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Taking a Chance on Love is the title of the debut CD by a New York-based singer, and the song also appears on another lady's snazzy, jazzy debut. Moving from all-singing to all-swinging (with some singing), a dance-friendly big band CD takes some chances and honors the past.

Taking a Chance On LoveMILLA ILIEVA
TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE

Kritzerland Records

This is a live album, recorded in performance last Valentine's Day (though not mentioned in the packaging, the venue was Danny's Skylight Room, the year 2006, and the show was titled So Many Nights, So Many Men). What you can't tell just from listening to the CD is that Milla Ilieva is a visual performer who effectively employs movement, facial expressions, reactions and strong eye contact as key elements in putting a song over. These techniques embellish her purely vocal skills that mix a formal, trained sound she can use in a straight legato way with prominent vibrato. She also has moments of actorly phrasing, going for comic effect in ways that interrupt the musical flow to clip notes and emphasize a word; this means speaking or whispering a word rather than singing it. It's not musical "cheating" as some range-challenged singers do; she's got the notes. I find the phrases when she just sings simply or uses full voice to be the most satisfying.

With lust and love the subject matter, Milla has chosen some musical theatre classics, like "I Could Have Danced All Night," and some rarely heard, like "I Found Him" (All in Love), which she combines in a medley. She takes this famous/not-so-famous pairing tack three times, with smart matchmaking skills. A highlight is the comic bit "When Does the Ravishing Begin?" from the British musical Lock Up Your Daughters. Milla has a lock on that one and all her skills come together: precision, control, loopy and giddy humor and some rewardingly showy notes.

She also does a trio of Kander & Ebb numbers, having high-calorie fun praising the products of "Sara Lee"; getting loose, nutty and appropriately slutty with Steel Pier's "Everybody's Girl"; and offering a clear-eyed reality check on "The Only Game in Town," cut from The Act.. In the patter and some of the song characterizations, the Virginia native posits herself as a self-styled, self-satisfied Southern belle, sort of Scarlett O'Hara as tutored by Mae West.

On some selections, there's an affect that can come across as arch or smug, with mannerisms that create distance rather than intimacy and true vulnerability when needed ("Where's That Rainbow" and "Time Heals Everything"). I perceive more of a feel for sincerity at the very end, with "Half a Moment" from By Jeeves; more of these coy-free moments and more straight from the heart or big, lush singing straight from the diaphragm would be welcome.

Veteran Paul Trueblood is on piano and also serves as musical director and arranger. His accompaniment tends to be understated and tastefully graceful on the more serious pieces where fleshing them out might compensate for what reads as resistance on the singer's part to dig deeper.

A Bistro Award-winning singer, Milla has also performed at The Town Hall in two multi-performer concerts and appears on the Broadway Unplugged live recording in a fine performance of "Dancing in the Dark." You can also check out her website and listen to three satisfying songs, two being Paul's compositions with the lyrics of Jim Morgan. They show her to better advantage and play to her strengths of storytelling and sophisticated vocal velvet quality.

The CD is notable for its wealth of musical comedy numbers, those well-known and those rarely heard outside their cast album original performances. With her willingness to put some grinning and gusto into it all, Milla can be a sweet comic valentine that could make you smile with your heart, to paraphrase another Hart. If Taking a Chance on Love doesn't score on every chance taken, it does live up to its title and takes some chances.

IntersectionsROBERTA DUCHAK
INTERSECTIONS

"Taking a Chance on Love" is a joyful proposition on Roberta Duchak's new CD, Intersections, where the attitude is that the chances will be well worth taking; the feel on that track and elsewhere brims with optimism. Love is a good thing. The riveting singer is backed by a super band featuring the arrangements of reed man Jim Hoke, who plays six instruments here and is co-musical director with the album's producer, Phil Swann. Pat Coil is the pianist with Charlie Chadwick on bass, Bob Mater on drums and Pat Bergeson on guitar. Ace players all, there are some cool solos that don't overstay their welcome and there's a nice loose feel.

Roberta works mostly in Chicago and on the road in musical theater, including a recent six-month spell doing 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Performing in Show Boat for two years made her want to do her own more bluesy and pensive version of one of its big numbers, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man"; it's superb from beginning to end. That old torch song is just one of the winners here. Her fresh interpretations are imbued with intelligence and genuine artfulness and heart rather than tricks or self-indulgence.

Besides a couple of tracks that might be a bit tighter or increase in intensity sooner, I can't find much to fault here beyond the omission of the names of some of the lyricists in the credits. Roberta has been heard on disc a bit, on two albums with other Chicago singers, Second City Divas from the 1990s.

The album title refers to the approach of jazz meets Broadway, with the crossroad being 52nd Street (nicknamed "Swing Street" for its history of jazz clubs that once lined it). The genres blend well, one freshening and informing the other, with Roberta sounding like she confidently has a foot in each. Especially gratifying are some recent Broadway songs, especially Dirty Rotten Scoundrels's "Nothing Is Too Wonderful" which is deliciously relaxed and sensuous. "Raise the Roof" from Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party is just the opposite of that track: a real firecracker, instant party that sizzles. Rent's "Seasons of Love" sheds its anthem status and the accustomed fervent flavor, and is surprisingly effective at a slightly slower, more thoughtful pace. It seems maybe too casual at first hearing and might benefit from just a little more variety in the arrangement, but the heart comes through.

The jazz sensibility here is more often warm than cool, in that the emotional approach on these theatre songs is rarely aloof or detached. "Almost Like Being in Love" is a little too casual for its own theatrical good at first, skillful but not so involving. The last chorus turns up the heat and the offhand contentment morphs into celebratory relish.

Roberta can be brassy and sassy ("What You Don't Know About Women" with impressive mastery of its quick jazz shifts and build) or lusciously creamy in a ballad. The closing track, "So Many People," brings loving warmth and feel-good ambiance to the Sondheim ballad.

This album is one of my very favorite issues of the last few months. This intersection is a happy meet-and-greet moment for Broadway and jazz, a marriage that works here ... perfectly.

UNDER THE RADAR
Although musician Gary Tole has been around the music business for many years and recorded with stars as well as his Legends of Swing band, his work may be under the radar for those whose focus doesn't always take in swing and big band sounds. He gets to a few show tunes in his new album that make me want to put in a good word (or a few) about it.

Gary ToleGARY TOLE &
LEGENDS OF SWING
ONE KETTLE FOR COUNT

Summit Records

Honoring the big band tradition but being cool cats rather than copycats, Gary Tole and Legends of Swing bring us more jazzy sounds and music that's dance ready. Trombonist Gary is joined by three other trombonists in the band, including Scott Whitfield who wrote the title melody. The CD is officially released on August 7, but can be ordered now.

Songs familiar to theatre fans include Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," one of the tracks with a vocalist. The rendition hardly mines the drama but takes it easy and breezy. The singer is Cassie Miller, and she duets with Mike Costley on Frank Loesser's playful "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Likable singing, with an ear to the tempo rather than interpretation, it's a happy time for ears and feet.

Even casual pop fans will note a juiced-up theme from TV's "American Bandstand" and the Beatles favorite "With a Little Help from My Friends," with Mike singing again, though this one gets too homogenized into the middle of the road. The change of pace heart-tugger is a Johnny Keating arrangement of the classic "Someone to Watch Over Me." There are jazz favorites from the past for those more inclined to jazz.

This CD is a nice burst of energy well worth putting on your dancing shoes for ... for sure.

And now I must dance away from here, ready to take a chance on loving next week's selections.


- Rob Lester


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