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A Live Set and a Lively Swing Set
Barbara Cook & Michael Feinstein;
Jim Caruso


In a very recent live performance of duets and solos, Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein are vocally in divine fine form with Cheek to Cheek. Cheeky and cheery Jim Caruso, the irrepressible entertainer, with contagious fun in a musical playground called The Swing Set, is joined by some guest playmates, including Mr. Feinstein.

Barbara Cook & Michael FeinsteinBARBARA COOK & MICHAEL FEINSTEIN
CHEEK TO CHEEK
LIVE FROM FEINSTEIN'S AT LOEWS REGENCY

Duck-Hole Records

Projecting mutual affection and affection for well-crafted songs, Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein in live performance, with a small band to play and a large band of admirers in the audience, are a joy. Their new CD presents half a dozen duet tracks, including the Irving Berlin title song, and four solos apiece. Recorded over a few nights during their New York City engagement a couple of months ago at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, once we get past the warm greetings, the CD does not include any of the between-song patter. It's just one splendid performance after another.

Most of the duets settle into the contentment zone of being ebullient or carefree ("I've Got the World on a String," "Give Me the Simple Life"), which may feel a bit lightweight and easy-breezy—but there are some richer offerings as well. The pensive moods and more outwardly driving material are saved mostly for the solo turns. However, they get below the sunny surface in a dreamy, romantic medley of "The Very Thought of You" and a slow "Tea for Two" that suits them to a T as they overlap the songs and each other's vocal lines.

Most numbers are classic, oft-covered songs with a little re-visiting of previously recorded material. The change-of-pace interaction is the griping, sniping duo treatment of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" as it was when Barbara groused recently with Tom Wopat on Broadway for Sondheim on Sondheim. Of course, it's done with a wink; their good humor and fondness for each other comes through.

The graceful title song of the gestating musical Ever After is a touching solo for Michael, tenderly spinning out Marcy Heisler's lyric as he is accompanied by composer Zina Goldrich at the piano on this one track. Otherwise, most piano duties fall mostly to the estimable John Oddo, a frequent Feinstein collaborator "inherited" from longtime friend and next-door-neighbor, the late Rosemary Clooney. With great sensitivity, Lee Musiker takes the keys on three of Barbara's solos. Her ruminative rendition of "Where Do You Start?" finds her at her lyric-lingering-over best, finding and coloring key words and nuances to make the painful parting of the ways and bittersweet perspective a true acting piece. Her haunting "I've Got You Under My Skin" is a major highlight, also presenting the depths of being emotionally entrenched and attached, with no easy answer at hand.

Ms. Cook is in particularly good, exquisite voice on the ballads and sounds youthfully ebullient on the peppy perk-ups. Michael brings zest to a couple of big-voiced solos, with his self-written "The World Keeps Changing" as a lead-in to his brashly confident romp through "There'll Be Some Changes Made." He displays a more subdued assertiveness and dignity to his "Without a Song."

The CD ends with a nostalgia wallow, asking the audience to sing along in the latter part of the ancient "Shine On, Harvest Moon." Sentimental? For sure. But enjoyable. And long may these two shine on—they surely shine on this album.

Jim Caruso's Swing SetJIM CARUSO
THE SWING SET

Yellow Sound Label

It's the kind of album that dares you not to grin—and my advice is to throw in the towel. The zippy doings, pluck and panache on Jim Caruso's charm-in-spades new CD—especially with the jazzy arrangements presided over by violinist extraordinaire/ co-producer Aaron Weinstein populating the proceedings with great players—is musical Prozac for the winter blues.

Jim sings lightly and brightly, skipping merrily through songs like a kid playing hooky. There are some different flavors of gladness so as not to cloy and overdo the "oh, boy!!" kind of joy, and a couple of respites to show the human being behind the cheerleader chum. His wistful reading of The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Brain" is wonderfully shaded, with excellent and in-the-moment phrasing. Bucky Pizzarelli's simpatico guitar spotlighted here is marvelous. Jim makes Rodgers & Hart's valentine to his home base borough, "Manhattan," a languid, cozy hug that could qualify him for convincing tourist bureau president. But most of the 13 tracks are odes to joy, like the madcap wise guy "I'm So Happy" (Ronny Graham's song, embellished with new words by Ray Jessel). Broadway's Stephanie J. Block duets on the cute old vaudeville-ish "The Doodlin' Song" offering a soft-shoe soft touch. Michael Feinstein partners for a lively "Gotta Be This or That" with the sunny Sunny Skylar song amplified by new self-referencing lyrics by Marcy Heisler and Sharon Douglas. They keep a line once written for a Judy Garland radio performance of this: "I only swoon for Minnelli"; the historical footnote is an inside joke, as back in the day Judy was singing about then-husband Vincente whereas Jim is referencing friend and stage-mate Liza.

Another Minnelli-ism comes with the inclusion of "I Love a Violin" with longtime co-Minnelli cohort Billy Stritch. The credit "with the Stritch Brothers" on this track needs some explaining. It is a cute reference to Jim and Billy "playing" two of the harmonizing, dancing Williams Brothers in the Broadway and world tour of Liza Minnelli's tribute to entertainer/songwriter/vocal arranger Kay Thompson (her godmother) which included this trademark number. Singing multi-tracked parts, Billy joins in for the last part of the vocal after a spirited tour de force by young 2011 Nightlife Award-winning Mr. Weinstein (wow!).

Sincerity rings through the advisory to the rewards of following one's "Heart's Desire" (Dave Frishberg/ Alan Broadbent). This closing track's listing credit reads, "with Billy Stritch," but it's longtime musical compadre Stritch on piano, not vocals. (Elsewhere, the keyboard is under the command of the superb Tedd Firth, whose creative and energizing playing here is one of the CD's major assets—he's really a marvel.) Billy is also chiming in on "Avalon," an especially high-spirited jamboree with vocalist Hilary Kole, resident songbird at Birdland, the West 44th Street venue where Jim hosts the Monday open mic "Cast Party," often in the company of some of the guests on the CD. He moves the party a block south to The Town Hall on February 17 for a special star-studded "Cast Party" night with guests like Ms. Minnelli, Chita Rivera and some of those heard here.


- Rob Lester


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