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James NaughtonThe award for 'Most Appropriately Entitled CD of the Year' goes to James Naughton. Since we have been promised a solo album by Naughton for several years now, It's About Time is a very apt title indeed. Luckily, the CD, which contains numbers from his most recent cabaret show at the Café Carlyle, is well worth the wait. At first, It's About Time gives the impression of being yet another exquisitely-produced, well-sung album of standards, thanks to numbers like "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," "I Concentrate on You" and an extremely playful rendition of "Makin' Whoopee." However, as the CD progresses a musical evolution takes place as the album takes a side road into more contemporary territory, visiting songs by Lyle Lovett (an extremely jazzy rendition of "She's No Lady," a number that could be the playful sister of "Makin' Whoopee"), Randy Newman (a deliciously introspective "Marie"), Tom Waits (the mildly down and dirty "Invitation to the Blues"), Lieber and Stoller ("Loving You") and James' son, Greg Naughton (the slightly pop/country tinged "The Sun Went Out," which, while a stylistic departure from the rest of the album, is one of the more enjoyable tracks). My personal favorite is "Stress," an incredibly infectious, quasi-70's patter romp by Jim Infantino.

It's About Time owes a lot to music director/producer John Oddo (well known for his work with the sorely missed Rosemary Clooney) as he has done a masterful job of making the album sound unified without ever becoming monotonous. Naughton sounds incredible, with his sensually deep voice caressing each note and word like velvet on a diamond.

Simple SongIn a previous musical theater era, Matt Bogart's voice would have been the first to grace songs by Rodgers and any of his myriad partners, or Lerner and Lowe: basically, any songwriter who wrote songs that coupled highly emotional lyrics with a powerful vocal line. To listen to Bogart on his solo CD, Simple Song, is to delight in a voice that soars to the highest heights and descends to the barest whisper. His transitions on "Her Face" from Carnival and "Simple Song" from Mass are breathtaking examples of control and subtlety. To hear the understated emotional weight he gives to Aida's "Elaborate Lives" and "Written in the Stars" (both with LaChanze, who is overdue for a solo CD of her own) is to witness silk purses being make from the proverbial sow's ear. The simplicity he finds in Marie Christine's "I Don't Hear the Ocean" is simply astounding. This is perhaps the best solo album devoted to the musical theater oeuvre of the year and is a must-have CD.

Keely SmithLovers of the big-band sound need to rush out and find Keely Smith's latest album, Keely Swings Basie-Style. A sixteen track tribute to big-band/swing legend Count Basie, the album is one of the lushest, most romantic recordings to come down the pike all year. I challenge anyone to listen to "You Go To My Head," with its sensual, primal pairing of Keely and an 18-piece orchestra, and not start slow dancing with the nearest romantic possibility. And I doubt anyone can keep still when "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" starts off with a big brass bang.

Keely started her career many decades ago in Louis Prima's band (Prima, who later became Keely's husband, is perhaps best known nowadays for portraying his namesake in Disney's The Jungle Book and for "Jump, Jive and Wail," which was used by The Gap in one of its more popular ad campaigns). Her voice has not diminished a bit over the years and she still can swing with the best of them, making Keely Swings Basie-Style the perfect accompaniment (and non-holiday themed alternative) for any upcoming gatherings.

Melissa LangtonLast year, Melissa Langton was the winner of the Cabaret Convention in Sydney, Australia. Her prize, an appearance at the Convention's New York counterpart, was delayed a year due to illness. Those who were not in attendance at her New York debut in October will have to settle with her solo album, When The Rain Falls Up, a very impressive debut album, indeed. Stellar vocals aside, the album is a wonder due to the fact that there is not one standard to be found on it. Instead, Langton tackles pop numbers by Rupert Holmes (the poignant "Letters That Cross in Mail" and "People That You Never Get To Love"), Tony Hatch (the '60s hit "Call Me," which is given a gospel/samba makeover), Tom Waits (the delightfully entitled "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis"), and Leiber and Stoller ("Love Potion No. 9"). From the musical theater cannon, Langton makes some exquisite non-traditional choices as well, such as "Better" (from the Ed Kleban musical, A Class Act), "I Sure Like the Boys" (Lucy Simon/Steve Tesich's number from A My Name is Alice) and a pairing from Kander and Ebb's The Act, "I'm Not In Love Today/The Money Tree." Even her two 'traditional' numbers are rather obscure: the Billie Holiday/Jeanne Burns offering "Who Needs You" and a re-writing of "My New Celebrity Is You" by Johnny Mercer/Blossom Dearie (with guest vocals by Kane Alexander).

Given the variety of writing styles present on the album, music director Mark Jones has done a remarkable job of giving the CD a largely unified feel. Only one song produces a bit of a jar, the driving, disturbing "I Am A Marionette," an obscure ABBA number that in Langton's hands more closely resembles something Kate Bush would dream up. While the song feels more than a touch out of place on what is a largely restrained and playful album, it is also the strongest number on the disc performance-wise and emotionally. For more information on Melissa or to find out how to order her CD, visit her website, wwww.melissalangton.com.

D.C. AndersonD.C. Anderson, currently touring with The Phantom Of The Opera, is one of theater and cabaret's most eclectic performers. Who else would release a CD containing "The Humming Song" from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, a Manhattan Transfer-esque version of the theme from The Flintstones, self-penned tunes with titles like "Is It Peace or Is It Prozac?", comic numbers like Christine Lavin's "Music to Operate By" (a must for the medical professionals in one's life), or heartrending numbers like Anderson's "After The Funeral."

Anderson's latest CD, Collected, contains 16 songs from two out of print albums, Time Was and Blue Summer Day, plus four new numbers that are among the more serious and touching numbers on the disc: Harry Chapin's "Winter Song," Cheryl Wheeler's song on the aftermath of suicide, "Beyond the Lights," Anderson's "After the Funeral" and the beautiful "Something Simple" by Mary Huckins.

Anderson possesses a subtle and supple voice that envelopes every song like a well-made glove and caresses each lyric with an understated honesty that is both touching and refreshing. For more information, visit www.dcanderson.net. [NOTE: Amazon has a few copies remaining of the out of print 2 disc Blue Summer Day, so buy now, or be satisfied with the 10 tracks from it on Collected]

EncoreBefore morphing into her current Euro-pop opera diva incarnation, sometime Broadway soprano Sarah Brightman released two albums celebrating showtunes: Surrender: The Unexpected Songs and The Songs That Got Away. Her latest album, Encore, contains ten tracks from those albums, four unreleased tracks from their recording sessions, and one number from the Phantom cast album ("Think of Me"). If one already possesses the previous albums, it is hard to justify purchasing this CD for its new tracks, although the four new numbers showcase Brightman at her (largely) most restrained and are among the strongest songs on the album. "One More Walk Around The Garden" from Carmelina is delivered in a crystalline simplicity that is remarkably (and surprisingly) touching. While Brightman is not quite suited for Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" (from Saturday Night), she is perfectly equipped for the Gershwins' quasi-operetta "In the Mandarin's Orchid Garden" (from East is West) and sings one of the better versions of "Whistle Down The Wind."


-- Jonathan Frank


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