Currently at the Cafe Carlyle, and each with a new solo album, the Mr. and Mrs. of classy jazz/cabaret cool, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey take center stage and can each take a bow for more fine work. Another John comes in under the radar.
If Jessica Molaskey sounds like she's on holiday after her rather serious and thoughtful last outing, Sitting in Limbo, she has taken the family on vacation with her: accompanied by a plethora of Pizzarellis. Husband John Pizzarelli and father-in-law Bucky are on guitar, with brother-in-law Martin on bass. Aaron Weinstein joins them on violin. The little group of musicians with a giant amount of talent and simpatico with the vocalist get some generous instrumental breaks. Being "on holiday" is kind of the feel because of the large number of songs emphasizing a peppy or carefree mindset ("Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "Tea for Two"). The formidable actress that she is doesn't have much to sink her teeth into as these chipper, cheery and chummy tunes don't have much meat on them. Many are plucked from songbooks of the early decades of the last century: "Bye Bye Blues" and "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" are senior citizen members of the American Songbook. Ain't no crime being in a good mood and seeing the glass as not just half full, but having runneth overand Jessica and her string fellows bring a measure of hipness to some moments in the pep rally.
Two original songs by the vocalist and husband John are, as usual, pluses that are literate and contemporary. "Take Me to You" gives us some of that special brand of Molaskey wistfulness mixed with clearer-eyed optimism. The other, lighter, original piece, "Hiding in Plain Sight," lets the writing partners become singing partners as they spend some clever rhyme time strolling down lover's lanecute! This track is the only one with a piano (grooving ambience by Larry Fuller, also on John's new Richard Rodgers album). John duets on a slow vocal of "Tea for Two," too, bringing some gentle idyllic romance to the proceedings, especially with the inclusion of that great verse that begins, "I'm discontented with homes that are rented, so I have invented my own ..." The Weinstein violin picks up the tempo with a featured solo, and then the couple returns in the brighter tempo (less attractive, with the "sugar cake" feeling a little too sweet). Just when you fear this tea will be bagged, they slow down again and rekindle that just-right tender touch.
Of course, romantic love is the stated or implied cause and raison d'être for most of these happy habitsshow tune fans will be happy with an endearing yet winkable new version of the rarely heard "Happy Habit" from By the Beautiful Sea (Arthur Schwartz/ Dorothy Fields). The mantra "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You" works pretty well as old-fashioned declaration of what it's all about, and we've got a good saleswoman here. Sincerity and a fast-held set of beliefs in such truisms come through loud and clear (well, not always loud, as she can purr and croon when the mood suits her or the song, but clarity is a strong suit).
Two Stephen Sondheim numbers from shows the singer-actress has spent time with are special treats. Her recent Broadway time in a park with a certain George brings her attention to the tale of how "Everybody Loves Louis," done with panache. From Bounce (née Wise Guys, now Road Show), it's great to have a new version of a standout number, "Isn't He Something," sung in the show by the mother of the main characters, the brothers Mizner. Here Jessica finds different layers and moods to bring out, not just the surface. The tension is great, the heartbreak is present and so is parental pride. Her talent and versatility shine through. Isn't she something?
John Pizzarelli just has music pouring through his veins and radiating joyously through every pore. After a quarter century of recording, he's turning his attention, voice and guitar to one of the Mount Rushmore-worthy icons of musical theatre, with an album dedicated to the melodies of Richard Rodgers. Before you shrug and get smug and say nothing fresh can be found, remember that this is the master of freshness. His upbeat personality and irresistibly contagious joy of the music bring new life to even the most frequently recorded mega-standards. And he does this mostly without treating the material in gimmicky or dramatically unique ways. He stays mostly in his "safe zone" of snazzy and/or laidback, but it's a zone I like, too, and satisfaction is there in spades. Still, there are moments I'd like him to get a little more naked with the sorrow (the Lorenz Hart lyrics have so much melancholy to mine) or maybe go wilder on a solo.
In the brief liner notes, John admits he's always eschewed doing album collections of the giants, and he hasn't been around as long as some. But this Johnny-come-lately is worth waiting for and shows great affection for the songs, and their elasticity and durability are proven anew. John is joined by his other usual cohortsso we get the usual terrific work on bass by brother Martin Pizzarelli, spiffy drummer Tony Tedesco plus pianist Larry Fuller, who sounds particularly dazzling heresubtle but solid throughout and ready, willing and much more than able when given a chance to solo for a bit (wish there were more of that). With half of the 12 tracks arranged by one of the greats in the field, Don Sebesky along for the joy ride, things do indeed swingwith flair and with easeon the quicker pick-me-ups like the title number and "The Lady is a Tramp." (This "Lady" trots at a clip faster than most, coming in at just over two and a half minutes, but finding a few seconds for a cute ending with a mini-embellishment taking some impish artistic license.)
Another bit of smile inducement comes with "Johnny One Note," as John makes musical mirth by going bossa nova and segueing briefly by free association into Jobim's analogous "One Note Samba." The most inventive mischief comes with the less often heard "I Like to Recognize the Tune," lamenting how jazz musicians take so many liberties that ... well, you know. And of course, art imitates art as the musicians go to town on the instrumental break. Along the way are instrumental nods to Rodgers tunes like "Blue Moon" and "March of the Siamese Children" that theatre fans will recognize.
But it's not all fun and games. There's the Pizzarelli pensive side: soft crooning from the heart without artifice or sticky corn syrup. With father Bucky doing sensitive (it runs in the family) guitar work, the rueful "It's Easy to Remember" is understated but touching. The back-in-the-spotlight South Pacific gets two nods: a happy "Happy Talk" that really brings home the message that "if you never have a dream, then you'll never have a dream come true." The other is "(You've Got to Be) Carefully Taught" in which the warmth of the singer's heartfelt sound takes on the necessary cautionary tone and wariness to achieve the desired unsettling tone. I wonder if it makes for the best ending (decidedly downbeat) for this album whose buoyant charms dominate, (despite a couple of aching lonely ballads). But any Pizzarelli in the air is worth the absorbing, as proven by a long and consistent history of swellness, suave and sensational sounds.
UNDER THE RADAR
Like the two married singers reviewed above, new-to-disc John-Eric Booth is a guy who's married to good old songs. In common with John Pizzarelli's CD, he chooses "The Lady is a Tramp" and, like Jessica Molaskey, he posits "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You." That's a coincidence, but the other similarities are not coincidences. It's not hard to hear what this hard-swinging man has been hearing: lots of spins of the records of his apparent idolsicons like Bobby Darin and other finger-snappers. He's too lively and strong a singer to dismiss as just another wannabe copycat but his copying ... er ... sincere tributing shows less originality than adulation.
The truth about Mr. Booth is that he has a bright, muscular sound and creates some sparks but he need not dip so deeply into the talent pool he wants to swim in unless he labels his album as an homage with borrowed stylings, vocally and as to the arrangements most favored by the giants. For example, he starts "Steppin' Out with My Baby" with a nice (unbilled) instrumental montage of a couple of brief phrases from standards also introduced by Fred Astaire. Then it's clear he's been studying the Tony Bennett version; in the arrangement and tempo he blatantly appropriates some Bennettisms: singing "the big day may be ..." then speaking the word "tonight" which would normally be sung on the high note and when it reappears at the end, clipping it and calling out the unique-to-Bennett P.S.: "What a night!" And his "arrangement" of "The Lady is a Tramp" owes more than a few musical punctuations and exact instrumental figures to the Nelson Riddle arrangement for Sinatra. Though he doesn't ape the master's sound and swagger all the way, it still comes of as, frankly, Frank following.
John-Eric has a lighter sound, like Harry Connick, Jr., whose songbook he double-dips into also. But he generates such energy, you just want him to be himself or find himself. And he's fun in a party kind of way, a latter-day Rat Pack pack of energized singing.
The backings are by Pat Longo's Hollywood Big Band, and sound bright and brash for the most part, in an attractive way. The credit seems an afterthought as it's just on a sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap. After thanking God, his family and friends and "all my fans everywhere," he says "If I forgot to mention your name ...forgive me." Not sure if the bandleader and their names were forgotten mentions in the packaging (the singer is credited with the design) but nobody thought to credit the songwriters or album producer.
Fortunately, John-Eric Booth doesn't seem to naturally and unavoidably resemble a particular famous swinging singer, so there is room and reason to think he'll come to form more of his own identity without getting swallowed by shadows of the giants. And speaking of shadows, he shows a nice way with a heartfelt ballad on "The Shadow of Your Smile," a number recorded by a few of his aforementioned clear influences. As a singer who works very much in another's style (for the effect of recalling stars), he has attractive vocal qualities and captures the style all too well. Let's see where his roads take him.
Meanwhile, for flashback hits in the vocal footsteps, he's learned from his forefathers. Maybe too closely at their metaphorical knees, but he can indeed swing!