Tony is Tony DeSare. Sony is Sony Holland. Each has a new album, featuring warm-hearted with a few sparks, some new songs and some standards (both sing the work of Cole Porter, Harry Warren and Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.) And Sophia Bilides sings of the current weather with Winter Warm.
Back in 1962, a non-musical play by Garson Kanin was on Broadway, lasting for just a few weeks, but Come On Strong incorporated a title song, written by the team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Tony DeSare is one of a very few singers to pick it up, although he rarely decides to come on strong on this second album. One of his talents is that he doesn't have to come on strong to get your attention and please your ear - no vocal blast, no wild instrumental solos, no posturing or showiness. His "Come On Strong" comes on as more of a hip, jazzy, invitation that ebbs and flows its energy rather than overselling or exploding. Also notable, and a bit of a risk, is the slowed-down version of Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move." Last First Kiss is a moodier, mellower CD than his debut, Want You, one of my Top Ten vocal albums for 2005.
There are some oft-covered standards on the CD, sometimes handled a bit casually. Purist Disclaimer: in some lines in the last part of his carefree swinging take on the famous Cole Porter song imagining what co-habitation might be like, "You'd Be So Nice to Come To" becomes its own sequel. Using the first line as one example, it turns into "You are so nice to go home to." The standout among the standards is the Irving Berlin warhorse, "How Deep Is the Ocean?". The song has the potential for mawkishness and melodrama, and its lyric with implied hyperbole can be a trap that some singers fall into, doomed to drown. Tony knows that less can be more and makes it intimate instead, finding the song's core of sincerity with a sole (and soulful) musician, pianist Tedd Firth very much on the same page. They pull you in. Talented Tedd appears on five tracks, including the Harry Warren/ Mack Gordon classic "There Will Never be Another You," and his contributions are always interesting to listen to; he also knows when to leave some space. Quite the accomplished keyboardist himself, Tony is at the piano on the other tracks, sometimes lightly swinging and sometimes applying a fine, feathery feel.
The album's gem is at the very end. It is the streamlined "Lover's Lullaby" with just Tony: his voice, piano, his own music and heartfelt lyrics. It's one of four originals, with only the attractive title song written with a collaborator, Mike Lee. He's the solid bass player, who on the first album, too. Also returning to grace several tracks is the stellar guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. He doesn't get as much focus as I'd like, but he is always a plus, here or anywhere.
The DeSare flair and charisma come through on most tracks, suggesting a long career as entertainer and songwriter still just tasting its full potential. Tony's website lists his upcoming gigs on both coasts, including a major New York engagement at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room beginning March 6th. He connects especially well in person, but meanwhile the recorded version is, by and large, another Tony winner.
I'm very happy to catch up with San Francisco vocalist Sony Holland, who's on her fourth album, all from this still-newish century. Her last CD was a tribute to that city, with songs written by her husband, Jerry Holland, who also did some of the arrangements and produced the recording. Jerry offers three originals this time around and they are literate, with sinuous melodies; "It's an Understatement" has a slight edge as the most original, winning points for meeting the constant challenge of finding a new angle on saying "I love you" in a lyric.
This is a thoroughly professional, classy and generally rewarding listen. Named for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer movie title song, the CD opens with a Broadway song, "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow, taken at a medium tempo and letting us know right off the bat that we're in jazzland. One can hear influences of a few other singers, but Sony isn't quite prone to being a clone. That's a positive thing - she has absorbed some styling tendencies from others and mixes them together quite well. Her basic sound is quite attractive: sultry but rich, burnished and with a pretty sheen in the higher register on held tones. Not one to shy away from the sensuous possibilities in a lyric or melodic leap, Sony has a purr that might seem overdone here and there, but the instrumental accompaniment and arrangements support her posturings. Art Khu is on the same page with his dreamy, take-your-time piano playing and arranging on many tracks, and there is evocative saxophone playing by Charles McNeal among the mix-and-match players. (All songs are done with three, four or five musicians.) The cozier frame of mind seems to suit the singer best, so "In a Sentimental Mood" and "The Nearness of You" find her singing in a lush, no-rush manner. The ultimate test of how far this can go and still be effective? She scores with a languorous "I've Got You Under My Skin," stretching out the Cole Porter standard into a five-and-a-half minute track, sustaining interest all the way.
The Van Heusen/Cahn invitation, "Come Fly with Me," is a change-of-pace pick-me-up and kind of fun in a casual way. Sony doesn't mine a lot of deeper emotion with "Skylark" or "The Thrill Is Gone," but they have saving graces musically. If pressed to name a favorite track, I'd have to select the intriguing version of "Summer Night." It's a Harry Warren-Al Dubin song that is more often recorded by instrumentalists than singers.
UNDER THE RADAR
Besides Tony and Sony, the voice in my ears this week has been that of a deep-voiced vocalist with a deeply satisfying new album.
An accomplished piece of work, Sophia Bilides' Winter Warm is generous of spirit and generous in its number of songs. The 20 tracks include five that are musical double-headers, with one number leading into another, and a playing time exceeding 70 minutes. So, the short report would be: quantity as well as quality.
The album's only accompaniment is pianist Doug Hammer. His playing tends to be unornamented and discreet, so occasionally one wishes for a richer instrumental palette. The good news on that front is that the material has variety in tempo and genre - folk, pop, movie songs. Plus, Sophia's striking and solid alto is interesting to the ear and she conveys sufficient emotion without having to lean on the colors of various instruments to compensate with mood-setting or filling in gaps. When the winter-themed songs are about the starkness of the season, or feature serious, more stately statements in melody, the accompaniment works especially well. In a few of the more light-hearted moments, especially the wannabe-bouncy "A Dreamer's Holiday," the piano work is lumbering and too simple and perfunctory. At other times, it is sensitive and elegant, particularly in the folk songs and the album's opener, the satisfying and comforting reminder of the cycle of the seasons, "The Year Turns 'Round."
Sophia has been gathering attention in musical circles in the New England area, especially around Boston where she has primarily worked. Her first album was of Greek songs (she is half Greek) and this new recording covers material she has been collecting and performing in concerts. Some selections refer less blatantly to wintertime, so overdosing on images of icicles and bare trees is not a worry. Some of the strongest performances are those where the lyrics paint clear and specific images of nature, including the poetic and musically adventurous "Forever Spring" written by someone better known as a singer-pianist: Daryl Sherman. Sophia's diction is superb, attentive to consonants without ever feeling labored or overarticulated. She has chosen many literate songs with words and phrases that aren't run-of-the-mill, and she seems to enjoy and respect them.
From the Irving Berlin catalogue, Sophia passes by the obvious choices and opts for the very rarely recorded "When Winter Comes," which had been introduced by Rudy Vallee in the 1939 film, Second Fiddle. She resuscitates it with aplomb and combines it with the spunky "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" (Al Stillman and Seger Ellis). "An Occasional Man" from the film The Girl Rush with a Hugh Martin/ Ralph Blane score, could could use a freer feel; the comic relief is more successful in the quirky "Penguins Must Sing" (Winnie Holzman/ David Evans) and "I Wanted a Tuba" by Lenny Hat. But at the end of the winter day, it's the serious, even somber material that stands out, like a few from the songbook of Judy Collins, and Tom Gala's "Witch Hazel," sung a capella. It is hypnotic and moving in its directness and simplicity.
The album takes its title from a Burt Bacharach/ Hal David rarity from 1957 that is another refreshing choice well done. One of my listens was on the second coldest day of the New York winter and, trite as it sounds, it made me appreciate the qualities of nature Sophia was singing about.
Stay warm with whatever music gets you through the cold winter nights and days, whether it be show tunes or snow tunes.