TAKING THE MAC AND TAKING THE MIC:
CABARET AND ALL THAT JAZZ
And the winner is ... the audience. There's a lot of great music applauded every night in New York City. On Monday night, at Symphony Space on Broadway and West 95th Street, Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) gives out its annual awards to honor those who toil in the fields of jazz and cabaret (and comedy, too). We're not in the business of making predictions; we're just here to report on new CDs by current and past nominees and winners. Most cabaret shows have a cover and minimum, so here we share with you the full-color covers of the CDs and a minimum of a couple of paragraphs about the songs ... originals and "covers."
MAC honors live performance, and four of these CDs were recorded live. We begin our survey with a trip down Memory Lane with a living legend, and finish up by introducing you to someone, in our new weekly feature we call "Under The Radar."
How does she do it? Keely Smith is now in her 70s and her voice sounds super-strong, rich, and just plain wonderful, with energy to spare. Best of all, the unique, recognizable vocal timbre from her early hits remains. She sounds warm but not fragile on ballads, and red hot on swingers, so the management at Feinstein's at the Regency should adjust the thermostats accordingly. The elegant nightclub is where this CD was recorded, and Keely's back for the next few weeks doing a similar program.
Featuring songs from her legendary high-voltage Las Vegas act with Louis Prima in the 1950s, she channels Prima on this recording and sings some of his wild solos, as well as their duets. Included are their trademarks "That Old Black Magic," and "Just A Gigolo." Whether Keely decides to "Jump, Jive And Wail" or croon "Sweet And Lovely," the lady does what the song title states - and then some. Jazz and show biz anthems "When You're Smiling" and "Basin Street Blues" are balanced with the ballads "More Than You Know" and her signature number, "I Wish You Love." With the included talk, this pro comes across as completely unpretentious and seems to be having a blast. Speaking of blast, listen to that band - it's conducted by pianist Dennis Michaels, who happens to be her son-in-law, and features eight other "swingin' cats."
Brash, brassy and bombastic, the act hits the ground running and keeps going. Since it is meant to recreate the sound and ambience of those Vegas lounge days circa 1958, no attempt is made to significantly rethink the material or to look at things from some new bittersweet perspective. Coincidentally, two different collections of Louis and Keely songs are being released just about now, one on CD and one on DVD. Last year's MAC Award for Major Engagement went to this show, and for all her work and many albums since 1958 was really 1958, it's well deserved that this week Keely Smith is honored with MAC's Lifetime Achievement Award. Thankfully, she's not done yet.
The 2002 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award was given to jazz guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli, who makes three guest appearances on the latest in a long line of satisfying CDs by his son, John. The only thing better than one Pizzarelli on guitar is two. Here's your MAC multiple-choice quiz question: In what year did John win his own MAC Award for his jazz work in clubs?: 1996, 1997, 1998 or 1999? The answer is, of course, all of the above.
I think it's probably impossible not to like John Pizzarelli. He's ultra-smooth and will make you feel good with his contagious positive energy, not to mention expert musicianship. His trademark optimism is perfectly showcased in material such as "New Sun In The Sky" (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz) and the old Fred Astaire pick-me-up, "Pick Yourself Up." John's ebullient vocals and virtuoso guitar playing are there as always. In the last few years, a growing thoughtfulness and reflective sense has become evident in his ballad singing. The liner notes are more revealing, too, as he explains personal connections he has to some of the songs and songwriters.
What a treat to find "Coffee, Black" from the Broadway musical Big by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. opening the album. It's a cup and a half of pure fun, with its little musical joke for the attentive and fast-perking joie de vivre. An old Saul Chaplin/Sammy Cahn chestnut, "If It's The Last Thing I Do" is the last thing he does, and in between there's a little bit of everything ... all good.
None of the 15 cuts has only his usual talented trio partners, pianist Ray Kennedy and brother bass player Martin Pizzarelli. They appear on most tracks, but there are others joining in as well. Drummer Tony Tedesco is on all but two cuts and other guests include Harry Allen on tenor sax. There's one instrumental, an evocative "The First Hint of Autumn," which spotlights another of John's abilities, composing. He also co-wrote the deftly amusing title song with his talented wife, Jessica Molaskey. Happily, she also is heard in a duet on another funny tune, Dave Frishberg's "Quality Time," with which it shares a certain sensibility as a quirky take on day-to-day modern life. Combining forces in live shows and on each other's solo albums (her three are all superb), they're just great.
John Pizzarelli has been releasing CDs steadily and this jazz wiz works - excuse me, gigs all over the world. Can John's own Lifetime Achievement Award be anything but inevitable? I also hear that John's young son has a guitar.
Another jazz artist with a MAC Award, among other accolades, is the classic and classy Barbara Carroll. Her most recent recording is another fine example of her artistry. In a long career exploring the Great American Songbook, she often leisurely and luxuriously examines the gems she puts under her musical microscope. There's no once-over-lightly look here: each of the tracks is over six minutes long, except the last, which is five and a half minutes. Always treating songs with dignity, and then adding more, she pulls a listener in so that one pays more attention to the melody line, note by note. Whether done by stripping a chorus down to the bare essentials or by dressing it up with new harmonies and rhythms, it works. She is a course in music appreciation. Making jazz more than a bit classical, she brings out the best in any song.
Four vocals prove, if you need proof, that this premier pianist has as much understanding of, and respect for, lyrics as she does for melodies: "You're Driving Me Crazy," "Fly Me To The Moon," Sondheim's "Old Friends" and the delicious Cy Coleman - Peggy Lee collaboration, "I'm In Love Again." The highlight of the CD is a hypnotic journey through Fats Waller's "The Jitterbug Waltz" in combination with the title song of the musical Do I Hear A Waltz?. Also spellbinding are "Don't Like Goodbyes" and "Stella By Starlight" (which incorporates the Ravel melody "Pavane For A Dead Princess" which became the jazz ballad, "The Lamp is Low.")
Keeping Miss Carroll good musical company, as he often does, is another past MAC winner, veteran bassist Jay Leonhardt. Also on hand for this live set is drummer Joe Cocuzzo who's also found in the band on the Keely Smith live album. Miss Carroll has been ensconced at the Oak Room in Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel on Sundays, but this recording comes from a run in 2003 a few short blocks away at Birdland. Whichever place she's at, she's always at her best.
Also captured live at Birdland is Natalie Douglas, who has five MAC Awards and six additional nominations, including one this year for Female Vocalist.
One singer singing another singer's songs in tribute can be a no-win situation. If you slavishly copy, you're criticized for being an unoriginal, pale imitation and if you change interpretations a lot, you're blasphemously disrespectful. Happily, Natalie Douglas falls into neither trap and emerges unscathed and undiminished in her loving salute to Nina Simone. Simone, the legendary "high priestess of soul," died two years ago this month at the age of 70. Actively involved in the civil rights struggle, she was unwilling to compromise how she expressed her views in spoken comments at concerts and the words of the songs she wrote or sang, even when this cost her work and visibility. Most active in the 1960s and 1970s, she eventually left the US to live overseas. Her often raw and powerful performances deeply affected many, including Natalie Douglas, who grew up hearing the material, and it stuck with her. She wears it well.
Although lighter in voice and persona, in some moments Natalie seems to channel her idol and shows flashes of her intensity and vocal colors. To the good, Natalie's sunny spirits shine through enough without watering down the material or glossing over the drama. Many of the late lady's trademark songs are here ("I Loves You, Porgy", "My Baby Just Cares For Me") though there's only one of her own compositions ("Four Women"). All will be appreciated by those who know the legacy, but it must be said that no prior familiarity is required to "get it." The songs and the younger singer's versions will reach you either way. A few comments before certain key songs put them in context.
Those who know how Natalie Douglas can raise the roof and pull out the stops will find some of this a bit held back until the encore of the spiritual "His Eye Is on The Sparrow." As he was on her previous (first) solo CD, talented Mark Hartman is musical director and hooray for that.
One of the highlights is "I Put A Spell On You, and she does: this is a vocalist who is especially powerful in live performance. It's a happy job to report that this works well as a CD, too. If you want to be put under the spell in person, the tribute will be reprised next month in New York City and at the Plush Room in San Francisco. The singer's website, www.nataliedouglas.com, will give you details on this. She's still young, so I hope she has room on the mantle for more awards.
Nominated in the same category as Natalie Douglas is Lisa Asher, who previously won a MAC Award as Piano Bar Entertainer. She's been on the cabaret scene a while now, and also has performed in theatre pieces featuring the catalogues of Woody Guthrie and John Denver. Hailing from the South, she still is comfortable with country and folk songs. Often attracted to songs which tell a story, she chooses material from those genres and, to a lesser degree, more traditional cabaret and Broadway fare. Your enjoyment of her song choices will, of course, depend on whether or not you share what she calls her "very eclectic musical taste."
This is Miss Asher's second solo album. Her decision to release a recording of her live show just as it happened means that there is a lot of talk which you might not want to hear on repeated listenings. It's friendly and gives you a feel for her personality, but adds to a pervasive "guess you had to be there" feeling. She reads an actual newspaper obituary intended to set up the sad "Just A Housewife," by her mentor Craig Carnelia, but it gets unintentional laughter though she sings the song well. Her acting and capacity for vocal variety are also nicely demonstrated in a medley from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, but does it need its two-minute spoken introduction preserved on CD? OK, I can skip over those next time. A bigger frustration is that Miss Asher's has a strong voice and acting ability, but neither is best showcased with some of the tunes as done here. She shows tenderness and a good sense of drama on Don McLean's "Vincent"; Janis Ian's heartbreaker, "She Must Be Beautiful"; and the portrait of "Sister Clarissa." The last-named is the most successful and interesting of four by songwriter Michael Smith. The others eventually have a couple of cute ideas but, like the singer's trip from Flour Creek, Kentucky to New York, it's a long way to go.
The sound and production on the CD are not as good as hoped. Recording live can be tricky. Her voice occasionally sounds harsh and the band a bit muddy. Her musical director, pianist and co-producer is Jeff Waxman, Asher's husband. Marco Brehm is on bass and Bob Green is kept busy playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin. Miss Asher is to be commended for not being another clone cabaret singer and for seeking out a variety of styles to fuse into a cabaret act. I think she picked a stronger (but also quite varied) mix on her first album and I'm curious to see what she'll find next time around.
"Versatile" must be Lea DeLaria's middle name. That might look funny on her birth certificate, but then again, she's always been funny and unique. On this CD, she doesn't show many hints of the outrageous comedy which first brought her to wide attention. Though an album going back to 1992, Bull Dyke In A China Shop, showcased both her warmly X-rated comedy and several jazz vocals, it's taken a while for the news to spread that she's serious about singing. It's no joke, and she digs into music with as much relish and fearlessness as she has her stand-up act and theatre roles, which have ranged from Beckett to Rocky Horror. And, yes, along the way she has been nominated for a MAC Award for her Joe's Pub show which included songs from her previous CD, Play It Cool, which includes creative jazz takes to some show tunes. This time around, she brings her MAC truck personality to rock hits. You're not a rock fan? Don't go away ...
The daughter of a jazz pianist, Ms DeLaria was brought up swinging, and she sang in clubs starting in her teens. In love with the music, she and a group of serious jazz players have managed to convert the rock and roll into real jazz, and they might just convert you, too. Call it reinventing, call it an alternative to Alternative Rock, call it crazy, but it works quite well. Matt Pierson is the producer. Gil Goldstein is associate producer, plays piano on 11 tracks, and arranged all but two of them. The CD has been available overseas for a year-and-a-hal, and just recently received its US release. Familiarity with the original versions of these songs is not a prerequisite for enjoying this, although it might make you more impressed or, for some rock purists, reluctant. No matter what, it's another change of pace from a woman whose stock in trade is surprising us.
There are past hits from bands like The Doors ("People Are Strange"), Green Day ("Longview") and Blondie ("Call Me"). Neil Young's despairing "Philadelphia" is in good hands for a reflective turn. Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun," which once was reupholstered by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, gets yet another identity theft. Those with closed minds are ordered to stay after school and try this. As for the rest of you, enjoy!
COOL, COOL, COOL:
Could they be any more honored with MAC nominations this year? Leslie Anderson is nominated as piano bar singer, Ricky Ritzel as piano bar instrumentalist, and as a duo: their Johnny Mercer Birthday Show is vying for Best Revue (it's still playing) and their Mercer CD is up for Album Of The Year. They're not Johnny-come-latelys to this material; the two have been living in Mercerland for a long time with an ever-changing weekly "A-To-Z" act which has gone through dozens and dozens and more dozens of the songwriter's numbers. A bit of a chameleon, Mercer wrote with many different composers of varying styles, and sometimes wrote his own music. He wrote pop songs, Broadway and movie songs. Tastes of each are in this 15-song CD.
The two Broadway songs are both brash comic pleas: St. Louis Woman's "Legalize My Name" introduced by Pearl Bailey (music by Harold Arlen) and "I Fought Every Step Of the Way" from Top Banana, the only song here with Mercer's own melody. They are fine vehicles for Leslie Anderson's good-times sense of fun. Her voice is clear, unadorned, and unpretentious. Most of the songs are her solos, but on a few numbers, pianist Ritzel chimes in. "Chime" may not be the right word since his voice can be as raspy as hers is clear, but it's all fun and quite entertaining. They sound like they are having a ball, presenting the songs in a pretty straightforward way, not trying to rethink, revise or reharmonize. Still, they make it all sound quite fresh with their delight in the material as written is more than evident.
Occasional respites for the ballads "Skylark" and "Not Mine" add a change of pace, but things never get gloomy. This is a party; there is even a Louis Prima and Keely Smith salute as the pair do "That Old Black Magic" as Louis and Keely did it for their hit record (which won another award, the Grammy, in the very first year those honors were presented). Leslie and Ricky seem to be cast from the same mold.
UNDER THE RADAR
This week, we begin a new regular feature to bring your attention to something interesting you might otherwise miss. The large number of new CDs that come out is enough to make your head spin (some make your head hurt, but we will not be talking about those). We will spotlight recordings of higher quality but lower profile which could be lost in the shuffle. It's part of our mission, and it's a pleasure to shine a spotlight on those doing quality work, whether they are newcomers or not. Our first item from the under the radar is a young singer with an impressive debut album:
Just what the doctor ordered for tired ears, Jasper Kump has a voice that's smooth and sure to soothe, but with lots of energy, too. In an eclectic program of show tunes, pop, jazz and more, he sounds comfortable in each suit of musical clothes. In fact, he almost reeks of sincerity in a disarming way. Newly and happily relocated in New York City, the Californian salutes the big town with the lively, jazzy title song and two others (Billy Joel's "New York State Of Mind" and "Only In New York," from Thoroughly Modern Millie).
With rose-colored glasses firmly in place, young Mr. Kump's optimism permeates the proceedings. If this makes him miss the regret in Stevie Wonder's "All In Love Is Fair" or come across as even more naive and untouched by the cruel world than Kermit The Frog when crooning the amphibian's "Rainbow Connection," let it be ... which reminds me, he also sings "Let It Be." A thoughtfully phrased, slowed-down take on James Taylor's "Shower the People" is quite successful, bringing out the message of the lyric persuasively. Joyful Jasper's singing is helped and enhanced by top-drawer musicians and arrangements. One cannot underestimate the contributions of music director/pianist/arranger Russ Kassoff, who contributed the one original melody. Tasteful work by the other experienced hands adds class in major amounts; Jesse Levy's cello on "Fields Of Gold" by Sting is exquisite.
Musical theatre fans will be pleased to find "When I First Saw You" from Dreamgirls and a few show tune standards. The pretty-voiced singer is not afraid to also be lively and bigger-voiced on some; he's had theatre experience and was on the studio cast album of The Scarlet Letter.
Some of our "Under The Radar" picks may not be in your local store; Sunday In New York is available through www.OriginalCastRecords.com or www.CDBaby.com or www.JasperKump.com, where you can hear audio clips and learn a bit more about him. If one day he's accepting a MAC Award, too, you can say you heard about him way back when and send your thank-you e-mails to Talkin' Broadway.
... see a live show at a cabaret or club. Have a drink and join us in toasting all the nominees and wishing them well. For a complete list of all of them, more information on MAC and the Awards, visit www.macnyc.com. 2005 is full of interesting new releases in cabaret, jazz, and cast albums. More next Thursday. We'll be listening for you.