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Salutes to the great of songwriting keep coming. Here are two tipping their hats to giants; the singers couldn't be more different at first impression. But both have distinctive charms. One's an ebullient showman bursting with irrepressible energy and a blast of a band. The other is a very understated lady with just a pianist and bass player.

John PizzarelliJOHN PIZZARELLI
ROCKIN' IN RHYTHM:
A TRIBUTE TO DUKE ELLINGTON

Telarc Records

As they meet up together, the Duke Ellington repertoire and John Pizzarelli & company seem like such an instantly right and comfortably warm fit, like a favorite old sweater, that one almost feels surprised that this is a new CD. Surely there's been osmosis, subliminal or consciously slow and steady through a life in and around jazz classics. Listeners will find the proceedings are casually cozy with tradition on some tracks and, on others, fresh energy and musical spice will perk up Ellingtonia-familiar ears. Rockin' in Rhythm takes on that Ellington songbook, staying mostly on pages that many other have bookmarked, so even those who have just casually done Duke-dipping in exploring his work won't find too many unfamiliar tunes.

Those musical theatre-centric folk whose most conscious reference point is the stage production of Sophisticated Ladies will find that more than half of the titles on this CD were also plucked for that stage piece of Ellington-associated numbers. But seekers of Duke's stage scores won't find anything from his scores for Pousse Café, Beggar's Holiday or the unproduced Saturday Laughter(lyrics by Herbert Martin, recorded as Secret Ellington).

It's no secret that almost everything here is a well-covered classic, so it's impressive that things sound inspired rather than tired. "Tired" is probably not in singer-guitarist Pizzarelli's vocabulary, jet lag from touring excepted; the album opener, "In a Mellow Tone," sounds anything but ... as if greeting the listener with a grin that says, "Mellow? Who, me?" It's a jazzy, snazzy performance that gets things off to an invigorating start, creating anticipation for what's in store. And when he joyfully proclaims that song's lyric line, "I got company!," he's heralding the news of the sensational musical company he's with on this album. However, when a genuine mellow tone and mellow tune are on the musical menu, that recipe can be rewarding, too, such as a thoughtful—but not mournful—recollection of a love affair that ended "All Too Soon."

Personnel varies and some tracks are instrumentals (or let John's vocalizing be limited to his scatting along deftly with his own guitar playing). "Squeeze Me" is purely and pleasurably a guitar solo. Besides the usual and ever able Martin Pizzarelli on bass and Tony Tedesco on drums with Larry Fuller on piano, there are welcome guests at this party, some returnees from past collaboration successes. About half the time he's joined by brass with the Swing Seven horns arranged by the great veteran Don Sebesky making things feel classic and classy, and making this endeavor a respectful reminder of Ellington the celebrated bandleader, not just composer. Saxophonist Harry Allen brings his bright colors. Violin virtuoso Aaron Weinstein is a sensation, kicking the energy up a notch when it might seem impossible to do so. Talk about the icing on an already rich cake! And make room for Daddy, as Bucky Pizzarelli sits in a few times, taking the tasty guitar solo on "Satin Doll" for yet one more duly noted bunch of notes to remind us that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The instrumental "C Jam Blues" and others let the band wail wonderfully.

Only one track, the old super-catchy "Perdido," is a number that Duke did not have a hand in writing. It gets a whole new set of delightfully bright, spanking lyrics here. John had the good taste and good luck to marry this nimble tune to the new words of Jessica Molaskey (who he also had the fortune of marrying in private life and often performs with); she joins him here, vocally, along with the uber-cool star Kurt Elling. It's a treat of a trio and Jessica, whose main background had been musical theatre, gets her permanent hipster card with her work here. The track, which includes the original lyrics too, is a knockout and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

Though high drama and weepy wailings are not John's style, his interpretations of sad songs still are effective; there's a real sense of deflation and glumness coloring "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." Quiet desperation and numbed realization can be powerful, too. They are here. He's generally quite attentive to lyrics and can set and build a mood. Surprisingly, his "I'm Beginning to See the Light" feels somewhat offhand, not getting all the juice out of the lyric, taking a backseat to what is undeniably a swinging instrumental smash. Especially gratifying is the treatment of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," getting a new feel by having the instrumental piece "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" melded with it as counterpoint and companion. It works wonderfully.

Whether on fire or giving the feel of glimmering embers, there's a real glow on these selections. They're being rekindled in person with some New York-New Jersey area dates these days, including a run at Birdland in the theatre district this month. Now if we can only get him to dig a little deeper into the canon for a Volume Two. Meanwhile, this more than satisfies and sizzles.

Nancy StearnsNANCY STEARNS
YIP HARBURG: WITH HUMOR AND HOPE

With the recent revival of Finian's Rainbow brightening the Broadway skies, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's words have been in the air again, and Nancy Stearns has taken them to heart, to cabaret and to disc. Her latest CD represents her latest New York cabaret show with her two returning excellent musicians, bassist David Finck and pianist-arranger Gregory Toroian, who are old hands at tasteful settings that also flesh out the musical moods for this graceful woman who uses a small voice and a big heart. They imbue the songs with warmth and elegance, restraint and intelligence. The whimsy and wisdom and wistfulness of Harburg's "Humor and Hope" come through, and Nancy's unflinching kindred political spirit to Harburg's, from her many years as a lawyer fighting for progressive causes, comes through loud and clear. Well, not loud, but clear. It's a good match in that way, as it is (wisely) for a performer without a big voice to pick songs where the lyrics are so very strong and can be front and center.

She switches to speech very briefly here and there, but mostly sings very lightly and comfortably in tune with a gently pleasing sound. Some numbers withstand this approach better than others and there are times when I just miss having more oomph in this 18-track program. But then she draws me back in. Her having chosen some rarely done material, like "the Earl Robinson collaborations "The Same Boat, Brother" (a forthright protest song) and especially the 1971 gem expressing every warm wish for "One Sweet Morning," is another draw.

Finian's Rainbow is represented by three songs sung in a row: "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," "Look to the Rainbow" and "The Begat," with the thoughtful rendition of sweet optimistic philosophy a reassuring respite between the two quicker-paced witty waterfalls of words and sarcasm. She also groups a trio of Bloomer Girl songs, reminding us of that strong score written with Harold Arlen. In this case, she saves the ballad, "Right as the Rain," for last. A song that can be done with quiet awe and glimmers of wonder, it suits Nancy's chosen style but in this low-key album, even more welcome is the brisk, feisty feminist declaration, "It Was Good Enough for Grandma." The third Bloomer Girl pick doesn't bloom as brightly: "The Eagle and Me" could use more determination and spirit—it feels too casually approached to me. However, there's something to be said for her focus on the delight taken in the images of Nature presented in this song.

I also miss the drama in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' which seems to have its first-person protagonist too distanced from the pain and past, dignified instead of palpably suffering from bruised dignity. It doesn't have to go the soap opera route with all stops out but it needs more tension and centering. Far more successful is the focused portrait starkness and lamenting of "The Silent Spring" (music by Arlen).

As far as accompaniment, the duo becomes (as on past albums with this singer) a special joy to hear because of their high level of skill and way of complementing the vocalist without overshadowing or laying back too much. Gregory Toroian's arrangements and playing have a sensitivity and creativeness that subtly ornament the melodies like brocaded tapestries at times. Introspective but not abstract, his playing avoids wasted notes or flourishes and his too-few solos are immensely rewarding. Very present, the musicians add greatly to the proceedings, letting the singer keep her eye on the treasured words, but never losing sight of their job in presenting and exploring the musical bed on which the lyrics lay and the mapped-out road they must travel. There are lovely subtle details such as the glimmer of a reference to Harburg's most famous and voluminously recorded lyric, not sung here, "Over the Rainbow." It's a winning combination, and maybe the big winner and still champion is the brilliance of wordsmith Harburg whose polished lyrics (and his indomitable spirit) shine brightly. We need him as much as always and lawyer Nancy Stearns builds a good case for that.


- Rob Lester


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