Here are some female singers with new recordings featuring quite a few songs from musical theater - Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley who toil in those fields, plus two women who are steeped in jazz but know their way around a good theater lyric: Daryl Sherman and Judy Barnett. And in case you still need some Christmas music, here are a couple of things we've caught up with under the wire (one under the radar, too).
EMILY SKINNER & ALICE RIPLEY
They're back! The talented singer-actresses who played conjoined twins in the Broadway musical Side Show joined each other again, in a full-length concert as part of October's second annual Broadway Cabaret Festival at The Town Hall in New York City. Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley's concert was thrilling in person, and Bruce Kimmel, who produced their two previous duet CDs and Emily's solo outing, was there to record this one. The boisterously enthusiastic audience response is captured on disc as are the personalities of the singers, teasing each other occasionally but clearly taking pleasure in each other's company and talent. The between-song patter is included, both chatty and catty, and it's easy to skip over if you prefer (the CD is tracked so that each cut begins with the music).
There are 19 tracks on this 2-CD set, nine of which they have recorded before (including the selections from Side Show). Besides the in-person feel and a revved-up energy that crackles through the proceedings, the accompaniment is quite different: Whereas the prior recordings had bigger groups, this concert has a quartet - a solid one - that includes bass player Randy Landau, with Jack Bashkow on reeds, plus Alice's drummer husband Shannon Ford. They're led by pianist Ross Patterson, well known to followers of events put together, as this was, by Scott Siegel at the venue: Broadway by the Year and Broadway Unplugged. The studio work is all well sung and the full arrangements are wonderful, but it's hard to argue with the real kinetic reality of these live performances. The phrasing is often sharper and more personalized in many lines and the singers sound very "in the moment."
Eight of the selections are duets, and the only one they hadn't recorded before is "Trouble," a raucous pop song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (also included in Smokey Joe's Cafe). They pull out the stops on this one: strutting, growling, belting and generally bringing the house down, which they had a habit of doing that night, well before the ultimate climax of the Side Show numbers, saved for last - the powerhouse emotional duets, the pleading "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and the pledge of "I Will Never Leave You" after Alice sings "She's Gone," a song cut from the musical. Nine years have gone by, but the singers sound as potent and involved as they do on the cast album.
Alice's other solos mostly showcase her steely presence and steel-belted voice as she takes on musical theater numbers, including Michael John LaChiusa's "Cigarette Dream" (from his score to Little Fish) leading into the title song from The Last Smoker in America, written by Peter Melnick and Side Show co-writer Bill Russell. Tom Kitt accompanies her on piano for an interesting song he co-wrote with Brian Yorkey for their musical, Feeling Electric. It's her most sensitive solo opportunity, as she sings the role of a troubled woman ("I Miss the Mountains").
Emily's solos show a wider range of styles and tones, from the lovely lullaby "Sleepy Man" (The Robber Bridegroom) to character pieces. "I never wanted to be an ingenue!" she declares before launching into the gleeful and gloating villain tour de force from The Little Mermaid, "Poor Unfortunate Souls." Chortling and waling wickedly, it's one of three very different comic personae she tackles.
Each singer takes on a Sondheim favorite: Emily is soothing and serene with "No One Is Alone" that stays close to the original path and Alice has some fun with the showy "Broadway Baby." Together, they reprise Sondheim's "Every Day a Little Death" from their first album of duets called, simply enough, Duets. And it's simply a no-brainer to recommend this live CD set if you like big-voiced musical theater. These are two sensational singing actresses in fine form, alone or together.
Christmas albums are like ravioli: they can be meaty or cheesy. So many have been released over the years, foisted on overwhelmed shoppers, and some feel thrown together or half-hearted. The Telarc label has come up with quality and class in both its Cincinnati Pops CD and a compilation drawn from its numerous jazz holiday albums.
Christmastime Is Here is in many ways an album in the traditional mold, with the songs respected, but nothing sounds too tired. The playing and singing are very alive. There's a little of everything here: jam-packed medleys of carols for choruses, children's voices, instrumentals, "Silent Night" by the King's Singers, and the holiday song that came from Broadway and is now 40 years old: Mame's "We Need a Little Christmas." This track, sung by the Indiana University Singing Hoosiers seems rather ordinary at first, but then kicks into high gear well into the number, with interpolations of other holiday songs and a big show bizzy finish. The Pops albums conducted by Erich Kunzel now number over 70, with several dedicated to music from Broadway and film musicals.
The arrangements take advantage of the large orchestra's different sections. Several of the arrangements are by Steven Reineke, who seems to have a real knack for doing that and knows how to have a musical sense of humor, too. There's some orchestral shenanigans in "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," the pop song by Meredith Willson later interpolated into his Broadway musical Here's Love. Vocals are by the Hoosiers again. Other Reineke arrangements present three of the guest star soloists magnificently, letting these Telarc jazz artists hew pretty straight down the path, with neither scat nor wild rides of improvisation: Ann Hampton Callaway, Tierney Sutton, and John Pizzarelli.
Ann's "I Wonder As I Wander" is regal but full of feeling, making for an exquisite reading. Tierney's restrained and sincere "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is nostalgia without stickiness. John mines a surprising amount of depth from "Silver Bells," and as soon as he begins the verse, you know it's going to be special. "Christmas makes you feel emotional ..." it begins and so he leads by example, singing slowly and thoughtfully this standard that most treat as a trifle. Floating on a bed of strings, his voice and phrasing encapsulate the wonder of the city detailed in the lyric.
Arranger James Stephenson gets to work with the fourth guest, new singing star Tony DeSare (whose second album will be out in a few weeks). Tony brings his own special glow to those "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" with "The Christmas Song" in a gentle, sentimental interpretation that remains intimate despite the orchestra building in the instrumental break.
That same "Christmas Song" is heard on Telarc's compilation album, Christmas Break: Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays, sung by deep-voiced Kevin Mahogany, swinging gently with the Ray Brown Trio. The man who took the words about those chestnuts and "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" and set them to music, Mel Torme, is one of the top drawer jazz performers on this CD. The Torme choice is the song that gives the other Telarc album its title, "Christmastime Is Here" from the TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The late singer drew out the lengths of the phrases, making for a pure and meltingly lovely version (whereas the children's choir that does it on the other CD has a simple, matter-of-fact sweetness). Jeanie Bryson brings the total of vocalists to three, with a very slow "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," that features pianist Kenny Barron. In fact, pianists as leaders are most prominent, with George Shearing and Oscar Peterson each appearing twice with contrasting selections, and Dave Brubeck shows up three times, including his presentation of "Jingle Bells" as a tender, slow ballad (it's true! - and yes, it works) plus his hip duet with Gerry Mulligan's sax, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
Don't be put off by the subtitle phrase, "relaxing jazz." This is not mind-numbing, spineless smooth jazz or aging New Age stuff. These are major jazz stars, just laying back and keeping things spare. Jim Hall's solo acoustic guitar playing of "O Tanenbaum" is a reminder of the elegant beauty that can get lost in the overblown versions one often hears. Al DiMeola's guitar-and-percussion "Ave Maria" is likewise a bit of a revelation. These two albums are worth a push through the crowds for a last-minute store purchase, if you're looking for either a wind-down holiday album or a big production.
Gently joyful, like a tastefully decorated Christmas tree with a wide range of interesting ornamentation and glittering with a warm glow, Daryl Sherman's new CD shines and captivates. As both a singer and pianist, Daryl always seems to be taking delight in particular phrases, symmetries or details in the craft of a song and brings them out neatly and discretely. Her playing is crisp and fleet, with economy. Her singing style is also lean and clean, cheery and charming to the point that when she takes on a sad lyric like "Angel Eyes" the inherent drama seems almost resisted. The handkerchief remains dry.
With her light but knowing touch, she puts the emphasis squarely on the material she's here to serve. She projects a sense of goodwill and open-heartedness; jadedness would be a stranger. This makes her an especially good match for older sentimental songs that might seem coy or would cloy coming from someone else. For example, she can sing "Carolina in the Morning" with a freshness and ageless innocence.
Two Arthur Schwartz melodies bring out two different strengths: "Then I'll Be Tired of You" (lyric by E. Y. Harburg from an edition of The Ziegfeld Follies) lets her give full reign to her romantic side; the chipper "Tennessee Fish Fry" from a revue at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair gets a sprightly interpretation. Daryl has a ball breezing through this. Dreamy or bouncy, she establishes a mood right away and builds on it as the piece progresses.
Daryl surrounds herself with top musicians here and the feeling is simpatico. The sound quality is especially clear, and you can really hear each player distinctly. Jon Wheatley is on guitar and Dave Green on bass (except when Jay Leonhart takes over for "Don't Worry Bout Me"). Sax players Harry Allen and Vince Giordano make sterling contributions on three tracks each. The 15 tracks on Guess Who's in Town! include one instrumental, "Lullaby of Birdland," and one engaging song she wrote herself, called "Welcome to Manhattan."
She's always welcome in Manhattan, whether it's her long term stand at the Waldorf Astoria playing Cole Porter's piano (she does his "I Concentrate on You" with knowhow) or as part of the new cabaret series at 59E59 Theater where continues each Friday and Saturday this month. In person, her grace and spunk are always in ample evidence, as is her wide smile as she presents the songs she loves. But on this welcome addition to her CD catalogue, I think the smile is audible.
Judy Barnett's Too Darn Hot! makes the perfect New Year's Eve party album with its blast of high energy. Her jumping, jazzy jamboree is a rush of adrenalin and grabs a listener immediately (and doesn't let go) with a pow of a performance on the title song by Cole Porter from Kiss Me, Kate. She sets the bar mighty high with this high-flying arrangement, biting into the words and swinging it hard at a fast clip. The winner of six MAC Awards and one Bistro Award for her work sounds happy and supremely confident, very much in control of the ride - not just on this cut, but throughout this album, her fourth. Along the way, she takes two more pages from the Cole Porter songbook, with a brash "Night and Day" and the popping "It's De-Lovely" with a bit of nimble scat singing. This latter number is set up with a short visit to Rodgers & Hammerstein's gentler "It Might As Well Be Spring." She occasionally slows down for a more reflective moment, but never drains the sense of joy completely to get languid. Her ballads might be called "semi-ballads."
"Come Back to Me" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is a major highlight, another non-stop rush of excitement that never runs out of juice. And more surprisingly, another show tune that wouldn't normally suggest the kind of aggressive one-two punch Judy and the band do so well, South Pacific's "Bali Ha'i," survives very well. The island of mystery drifts dreamily no more; it's brought down to earth and comes up swinging. Purists may pout, skeptics may doubt, but I think the risky idea works smashingly.
I love the way Judy bites into words, just enjoying a lyric's vocabulary and even just consonant sounds - hear her rrrip into the words beginning with "r". This kind of jubilation is matched by the vibrant instrumental work, as band and singer seem to be feeding off each other's electricity. I especially love the prominent work done by guitarist Frank Vignola who really takes off. The arrangements were conceived by Judy, with the full charts by Bud Burridge who soars on trumpet and flugelhorn. Red hot pianist Ted Kooshian contributed to the invigorating and fun arrangement of "Summer in the City," the '60s pop hit. Although the anti-climactic third time around for the lyrics for the chorus may be too much of a pretty good thing, it's still a good choice done with all engines full force. There's a Barnett/Kooshian-written item, "Bummer Summer," a cheeky romp that serves as much to showcase the band as the sassy singer.
My only disappointment with the arrangements is that, although the instrumental breaks are potent and thoroughly entertaining, sometimes they don't seem constructed to build to a satisfyingly inevitable re-entry of the vocal, and Judy just kind of slides back in. Perhaps it's a symptom of the attitude of her being just one more member of the group, and such unpredictability has its attraction, too, I suppose. But certainly the playing is dynamic and feels celebratory in the uptempo numbers and with moments of prettiness with strings and flashes of humor, such as in "The Coffee Song" ("They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil") which even finds Judy singing the jingle long used in commercials for Chock Full O' Nuts coffee as the cut fades.
Those who will be in the New York area the week after Christmas can catch Judy in person at Smoke on Broadway near West 105th Street on December 28th. There's more about Judy at her website, but for now the CD is the pick-me-up album of the season.
UNDER THE RADAR
And now here's a tip about some singers who collect tips of their own in between songs as singing waiters and waitresses and in between stage gigs.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. These singers are on Broadway - well, Broadway and 51st Street, as employees at the neon-lit Ellen's Stardust Diner, serving up salads, sandwiches and songs. Perhaps you've heard the voices of the young, energetic wait staff there as you pass by this establishment, also a tourist favorite. A number of them have gone on to join the casts of Broadway shows and other productions after their stints serenading customers with hit show tunes accompanied by the trusty karaoke tracks. Now they've made their first CD, and it's very much a family affair: singing, writing, band, design all by the diner's employees. And yes, it's a holiday album, hot off the press. It's available at CDbaby and also at the restaurant so you can get it just in time for the season it celebrates. Since you may by now have had your fill of the over-exposed Christmas perennials, fret not: these are all new songs.
The creator of these original songs is Stardust's resident songwriter, Kevin Ray, who plays keyboards (and sleigh bells, naturally), produced, and sings with his striking high voice on several tracks including the solo, "Hanukah's Violin." Alysha Umphress, who has been appearing as co-host at the Friday night open mic "After Party" at the Laurie Beechman Theater on West 42nd Street, lends her passion and pipes to a strong and searing "I'm Not Missing Christmas."
There are some cute comedy pieces here, all sung by groups. The idea for "Randy the Rotten Christmas Elf" was supplied by Scott Barbarino, who runs the diner and the adjoining Iridium jazz club. Scott joins four of his staff to sing this entertaining number about Santa's helper with a mean streak (executive album producer Jeffrey Simno plays the tiny man with the big attitude problem with devilish delight). "Fat Christmas" is all about the perils of overindulgence in food and the title song is the lament of the overworked, overstressed restaurant worker.
My all-around favorite is "New Year," a refreshing and actually empowering piece of writing about setting goals for self-improvement. It's well done in a committed performance by Jessica Bradish with the writer. Many of Kevin's songs here are on the light side, cheerfully so for the season, with a few that are more emotional. But they only hint at his deeper, more complex songwriting. A great number of them can be heard at his website, including those from musicals he has written and is developing. More information at www.stardustfamilyalbum.com. It's a great way to give exposure to some of the many talented young people who fill New York City awaiting their first or next break.
A CD of songs of another Ray (Ray Charles) sung by Marilyn Maye is among the items still waiting in our pile for review in the coming weeks, like a special package honoring the 5-year anniversary of the show that's been playing right next door to Ellen's Stardust Diner, Mamma Mia!, just one of the CD/DVD combos to be discussed. But for now, Merry Christmas to all and to all, a good listening experience.