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SINGling them out:
Top Ten Vocal CDs of 2011

Also see last week's column on the year's Top Cast Albums.

Which vocal albums impress mightily on first spin and have the lasting power, too, for frequent visits? It's time to sing the praises of such CDs released for the first time in 2011, among those submitted for review for this column, many not previously covered. Here they are, alphabetically.

Karrin AllysonKARRIN ALLYSON
'ROUND MIDNIGHT

Concord Records
Not previously reviewed

Karrin Allyson is marking her twentieth year as a recording artist and she's been filling my ears and "A list" record shelf (in both senses) for a long time. I especially love her lean and thoughtful ballad work. Seemingly allergic to artifice, she cuts to the core and the pensively phrased words ring true, illuminated by the melodies and playing by a small group of fine musicians. (On the tracks with piano, she's her own accompanist.) The involved, moody readings of the mostly sorrowful classic songs makes for that very rarest of listening experiences: I knew almost every lyric by heart, and yet I was listening intently and intensely from the edge of my seat as if I didn't know what would come next. That's how fresh, truthful and "in-the-moment" the observations and confessions sound. Laments have a sense of mature insight and reflection rather than "poor me" whining. Shifts in emphasis in phrasing are subtle rather than gimmick-laden. Even the very familiar "Send in the Clowns" is replete with glimmers of discovery in its understatement, and the wise choice of Karrin stepping away from the piano to be accompanied by guitar (the sensitively simpatico Rod Fleeman) adds to the sense of welcome difference. Throughout the album, there's an acceptance of the white space in music—the little silences that resonate, taking time to let thoughts spin out and be considered by interpreter and listener, for maximum impact. And yet, it never drags or feels self-indulgent, even with many tracks clocking in at over four minutes.

The Allyson voice, its assuredness tempered with an appealing crushed-velvet vulnerability and now lived-in wisdom, suits the material. It's about sharing thoughts bravely rather than with a chip on the shoulder or broken heart worn like a badge. The singer's liner notes talk briefly about how some songs were approached earlier in her career and how she has seen them. Specifically, she addresses "Smile"'s pat smiling-through solution (Denial, anyone?) being a bromide she doesn't truly buy. Extended piano solo time before and after she approaches the lyric bring new depth and wells of feeling to co-star with the easier-said-than-done advice. Although the aching sigh of a title song ("Suppertime I'm feeling sad/ But it really gets bad 'round midnight/ ... Haven't got the heart to stand those memories ...") crystallizes the lonely, ruminating ambiance, it isn't the opening mood-establishing track. That isn't needed. Instead, it's the last track and feels like the essence of what came before it. That earlier collection of reflection, including the potent reminders that heartache knows no season—Paul Simon's delicate "April Come She Will" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most"—steadily enriches the blue tones. That palpable and sustained tone preceding the last statement is so consistently engaging, pulling one in rather than exhausting limits of sidelines sympathy, that when "'Round Midnight" comes, it's a welcome summation rather than redundant. This is communication and artistry that feels natural.

James BarbourJAMES BARBOUR
BRING ME GIANTS

Not previously reviewed

Musical theatre star James Barbour has a thrillingly resonant voice that makes for a dynamic experience. "Bring Me Giants" may be the title song, but it could also be the concept for the confident set list; he has the chops and dramatic sensibilities to take on emotional, leading man bravura boldness. A plethora of what would be mould-growing melodrama—overkill or grand overstatement—if approached by others can work for him. Yes, even one after another. Lancelot's Camelot claim of ardor, "If Ever I Would Leave You," is rich and radiant, triumphantly adoring and solid. And the mantra of the Man of La Mancha, "The Impossible Dream," is likewise conquered as its noble motivations are taken seriously and evoke admiration for that as well as the powerful pipes ready, willing and able to handle the weight of their heroically big emotions and big melodies. And just when one fears it might be all about voice and building to a grand finish, some songs rewardingly go for sweetness of tone and thought.

The song list could immediately set off alarms for those with musical theatre anthem anathema. The name Frank Wildhorn on credits is seen several times, representing several projects. Other warhorses are lined up, too: "Bring Him Home," "The Music of the Night" ... and I confess I thought, "here we go again," but was soon happily discovering and convinced that this is the man for the job of tackling them again and sounding right and not like a Johnny-come-lately recycler. Without any agenda to re-invent or try some new approach, the basic theatricality is met and embraced and re-invigorated with musician Jeremy Roberts leading the way. Morgan James brings her strong tones, matching the Barbour intensity for their duet on "I Will Be There." The album ends with a version of "I Can't Recall," from a recent Broadway/Barbour meet-up, A Tale of Two Cities. Simply put, this is a case of material and a committed, gifted actor-singer where both are unabashedly earnest—and the match works.

Tony Bennett Duets IITONY BENNETT
DUETS II

Columbia Records
Not previously reviewed

Duets II, with Tony Bennett and his collaborations with 17 major music stars of various stripes, is a generous sampling of the history of American popular singing and the Great American Songbook. It is not simply another slice from the many numbers this veteran vocalist has recorded over a long career being revisited in a bill-sharing rehash of smashes. The numbers are mostly major standards that have been addressed in clubs and concert halls and recording studios year after year. Many originated on Broadway or in films, but have become stand-alone standards inviting re-interpretation and various stylings. There's a warm or casual camaraderie evident on many tracks, with Bennett tossing in side comments and chuckles on some, talking some lines, singing straightforwardly on others when material and partners are more serious-minded (Josh Groban, age 30, perhaps oddly the duet partner for a song about an older man's perspective, "This Is All I Ask" and Andrea Bocelli on Kismet's "Stranger in Paradise," a major Bennett hit). He's bubbling over with bonhomie with an enthused Lady Gaga on "The Lady Is a Tramp," and addresses John Mayer and Michael Bublé by name for male-bonding, barstool break-up commiserating on "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" with Mayer and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with Bublé. This endeavor is evidence of the torch being passed. The CD is notable, too, for the creditable duet on "Body and Soul" with Amy Winehouse, recorded shortly before her death.

There's no sense of one-upmanship or stealing the spotlight; all defer to the master, who more than holds his own in his 80s, in his trademark ways. This is truly an album with something for everyone, with stars representing country, R&B, pop and more. The booklet is filled with color photos of the pairs in the studio. They were surrounded by musicians who've been around, with legendary producer Phil Ramone participating, too. In looking back on 2011, this congregation of talent and classic songs is a no-brainer standout with the abundance of star power and variety. Sometimes a loose party, sometimes a focused and tender meeting of musical minds, it's classy and classic and a reference point.

Jim CarusoJIM CARUSO
THE SWING SET
Yellow Sound Label

Original review

Maybe Here's a simply terrific CD from very early last year that invites encore after encore. Jim Caruso, the high-energy entertainer with a mischievous sense of humor and oodles of showmanship—and an affecting but rarely glimpsed serious side—is well served with The Swing Set. It's jazzy. It's snazzy. It's finger-snappy. It's a barrel of fun. He's packed the proceedings with playmates familiar from his NYC homebase Birdland flights. There's splashy work from Billy Stritch, Hilary Kole, and musicians such as violin-playing musical whiz kid Aaron Weinstein and pianist Tedd Firth and bassist Steve Doyle—and the grand man of guitar, Bucky Pizzarelli, sits in. Plus, there are spiffy appearances by Michael Feinstein ("Gotta Be This or That") and Broadway's Stephanie J. Block (for the cute-as-a-cupcake "A Doodlin' Song"). And once you digest the swinging playfulness that is a feast of rich desserts and appetizers, the tender and thoughtful cool-downs of the solos "If I Only Had a Brain" and "Heart's Desire" are the surprising sorbet.

Barbara CookBARBARA COOK

YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG
DRG Records
Original review

Miss Cook is a regular on the top ten list here, and for good reason. Her CDs are reliably rich and each release adds further evidence that she is the master at getting the most out of a song. Here, again, that's true, whether she's revealing layers and mining depths others have missed in a serious piece or radiating joy as in the title track. The set includes two selectionss from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ("What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and "Wait Til We're Sixty-Five"—she changes the lyric's "we're" to "you're" to make it from her point of view, having been there). Upbeat numbers like "Are You Havin' Any Fun?" are ebulliently life-affirming, briskly frisky and bright-toned. Ballads are luminous in their own way and their unblinking interior drama can cut devastatingly deep and true, as in "I'm a Fool to Want You." John Lennon's "Imagine" serves as a balm that's also challenging in its dare to not just imagine a kinder, more accepting world but to consider the price of the alternative. This CD was recorded during one of the star's recent engagements at Feinstein's at Loews Regency and so it's not surprising that there will be songs found on other Cook albums. The performances remain very alive with committed, involved phrasing and communication skills par excellence.

BARBRA STREISAND
WHAT MATTERS MOST

Columbia Records
Original review

A new Barbra Streisand album is a much-anticipated event. Given that there have been several live albums in recent times with much overlap of material, a studio album is especially anticipated. As this one was announced as a collection of songs with lyrics by her friends, the frequently represented-in-her-oeuvre master wordsmith partners Marilyn and Alan Bergman, which she hadn't previously recorded, there was little question that this would be a continuation of a long-proven ideal match. So, the only disappointment is that what was released was a mere ten numbers (though they do tend to be on the long side). Quality trumps quantity and the recordings are gratifying with the singer in lovely voice for these tracks, mostly tender romantic ballads. (Early collaborations with the late composer Lew Spence are exceptions: the playful "Nice 'n' Easy," a Sinatra hit, and the lyric Alan wrote alone when courting Marilyn, "That Face.") Serenity and mature introspection dominate the elegant, pillowy renditions. The lyrics' intelligence and literate, questioning aspects prevent things from veering into purely saturated romantically rosy contentment.

Hugh Martin Hidden TreasuresVARIOUS ARTISTS
HUGH MARTIN: HIDDEN TREASURES
Harbinger Records

Not previously reviewed

Hidden Treasures indeed! Although the 29 (!) tracks on this CD—mainly demos only circulated privately, if at all—were mostly recorded decades ago, it is in a totally different category than the many reissues of repackaged, previously available items or compilations that come out each year. A smaller number among these works by composer-lyricist Hugh Martin, mostly writing on his own, have been heard in other voices, but most are cut songs or are from abandoned projects that constantly make one long for "what might have beens." Luckily, belatedly, intriguingly, we get a guest pass to the past, visiting the vault and finding much to delight from the fertile mind of a superb craftsman. Marvelous melodies and literate lyrics with polished rhyme and reason abound.

Although Martin passed away in March of 2011, at the age of 96, he was actively involved in providing vintage demo material and memories for this marvelous package, interacting with producers Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom. All provided information for the accompanying photo-filled booklet of over 80 pages, as did others, and it is full of fascinating background stories and analyses and contexts for individual songs. Among those contributors is Sheldon Harnick, not just an admiring fellow songwriter pointing out some of the finer points and examples of the skills, but a co-writer on a lyric tailor-made for Eddie Fisher's nightclub act. It's a cutie called "I Can't Get Used to These Clothes" and it's one of several with Hugh Martin himself both singing and playing piano. A true gentle spirit, but brimming with pep and intrinsic musicality like his songs, Martin made for a convincing and delightful demonstrator of his work. In a more vigorous, vocally full-bodied way, as proven here, so did Ralph Blane, the writer and business partner officially credited for decades, by agreement, as collaborator on the songs used in scores like Meet Me in St. Louis (not sampled in this set of mostly rarities). In fact, as revealed in more recent years, Martin wrote them alone.

Numbers are arranged chronologically, beginning with three songs that will be familiar to those who know Best Foot Forward. There are samples from unproduced shows and aborted projects, such as the outstanding selections from a long-developed musical adaptation of the play The Member of the Wedding. The attractively buoyant voice of friend and sometime collaborator Timothy Gray is heard along the way, with material used and not used for the musical High Spirits and other scores. Sound quality varies somewhat through this set, unsurprisingly, but—happily—it's really pretty good over all. Keep in mind that the recordings were generally made as demonstrations, or blueprints or guides, not as commercial releases by vocalists. But the quality of the writing is consistently tops, with examples of fizzy, cheery good spirits with abundant charm and some endearingly shy romantic statements, with glimpses of more depth or a broken heart. "I Happen to Love You" is a prime example of the sensibilities of mixing satisfying inevitability in writing with fresh surprise and sentiment. It's one of three tracks of Martin singing and playing that didn't make it to the final selections of material recorded in an album the writer did with Michael Feinstein (who also contributes to the booklet, commenting on his friend Hugh as a communicative and touching singer). Both wistfulness and bursting with joy are frequent moods. As accompanist on most selections, Martin—also a vocal arranger and coach—was especially adept at adapting to the kind of singer or emotion at hand. Understated emotions get an understated accompaniment and subtext, while numbers with pluck and brio get contagiously ebullient boosts.

This is, without question, a splendid and consistently interesting retrospective of relics and radiance.

Lost Broadway and More, Vol 3VARIOUS ARTISTS
LOST BROADWAY AND MORE, VOL. 3

Original Cast Records
Original review

Seekers of the theatre songs that may get lost in the shuffle—unrecorded scores, cut songs, added songs, numbers for special occasions, etc.—know that what's below the radar may be well worth the look. We're talking songs, not shows per se. What sputtered or misfired as a show may have individual gems lurking. Songs trimmed for length, or that didn't "fit" characters, plot, or assigned performers might have plenty of life and quality as individual songs. And then there are antiques from the days before even smash hits were recorded—and not full scores at that. To the rescue is the Lost Broadway and More series by Original Cast Records label producer/owner Bruce Yeko (who also runs the Footlight website where smaller, older shows that don't deserve abandonment can be found). Michael Lavine, sheet music collector, arranger/pianist—and sprightly on-target singer on a number of tracks here—is the ever-capable captain of the ship. Other singers include Leah Horowitz (the Follies revival) and Andrew Samonsky (Queen of the Mist), and Heather Mac Rae pops up to revisit a show she was in long ago, Here's Where I Belong. You'll find an oldie like a 1919 nugget from a 1919 revue, a number cut from Goodtime Charley, and one added to a revival of Take Me Along. Come on along and listen to the would-been lullabyes of Broadway. You'll be in good company: Sarah Rice, Christine Pedi, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and many more.

Tom WopatTOM WOPAT
CONSIDER IT SWUNG

LML Music
Original review

An ease with his material, musical mates and himself informs Tom Wopat's hip CD. It's a real team effort with the band very much collaborative rather than "sidemen" shunted off to the side in the mix, as if mere diligent "accompanists" waiting for a chance at a solo. It's a real back-and-forth give and take, with some especially creative arrangements by Tedd Firth, pianist on about half the tracks. With casual confidence and naturalness, Wopat seems to wear his songs like a pair of comfortable, broken-in blue jeans. The CD wears well on repeat listens, as it's flush with cozy ambiance, rather than blaring, and is particularly well produced and sequenced. The instantly likeable mood-setting singer comes off as being at home with these songs that range in style from driving to laidback, rootsy to sly blues, from pop to country. "You'd Rather Have the Blues," his knowing take calling out someone playing the pity card, is right on target. Another highlight is a re-imagined "Lullabye of Broadway," mellow with a dramatic undercurrent, quite different from the pep rally it was when he sang it when playing the male lead in the stage version of 42nd Street. His original song "Thailand Sea" evokes timeless folk ballads relating legends. The CD was recorded in 2009, but wasn't released until this past year. (Along the way, he was "distracted" with a couple of Broadway assignments, and performed the material in nightclub gigs.) Nice work.


- Rob Lester


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