These three ladies heat things up for summertime. In fact, two of the three cover the classic song "Summertime."
This very hot Patti Austin CD knocks me out. She takes a bunch of Gershwin songs, many that have been recorded a zillion times over the decades, and brings a rare genuine freshness to them. The smashing arrangements and playing take much credit, too. Nothing sounds hackneyed, tired or desperately reinvented in a gimmicky arrangement just to be different. My shelves hold a dozen Patti Austin albums, and several others where she does a track or a few (everything from a cartoon soundtrack to Handel's "Messiah"), but I've never enjoyed one as much as this. Too often, her tracks didn't allow her huge voice to be fully showcased, as she'd be buried in funky grooves or burdened with extra smooth jazz encumbrances.
The genre-crossing singer has recorded in many styles, but taking up standards and show tunes was first fully embraced on a vinyl album called, encouragingly, The Real Me (1988, among the standards are two by the Gershwin brothers not in this set). She's "real" here, as well, and really loose. She wails, sails vocally over the band and takes charge, like she she owns the songs. There's no mega-layering of sound or background vocals. Much of the excitement comes from the fact that it's a live album, recorded in two concerts last year in Germany. (The credits note additional studio recording.) The big band is punchy and brassy, no mush or overly lush sounds here. It's the WDR Big Band, who also did the honors for her fine Ella Fitzgerald tribute album, For Ella, five years ago. This time the arranger-conductor is Michael Abene who co-produced the album with Patti.
A masterful, multi-song Porgy and Bess medley is set up by an elegant instrumental section. In an unusual move that works, she sings the usually bold and assertive "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" as gently and earth-motherly as she does the traditional lullaby moment, "Summertime," which follows. She's more languid on that and serene. There's no attempt to emulate an operatic approach here.
Another canny combo is the opening track just listed on the back cover and inside panel as "Overture/ Gershwin Medley." It comes as a happy surprise that this is no quickie mood-setting intro. It's a solid 12 minutes of songs, featuring a playful "Slap That Bass," going from sultry to belting, among other treats. The giant set-the-bar-high-right-away set piece ends with a wonderful if redundant-by-then invitation to "Strike Up the Band" which is grand before the "I Got Rhythm" anchor reappears.
There are gentler moments, too, such as a combination of two songs, "Love Walked In" (she includes the lovely verse) leading into "Love Is Sweeping the Country" and then, smoothly, back to the first one. Patti croons and caresses these melodies. It comes as a respite from the brassy moments - vocally and literally, from the band, with just piano accompaniment. Elsewhere, some of the belted notes tones may strike some as a bit gritty and less "pure" than desired, but it comes off as part of the intensity and willing to go all out. Her ballad turns show her talent at tender phrasing.
There is plenty of good ol' jazz sensibility on the album, fully brought out on the last track, "Oh, Lady Be Good" with its tour de force scatting section, the band featured in a wham of a jam, and the whole thing capped by a big high note from our Gershwin-adopting diva.
There are no liner notes here beyond a one-sentence thanks to George and Ira Gershwin for their oeuvre, and the credits for other lyricists involved, like Irving Caesar for the composer's very early success, "Swanee," and the Buddy DeSylva nod for "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (they missed DuBose Heyward's contributions on a couple of Porgy and Bess collaborations).
The whole album is invigorating to hear and reinvigorates the warhorses with not a cobweb in view.
OK, I'll admit that I face these albums with the trademark songs of European legends Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya and such with a certain trepidation and reluctance. It's not that they are my personal worshiped favorites, but they're so iconic that it's hard for others not to sound like watered-down pretenders to the throne. If a singer is finding a daring new way with them, that's its own tricky path to trod, but the respectful, conservative approach can feel very been-there/heard-that. But if someone is going to follow in the footsteps and carry the torch - or serve as an introduction for the uninitiated - I'm darn glad it's the very able and engaging Suzanne Petri.
This singer's grand Das Grand Tour works quite well. This, her second album, has light moments and a few latter-day songs that keep us from being locked into the history museum. Her throaty voice captures a lot of emotion and committed, focused expression. She can carry off this material because she has the actor's skill of really slipping into the skin of a created character and being convincing. Suzy ("Call Me Suzy", suggests her cute opener by Luke Nelson, so I will) can play it straight or entertain with comic skills that actually make fun of the melodramatic genre of chanteusery.
Based in Chicago, Suzanne has long been active in the city's cabaret community. So, it's especially a hoot to hear her do "Das Chicago Song," the hilarious number brilliantly pastiched by Michael Cohen and Tony Geiss that uses some memorable lines of heavy Kurt Weill pieces mixed in with reasonable facsimiles and parodies. (Weill gets his "real" moment with "Surabaya Johnny" where somehow the sound quality suddenly changes, seemingly in a cloud of fog.) "I Am Your Friend" (Bill Weeden/ David Finkle) is an interesting oddity that has its own wicked fun and surprises. In both, Suzanne masters the antagonistic, world-weary, disgusted-with-it-all attitude she adopts on these twists.
But back to the serious business. Whether it's Noel Coward's "If Love Were All" or Piaf's anthem "Non, je ne regrette rien," the lady goes for the gut with that no-apologies, smiling-through-tears stance. The final track, "Beguiled by Me," was written by Chad Willetts who accompanies her on piano in this haunting and theatrical character sketch that is a highlight. (The recollection in the repeated line, "Oh, how he looked at me," is imbued with such bittersweet longing it is nearly heartbreaking.) Otherwise, Suzy is in the company of just one, two or three musicians, many times including musical director Bob Moreen on the keys. You'll also witness appearances, variously, by clarinet, bass, accordion, sax, percussion and bouzouki. All add to the flavor and authentic feel.
Though the album is mostly in English, it should be well noted that, appropriately, Suzanne slips into other languages on some tracks for her European adventure and sounds quite comfortable. Das Grand Tour has a confident and capable tour guide.
UNDER THE RADAR
And now the frequent pleasure of shining the light on a new singer with a promising debut album:
"Summertime" from Porgy and Bess is the second cut on Jessica Johnson's first CD, Till It Happens to You. It follows the simmering, slinky, contemporary, R&B-inflected title track, and after these first contrasting selections, you can see she has some range. This "Summertime" is a slow- burning ember that heats up nicely. She digs into the song and soulfully encourages, comforts and emboldens. Jessica has a powerful voice that shows some influence of more modern pop divas, but she fits herself into the jazzy standard style pretty well, too. Strong-voiced, she can sing with unbridled passions of joy (the Irving Berlin classic that's being recorded a lot the last few years, "Blue Skies") or a bit of vitriol (a torchy "Cry Me a River").
With the songs I didn't know, I found myself listening more to her singing stylings and intensity than the songs themselves. Ultimately, I'm more impressed with her vocal chops and intensity than with the nuance of interpretation and communication, but she has a lot going for her.
A fan of employing melisma, she tends to ornament notes by stretching them, with a fervent approach. She can come off as overwrought at times, and could pick and choose peaks more judiciously. Though I'd like to hear more of her purer tones just glimpsed here, her bluesy, sultry sound will suffice for now. Real sincerity comes through in a determined but well-balanced "I Believe in You and Me," (Sandy Linzer/ David Wolfert), popularized by The Four Tops and later by Whitney Houston. It's a solidly written melody and lyric that has a well-positioned, dramatically effective high note as an asset, and Jessica has the goods. While I'm mentioning songwriters, I'll just lament the oversight of not crediting any of the songwriters. It's nice to know who wrote a song, especially with some unfamiliar ones and confusion with a title like "You and I" that is used by more than one song. (She does the Stevie Wonder gem, not the Leslie Bricusse one which she could do nicely, too, I bet, but she handles the Wonder with polish and ardent directness.)
Thomas Tomasello is producer, and also the arranger and the trio - meaning he plays piano, bass and drums ... presumably not at the same time! (Three cheers for the marvels of layered recording.) Is this why the trio sounds so tight? They, I mean he does an excellent job and I'd like to hear more soloing, since what we hear in bits invites more of the same.
I can't help but smirk a bit when Jessica sings the first line of Leon Russell's looking-back-on-life "A Song for You." It goes, "I've been so many places in my life and time ..." Why the smirk? Because our singer is all of 19 years old. Having just finished her freshman year of college, she's been singing for a while and there is a real confidence that shows. Yes, it would be welcome to hear her not go for broke so much and calibrate the power here and there, but that should come with time. The San Jose-based young lady is frequently called upon to sing the National Anthem. That's not on the CD but it's lurking on her website www.jessicajohnsononline.com along with other songs and information. Till It Happens to You is more than just a good start. It's act one of what could be a satisfying series of albums over the years. She's got the notes, and she's worthy of note.
That's our final July chapter of Sound Advice as this summertime moves right along. August will offer reviews of more singers and cast albums plus some DVDs of singers at work before an audience. Summertime ... and the listening is easy.