Some thoughts in the key of "B" this week with four worthy vocal albums that would have a B+ average.
A song born in 1927, "You're What I Need," is a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart number rarely heard anymore. A singer born in that same year, Miss Barbara Cook, is still being heard today and she does a lovely job with that tender tune on her newest CD. She also graces another Rodgers melody, a brighter, lighter one: "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" with Oscar Hammerstein's lyric. Besides appearing in Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, Cook has a recording history with Rodgers music, appearing on studio cast albums of The King and I and Carousel, and she did an early solo album of all Rodgers & Hart songs. The No One Is Alone booklet accidentally credits another selection to Rodgers: with its origin in the world of operetta, "Lover, Come Back to Me" is by Sigmund Romberg (with a little help from Tschaikowsky). This uncorseted arrangement owes nothing to operetta as Barbara is comfortably loose with Oscar Hammerstein's lyric. A Hammerstein/Jerome Kern collaboration, "Nobody Else But Me" (from the 1946 revival of Show Boat) is here, too, sung with pep and confidence.
The highlight of the CD is an exquisite pairing of two Jule Styne melodies. Instantly disarming in its bare bones honesty, Barbara begins singing "Long Before I Knew You," creating a well of feeling, a serene confidence of a love fated to be. This ballad from Bells Are Ringing is interestingly paired with one that bursts its bubble. It's "I Fall in Love Too Easily," with one of Sammy Cahn's serious lyrics (introduced by Frank Sinatra in the film Anchors Aweigh) helplessly realizing one's history of a tendency to "fall in love too terribly hard for love to ever last." As she often does so expertly, Barbara lingers over a key word or pauses just long enough for an idea to sink in, with an implied sigh (for example after the phrase "and still" which precedes the title line). This is highly skilled acting, and when it's combined with that golden voice etched with emotion, it feels like magic.
As has become a specialty and special talent in recent years there's plenty of Stephen Sondheim material in this Cook's brew. In addition to the CD's title song, there's another choice from the score of Into the Woods, "No More" (incorrectly listed here as being from The Frogs). These are sung from the sadder-but-wiser position of someone with a real investment in communicating her strong point of view, not just stating it. It's Barbara as earth mother - comforting, tenacious, clear-eyed observer. Also dramatic, and in this case even nakedly painful, is Passion's "I Wish I Could Forget You." Especially remarkable is that the anguish comes through with the singing being quite restrained in volume; the emphasis is on tension and in-the-moment analysis rather than sturm und drang wailing.
In a nod to one of her earliest stage appearances, the album ends with Candide's "Make Our Garden Grow," which Barbara sings alone at first (nobly but gently), then she turns things over to Kelli O'Hara (in straightforward soprano mode) and Sebastian Arcelus, with the final section bringing in The New York Virtuoso Singers for a full-voiced ending. (No one is alone, indeed!) A dramatically bittersweet Sondheim medley of farewells could have been an effective closer, too: her readings on this duo - "One More Kiss" from Follies and "Goodbye for Now" - is moving, but, of course, downbeat.
This is not a live CD, but is a newly recorded set of songs reflecting the repertoire of her Carnegie Hall concert six months ago. Cook collectors will note that, once again, several of the numbers have been recorded before. The previous versions used the creative arrangements by the late Wally Harper; the new arrangements are by pianist Eric Stern and are more on the stately side, and sparer. John Beal is on bass and guitarist Jack Cavari appears briefly. For this remarkable singing actress whose nuanced work always rings true and sounds fresh, any release is to be treasured, as is she.
First there was Bare. Now it's Bare Again. The 1999 Bare was a 12-track CD by British-based Barb Jungr, her first solo album. After going out of print, it's been reissued (thus the new title), with three extra songs that were originally on compilation albums. A singer with a hypnotic voice who doesn't shy away from delving into the deeper fathoms of the emotional pool, Barb is intriguing and passionate in her delivery, intense in her stylings and with a throb in her voice. Listening can be heavy going through adult ardor and angst, but it's a worthwhile ride for those willing to go along and empathize. I've been willing.
Barb's recent shows in New York at The Metropolitan Room have featured her revisiting this CD and her potent Bob Dylan collection. This is a woman who does not eschew heavy emotion or psychologically and lyrical dense material. Some of it she co-writes. Her writing collaborator on five songs is her on-the-same-page pianist, the late Russell Churney, also her co-arranger and the sole musician (except on the bonus track "Mother Tongue" where James Tomalin takes over).
There is something fearless about Barb's approach. She jumps into the deep end of the pool whether it be fully embodying joy or sorrow or accepting the reality of the uncertainties of a situation. She's somewhat of a chameleon, sounding fragile as a butterfly on "Au Depart" and vigorously buoyant on Roger Miller's old "King of the Road," which would be the change-of-pace cheer-up number except that it is placed first. With an idiosyncratic airy, pleading sound that can also be vibrant at will, Barb is an intelligent interpreter. There is little wasted effort here, as she and the pianist kind of breathe as one, and both know the value of the "white space": the subtle change of tempo, the pause, the instrumental phrase that serve as extremely effective punctuation.
There's a clear-eyed sensibility as she shapes Judy Collins' memory piece "My Father" or Leonard Cohen's hauntingly enigmatic "Suzanne," both well within her grasp. "Les Amants d'un Jour," once an Edith Piaf number, builds dramatically and naturally whereas two or three of the others take more attention to get pulled into and are less spoon-fed as far as music and lyrics.
This is a sometimes challenging, usually engaging, occasionally perplexing but very worthwhile set of songs from a singer who doesn't take the easy way or the pat way. When she sings exultantly, she pulls you right along.
The piano isn't the only thing that's grand on the newest Chris Barrett CD. A singer-pianist with many years' experience playing in clubs and championing the Great American Songbook, there's a certain formality that often clings to his presentations. His Rodgers & Hart opener, "With a Song in My Heart," with lines like "Heaven opens its portals to me/ Can I help but rejoice that a song such as ours came to be" suit that style whereas it has tripped up other singers who don't easily navigate through refined waters of poetic rhapsodies. It's an elegance that suggests the respect the singer has for the craft of the songs he plays, also reflected in his attention to careful diction.
There is practically no talk included in this live set. The title suggests a relevant supper club sophistication, but "champagne sometimes" is a phrase from the lyric of one of one of the CD's highlights, a thoughtfully phrased reading of "Rain Sometimes" (by Arthur Hamilton) about the reality check of holding on for a for-better/for-worse future.
There are plenty of show tunes here. Chris has a way of proclaiming rather than crooning, and Barnum's "The Colors of My Life" and La Cage aux Folles's "Song on the Sand" are forcefully approached with an ardent urgency. Nothing coy here or copping out emotionally here - there are throbbing declarations. As far as accompaniment, there can be flourishes or bold playing. Although he is his own sole accompanist, Chris does not favor spending much time at all with instrumental breaks. Melodies don't get the spotlight that way, but are strongly on display by his clear harmonic and respectful accompaniment. While many songs begin with a strong musical "attack" rather than a subtle one, the opposite is true of a typical ending: he tends to come to the end without a big build or dramatic finish. The mood doesn't linger in the air at the end; he moves on. Could it be all those years of a piano bar reality where the practical stance might require grabbing attention as a song starts and needing to jump quickly to the next?
Lyrics about precious time passing seem to bring out his best phrasing and shadings of words. John Wallowitch's embrace of "This Moment" is well served and, similarly, Chris makes a good case a similar plea to appreciate time "While We're Here" (Danny Apolinar/ Addy Feiger). These are classy songs.
A light lament about overpriced non-alcoholic drinks, "Make It Another" by Arthur Siegel and Tony Lang, intentionally heavily references Cole Porter's "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please." Four real Porter numbers are here and give Chris his best opportunity to loosen up, and he does - in a way that might be surprising after the earnestness elsewhere, with even a couple of rolled Rs and classical swirls on the keyboard. For example, he has some loose, smiley fun romping through "Take Me Back to Manhattan." And next month will take him back to Manhattan (where I've been among those enjoying his skills at brunches and bars), as the now-relocated-to-Florida entertainer returns on June 14 for a free concert tribute to the aforementioned late Arthur Siegel: it's at the Library at Lincoln Center.
UNDER THE RADAR
Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" is like a cocktail chilled, stirred and served with a definite twist on Geoffrey Leigh Tozer's Black & White. "Sly" could certainly be the operative word and indeed he calls the radio show he hosts "The Jazz Diaries of The Sly Crooner" (online at iTunes). You might call this lounge music or pseudo-lounge music. It's certainly self-aware and lightly self-mocking, a kind of retro-cool with a decidedly strong sense of humor - a low-key medium-tempo wink that I find to be a real kick.
Of the originals, I especially like the number addressed to "Dr. Peculiar" and "Crazy Eyes." The mood is alternately mellow or funky, while the message is always loud and clear: don't sweat the small stuff and veg out with the self-proclaimed swanky guys. In addition to Mr. Tozer on lead vocals and piano, his three partners in groovery chime in vocally sometimes: Kenny Lyon on bass, Scott Breadman on percussion, Rob Brill drumming. But it's good-time, non-demanding sounds, nothing show-offy to trouble your brain.
There's relaxed fun and a wink with Rodgers & Hart's "The Lady Is a Tramp" and a fun medley of "Puttin' on the Ritz" and the old oddity "Istanbul." Two numbers associated with Frank Sinatra, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (the closest this party gets to real feeling) and "That's Life" with some lyric embellishments are also neatly essayed.
This is an easy-to-take, easy-to-not-take-seriously listen that might be good company on summer drives to the beach. Hardly emotionally involving, it's an antidote to drama if you need that and need a smile. I smiled.
In the coming next weeks: New cast albums are on their way as we're on our way to Tony time.