It's a score I never get tired of because its good spirits are as warm as a pair of flannel pajamas.
UNDER THE RADAR
The inclusion of two Cole Porter songs is what attracted me to this album as possibly appropriate for our column. Well, honestly, it was the retro-hipster cartoon cover that first caught my eye. Then, my ear was caught, too.
WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT?
This is, in large part, a quirky item. Lisa B. (also known as Lisa Bernstein) records mostly original material on her albums and this is her third. Her theme of cats finds her doing everything from crooning a touching history/tribute to her own pet, "When Malika Sleeps," to ruminating on the mysteries of felines in spoken sections, to vocally posing and purring through the old Tom Jones hit, "What's New, Pussycat?" by Burt Bacharach and Hal David as she whispers come-on comments in her self-appointed role as sex kitten.
Cole Porter's classic "Night and Day," nicely sung and laidback, is combined with her spoken poem, "The Cat Goddess." Her other Porter pick, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," is also relaxed and languorous, although it reveals that she's not conscious enough about intonation. The lyric has no reference to cats, but it seems that a house is not a home to Lisa unless a couple of cats are around. Such is the lyrical case in "Our House," the very fine, cozy old Graham Nash tune ("... with two cats in the yard,/ Life used to be so hard ... "). Lisa does a sincere and lovely version of this, my favorite track on the album, simple and unadorned. She's accompanied just by piano and bass on this track.
Many of the numbers have a free jazz feel with a sense of exploration. Her pianist on most of the tracks, Frank Martin, is an adventurous and intriguing player who adds a great deal of musical interest here. He is especially notable on "The Home Inside," which has a standout solo for him and is also one of the more interesting tracks for Lisa, as singer and co-writer (with Scott R. Looney). Not everything will have broad appeal, what with a bit of mild rap and some abstractness, even a few "what was she thinking?" moments for me. Although very much a mixed bag, this CD has some nice moments.
And that's what's new, pussycats, in stores this week. Next week, a look at [title of show] and other titles and shows.