Ho, ho, ho and all that jazz, continued. As promised, here is the second installment of the mammoth, monstrous mega-review of maniacal proportions. For those of you extremely detail conscious (and you know who you are!), you may notice that we have more than the promised aforementioned "bakers dozen of mini-reviews." What can I say; more CDs arrived in my box between 'press' times, so my gain is yours as well.
Although most of the albums reviewed are solo albums, one more holiday CD found its way into my hands: volume three of the compilation albums put together by Jamie deRoy, 'Tis the Season. While the first two Jamie deRoy & Friends albums, (The Child in Me volumes 1 & 2) focus on songs dealing with childhood, 'Tis the Season focuses (no surprise) on songs dealing with the holiday season. The album contains a winning mix of classic and obscure holiday tunes sung by stars of cabaret and Broadway. Highlights include Stephanie Pope's jazzy "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (with superb piano arrangement/playing by Daryl Kojak), KT Sullivan's surprising country turn on "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," and Anne Runolfsson's heartfelt version of Joni Mitchell's "River." Among the other performers of note are Sally Kellerman ("Santa Baby"), Jeff Harnar, ("Little Drummer Boy"), Billy Stritch ("It'll Be Christmas Before You Know It"), and Dee Hoty ("The Twelve Days After Christmas"). Overall, this is the most pleasant holiday compilation album I have heard in recent memory and well worth getting.
The first is by Rondi Charleston, who has been wowing audiences and reviewers alike for over a decade with her sensuous voice and light jazzy inflections. Her debut album, Love Letters, amply displays her rich vocals, which are augmented beautifully by Christopher Marlowe's light jazz arrangements. Love Letters is a delightful collection of standards that include a slow, sensual "I Got You Under My Skin," and a more jazz/pop flavored "The Very Thought Of You." Her take on "End Of A Love Affair" is worth the price of the album alone as it illustrates a perfect distillation of heartbreak.
A few years ago, Mary Foster Conklin's debut album, Crazy Eyes, provided me with a perfect gift to present to the hosts of the various holiday parties of the season. Well, it loo ks like that album may getting a companion, as Conklin's follow up album, You'd Be Paradise is as infectious and delightful as her first. Backed by a killer jazz quartet, Conklin is one of those rare performers (jazz or otherwise) who burrows into a lyric and brings to the surface a rich palette of shading and understanding. The songs range from Cole Porter (the almost tribal "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and a swinging "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To") to four by Bob Dorough (the best being a highly introspective "But For Now") and even a laid back take on "The Windmills Of Your Mind." Conklin's voice and sensibilities are perfectly showcased through arrangements by Jeffery Klitz and this is a 'must have' album for lovers of intelligent jazz and cabaret.
It's a good thing that lasers don't wear out CDs, otherwise Frank Dain's album, I Thought About You, would be reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper. I received a pre-release copy several months ago, and I am glad that it has finally been released, as this is definitely another 'must have' album. Dain possesses a voice that is constantly being compared to Johnny Mathis by reviewers, which is not quite accurate. While he possesses the pleasant vibrato and slight emotional catch of Mathis, Dain sings in a lower, warmer register that makes I Thought About You as soothing as a hot toddy in front of the fireplace on a cold winter night. The album consists primarily of standards ("The Way You Look Tonight," "When I Look In Your Eyes," and "I Thought About You" being highlights) and is bolstered by subtle arrangements by Rick Jensen (who also wrote the closing track, "In Passing Years"). This is a great CD, debut or otherwise, and a great way to relax after a hectic day.
I was first introduced to cabaret staple Jeff Harnar through his inspired debut album The 1959 Broadway Songbook, which features songs from the shows that were performing on Broadway that year (it's another good gift giving idea, by the way). His latest album, Sammy Cahn All The Way, celebrates one of America's greatest lyricists, Sammy Cahn, who wrote many a standard: "All The Way," "Teach Me Tonight," It's Magic," Come Fly With Me," I Fall In Love Too Easily," "Time After Time ..." I could go on, but you get the idea. All these songs and more are interpreted by Harnar in a subtle and thoughtful manner, and are well matched by Alex Rybeck's superb arrangements. Harnar has a light, lyrical quality that is well suited to the delicacy of gems like "I'll Never Stop Loving You" and "Time After Time." He gets to swing out, however, in a World War II medley that contains the Andrews Sisters standard, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon."
One of my greatest loves is discovering those old, obscure songs that have gotten lost over the years. Thankfully, Justin Hayford has provided a much-needed fix with A Rare Find, a collection of a dozen forgotten tunes from the American songbook. The songs are from some of America's greatest songwriters, as well as from writers once popular but now largely forgotten. Most are pleasant, a few are astonishing, and a very small number deservedly forgotten (only one, in fact: Comden and Green's "You're Awful," which makes anything on Subways Are For Sleeping seem like Sondheim). Hayford possesses a pleasant light tenor and an easy touch on the piano that is well suited to the material. Listening to the CD makes one feel as if he or she were in an intimate café society piano club that features a slyly knowledgeable pianist/singer providing the right touch of sophisticated entertainment. The highlight of the album is, surprisingly, from Sesame Street: Joe Raposo's "When Bert's Not Here," a tender ballad sung by Ernie (which really brings to mind all those rumors about the two). A Rare Find is a great find for those who love obscure forgotten songs and is highly recommended.
In the fifties, Gordon MacRae was the voice of the movie musical, with film credits that include Carousel, Oklahoma! and Desert Song. His daughter, Heather MacRae, has taken a different route, focusing on Broadway (Hair, Falsettos, and Coastal Disturbances) and cabaret. Her show, Songs For My Father, which was the final show of the late, lamented Eighty Eights, is preserved on an album of the same name. This is one of the few albums that I wished included more patter, as it is filled with gems and revelations about growing up in Hollywood with a famous father, as well as stories about being on the sets of Gordon's movies. Heather possesses a beautiful liquid soprano that is a joy to listen to, making the album all the more appealing. Songs For My Father, as you may imagine, consists of songs Gordon MacRae sang in his films, including the ones you would expect (anything from Oklahoma!), to some surprises (a highly entertaining "Piano, Bass and Drums" from About Face). The album was recorded live at Eighty Eights during the final performance ever to grace that space, so it is not only enjoyable, but historical as well.
Last, but definitely not least, is Karen Mason's new CD, When The Sun Comes Out. Karen possesses one of the biggest voices on Broadway or in cabaret. On her new album, however, she truly shines on the quieter, more intimate sentimental numbers that verge towards overwrought emotionality (but thankfully never cross the line). The searing ballad "We Never Ran Out Of Love (We Just Ran Out Of Time)," written by her husband, Paul Rolnick, reduces me to tears upon every listening. John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" makes for a surprisingly tender moment, and a coupling of Jerry Herman's "I Promise You A Happy Ending" and Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart's "Hey There, Good Times" provides a shot of pure fun. These tender moments are well-balanced with some great high-energy tunes, which include a playful "When In Rome," a sexy "Taking A Chance On Love" and a delightful combination of "Downtown" and "I Know a Place." The CD, appropriately enough, ends with a restrained and touching take on ABBA's, "I Have A Dream" (she is, after all, currently on Broadway in Mamma Mia!). This is a wonderful and highly entertaining addition to anyone's collection and is the strongest of her albums (although her live holiday CD, Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! is a perfect choice for holiday survival).
Well, that should give you enough ideas for holiday gift giving and receiving. Until next time, when we'll weigh in on the classic 'top ten' album list, here's wishing you the warmest and happiest of holiday seasons.