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"Love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring." The familiar ring of Johnny Cash songs comes from Ring of Fire, and other titles/themes let Nature love take its course for two fine female vocalists with their second albums: Sun Set and My Heart's in the Wind. Lastly, Broadway takes wing as actual birds chirp show tunes.

Ring of FireRING OF FIRE
2006 BROADWAY CAST

Time Life Records

Two years ago at this time, songs written or co-written or recorded by country and western star Johnny Cash (1932-2003) became the basis for a short-lived Broadway show, and a belated 2-CD cast album has been issued. Not at all a biography of the star, not just a concert, the show used the songs to flow through down-home, staged slices of life and strife. With only the rare line of dialogue, we go down on the farm, into prison, around the family hearth, and in and out of love.

The company members play amiable if anonymous country folk who often seem confoundingly chipper even when facing poverty, pain, storms and sorrows. Qualities that you might associate with some Johnny Cash songs and his persona are largely absent. Instead of grit, guts, gravity, glumness and reserve, we get glee, game gushing and rambunctiousness. Since country music can have soul and lamenting, it would be incorrect to say, "If you like country music, you'll probably like this." Some will, but it's mostly Country-Western Lite, backbone and brooding almost surgically removed. Looking at it through the lens of musical theatre sensibilities, it's hard to see much theatricality or dramatic tension. The music certainly isn't Broadway-ized with razzle-dazzle; it's more of a jamboree. Be prepared for some hand-stompin' and hootin' and hollerin' but rosy rather than really raw.

Certainly, there's some good playing and fine (if overeager) singing from the band of eight and the lead cast of six. The sound is clean and uncluttered. Director Richard Maltby, Jr. supervised the recording, which is well produced by Robert Sher and the icon's son, John Carter Cash. Stronger moments include the very late-in-the-Cash-career "Hurt" sung thoughtfully by Jason Edwards, and, as a sucker for any pun-filled song, I enjoy Cass Morgan's fun way with "Flushed ... " The two have a superb duet on "Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan," dignified and with the "real feel" that's missing elsewhere. Beth Malone and Jarrod Emick get the pumped-up number that provides the show's title, but their duet on "If I Were a Carpenter" is more satisfying. Jeb Brown's lonely "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," is one of the stronger tracks, more on the wistful than haunted side.

Country recording star Lari White, who has also ventured into cabaret and Broadway by the Year concerts singing standards and show tunes, is always a pleasure to hear. However, she doesn't get to show the range of her talents until the solo showcase of "All Over Again," which is marvelous, a sincere but simple love song with the cry and the smile in the voice. Three musicians also get vocal spotlights. The second disc is the better of the two.

Ring of Fire too rarely catches fire. Sure, some of the songs are just meant to be diversions for a good ol' time or comic relief and may be harmless enough, but Johnny Cash's salt of the earth quality has been replaced with a high sugar content. There is talent here: we've enjoyed some of these players on cast albums in the past, and I've liked a lot of the songs when taken more straightforwardly. I would have welcomed more drama infused in them rather than treatments that seem to cheapen instead. I'm guessing this recording of the show (which I did not see, so maybe I'm missing some needed perspective) is not quite country enough for hardcore country fans and not theatrical enough for the casual cast album collector. There are bright spots among the many (39) tracks and there nine full-color photos in the booklet, along with comments from the director and snippets from Johnny Cash's published autobiography.

LindaLINDA CIOFALO
SUN SET

Lucky Jazz Music

On her second album, Sun Set, Linda Ciofalo generally rises to the occasion and shines, bringing a suitably warm and burnished sound to mostly familiar songs. With a few exceptions, the mood is pretty laidback on this theme album of sun-drenched lyrics. A jazz-oriented singer, Linda scats sometimes, gives her players generous instrumental breaks, and liberties are taken. She is quite good at setting the moods and stories, and maintaining them without losing the thread, even if woven through the tapestry of jazz. It's a sincere sound she projects, with a hint (but a noticeable one) of Billie Holiday phrasing and inflection.

Although most tracks tend to be oh so slow, it's not a murky mope-fest at all because the songs chosen tend to optimistic or serene. Think mellow, not melancholy. The lively change-of-pace numbers are refreshing. Two are choices from the musical theatre canon and are impressive for their spare but effective accompaniment and how that only reveals the strength of the vocalist (and musicians) all the more. The sly "Comes Love" from a 1939 show called Yokel Boy has Linda with only bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Matt Wilson. And it's solely the again-welcome Matt by her side for Rodgers & Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," taking advantage of the fun of the spunk and swing potential, not straying into coy/cute territory. These are the only two tracks without John DiMartino, the often adventurous and cerebral pianist who co-arranged and co-produced with Linda. John Hart, appearing on five cuts, is the guitarist. Sax player Joel Frahm guests on this track and a couple of others, including the jazz song "Orange Blossoms in the Summertime" (Kurt Elling/ Curtis Lundy) that seems to end a bit curtly but is, instead, blending into "Summertime." The two pages from The Beatles' songbook, "Here Comes the Sun" and "I'll Follow the Sun," seem a bit tepid or tentative in tempo and treatment of the material.

For slow time show time, there's another Rodgers melody, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." Therein, Linda takes the Hammerstein lyric and really paints the picture of that bright day for her sun theme and shows such skill in phrasing the appreciation of Nature. The band gets into a perfect groove. This is the "repeat play"/Ipod-addition candidate for the album. As a gloriously beautiful morning might wind down into afternoon, the logical partner song to the tale of that Oklahoman meadow's "bright golden haze" is The Golden Apple's "Lazy Afternoon," and it's here. Oddly, for an album that sometimes feels a little too much in slo-mo, the presumably obligatory languid tempo for "Lazy Afternoon" isn't as laidback-lazy as expected. Linda's vocal line and attitude try valiantly for its hypnotic mood and words luxuriating in leisurely spun images, but the hurry-it-up band seems to be trying for some energy and pace that just doesn't feel natural. Caffeine and valium don't mix.

Although I enjoy this album quite a bit, I might have a slight preference for her earlier one, Take the High Road, on the same label but with all different musicians, though the same instrumentation: piano, bass, drums, sax. It has an interesting mix of songs, including a couple of originals, and feels more involvingly romanticized.

Linda Ciofalo is a very capable singer who doesn't show off, suggesting someone more attuned to a comfort level with her music than drawing attention to any divadom or using tricks. Linda can be seen and heard tomorrow night (Friday) in Manhattan at Enzo's Jazz at the Jolly Madison Hotel.

Deborah ShulmanDEBORAH SHULMAN
MY HEART'S IN THE WIND

Well, I loved Deborah Shulman's first CD Two for the Road so much that maybe I was bound to be disappointed with her follow-up. Or maybe not. It's even better. Her warm, velvety voice is soothing but engaging. So much intelligence and thoughtfulness comes through in her phrasing. With Deborah, you get no histrionics or gimmickry, but she's far more than just another pretty voice because her involvement with the lyric shades and enhances everything. She has great taste and some reserve but puts enough emotion into her readings to steer clear of sounding like she's intellectualizing rather than feeling. However, she uses passion sparingly and caringly, knowing that, in a love song, not every heartbeat can sound like a potential heart attack. If control, introspection and cerebral qualities seem to be taking over an interpretation, the inherent sensitivity and humanity in the quality of her voice un-tips the scale.

Deborah seems to live in that zone of serenity and grown-up thoughtfulness that keeps some things in check. I suspect she has more vocal and theatrical range and power at her disposal. She and co-producer/arranger/pianist Terry Trotter take their tempi slow and easy, leaving plenty of room to explore and play with a phrase. He's known to theatre fans for his trio recordings interpreting Sondheim scores, like Passion in Jazz and that score's "Loving You" is included here in a quiet rendition that doesn't choose the road of anguish that the song has as its potential. In fact, this album has generally a calm mood, even in its sad moments. Other theatre songs are an intimate, tender version of Peter Pan's "Never Never Land" and "A Sleepin' Bee" from House of Flowers - they're both shows from 1954. The latter song has its fuzzy feel-good joy and awe intact from the first chorus and then gets jazzier and gradually picks up steam in a way that feels perfectly natural as a convincing happiness takes over. The too seldom recorded "Where Do I Go From Here?" - cut from Fiorello! - makes a gratifying comeback, the one track with a nice, long instrumental introduction that sets the scene.

Propulsive beats and pulsing throbs don't exist, and the accompaniment is spare and caring. Rejoining singer and pianist are two men from the earlier CD, the great guitarist Larry Koonse (superb throughout, again) and subtle drummer Joe La Barbera, with the only new member of the team a different bass player, Ken Wild. It's hard to pick favorites here - but I'm glad she chose the lovely and under-recorded movie songs that look back on past loves with longing: the haunting "Hotel" and the fragile tale of "The Shining Sea."

The album's title comes from a line in the lyric of its touching final song, "Shiver Me Timbers" by Tom Waits. It's one of several where Deborah's vulnerability comes through nicely in her gentle vibrato ... a convenient segue to mention that she will next be at a supper club called Vibrato in Bel Air, California on April 20.

UNDER THE RADAR

This one kind of literally flies under the radar:

Birds on Broadway"THE AVIAN CHORALE" AND "FOWLHARMONIC ORCHESTRA"
BIRDS ON BROADWAY

AniMelodies

In the great musical tradition of the barking dogs who bow-wowed the world with their hit single of "Jingle Bells," this is a birdbrain idea whose time has come. In a slightly belated nod to April Fool's Day, here's a giggle of an album - but it's no joke, it's real - various birds singing the songs of Broadway. The recorded chirps, cheeps, coos, caws and whistles of actual birds have been sorted and manipulated through technology to piece together pitches simulating the singing of show tunes. To fill things out, there's the more synthesized-sounding accompaniment of melody lines and arrangements fleshed out by the so-called FowlHarmonic "Orchestra" that can sound canned, bland and wimpy, but the birds have plenty of life.

A little goes a long way and some choices work better than others as far as comic effect and clever moments. Some listeners will go running for the hills immediately while others will find this the party album goof must-have for a Tony Awards party (or maybe a good way to be sure the lingering-too-long party guests go home). The more you know each song's every phrase, the more you can appreciate/ anticipate the choices and absurdities. The dozen selections will be familiar to most Broadway fans, though they're not bird-centric (nothing from Bye, Bye Birdie and no "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" or "The Eagle and Me").

Things get off to a flying start with "Give My Regards to Broadway." For me, the most amusing moments on the CD happen where there are musical extremes or well-remembered details; songs and arrangements that have strong staccato phrases succeed (these birds don't sustain long notes and the same sound is not used for notes close together). Little moments of amusement abound: the "The Rain in Spain"'s precise xylophone phrase of "How kind of you to let me come" echoed by birds on the pitches; the scale-teaching sections of "Do Re Mi"; the full-flock chirp on the key choral moments in "One" from A Chorus Line.

Every bird has its specialty so they stand out. (Is that a duck on the low note?) When the orchestra takes the lead too much, it can sound like cheep karaoke. That happens with the serious ballad "Try to Remember" played instrumentally and straight with the birds sounding more like interruptions.

There are two numbers from West Side Story. "I Feel Pretty" sounds like Muzak taking the melody line with frantic, frenzied bird cacophony sometimes, but the track labeled "Maria" (actually the arrangement of that melody used for "The Dance at the Gym") has some clever bits. Since The Music Man's "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" was meant in part to emulate chatty clucking-hen type of ladies, it's the best casting. And there's some oomph in the absurd bird version of "Hey big spender" from Tweet Charity. [sic].

That reminds me: you can guess the folks putting together the package maybe aren't Broadway devotees since they spell the titles of three songwriters and one show incorrectly. Well, enjoy. The same company also brings you birds or other animals singing Americana, classical music and Christmas songs. Can the all-cats cast album of Cats or the all-lions-roaring-on-pitch Lion King be far behind?


Time to fly.


- Rob Lester


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