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Now and Beyond
and Don't Look Back:
Solo Female Vocal CDs from Linda Eder, Mary Jenson and Jane Stuart


Three appealing female voices fill the air and ears: Linda Eder's latest CD reunites her musically, for Now, with composer/ ex-husband Frank Wildhorn. Then, on the jazzier side, Mary Jenson (Beyond) and Jane Stuart (Don't Look Back) present a sophomore album; both feature selections from the Beatles and Stevie Wonder and more, including their own songwriting efforts.

Linda Eder NowLINDA EDER
NOW

Sony Music Entertainment/ Masterworks
(Barnes & Noble exclusive edition has three bonus tracks, not reviewed here)

After album side trips down country roads, journeys through movie songs and Broadway classics, Judy Garland territory, and covering Christmas, too, Linda Eder returns to the place her recording career began just over 20 years ago: the music of Frank Wildhorn. Beginning with songs from Jekyll and Hyde and the early solo albums featuring much of his music, we came to know the throb and sob, high drama and sometimes high-spirited big band blast or bombast that could result when Mr. Music met his well-suited muse. After a hiatus that included separate projects and their marital split, things come full circle with their considerable forces—and tour de forces—back in the studio. And, sound-wise, energy-wise, it's as if no time has gone by.

If you didn't know the facts, or when the songs were written, you could be convinced that this was their old unreleased album from the early 1990s or leftover tracks from recording sessions of those days. That is to say, you'll love Now if you loved "then." Linda sounds vibrant as she earnestly delivers the rhapsodic and soaring melodies with often lush orchestrations. Music and emotions unfurl and whirl unhesitatingly, like a fast-sailing ship whose many sails fill with generous gusts of wind. Accompaniment varies between a big band led by Kim Scharnberg and smaller-group sessions with feature musicians including pianist Jeremy Roberts, who did many of the arrangements and shares producing credits with the composer and singer.

This is high-energy stuff with high-stakes emotional content in some lyrics. In this category, the pleadingly passionate lyrics from Camille Claudel, a musical sculpted from the real-life relationship of the woman personally partnered and professionally a protégée of the famed Rodin. With lyrics by Nan Knighton, Wildhorn's wordsmithing collaborator from The Scarlet Pimpernel, the score's "What's Never Been Done Before" and "A Woman in His Arms" offer the blood, sweat and tears of a woman seeking to break free of societal definitions of a woman's role. In these and other numbers, Linda indulges in what are often her trademark tricks of her trade: breathy phrasing with some words sort of whispered for emphasis, a ready gasp, singing with lush tones, and wrapping herself around words as if she's wrapped in velvet or bathing in warm waters with rose petals floating—with her exciting, powerful belt voice at hand to raise the stakes and the goose bumps at many a given moment. If it's a formula, it's a proven one with proven results. Much of the emotion seems super-sized and italicized, but the material can often support—or even seem to demand—just that.

There are two samples of Wildhorn's collaborations with Leslie Bricusse. The team's musicalization of the Cyrano de Bergerac tale brings "No Finer Man"—this number begins rather quietly, reflectively and then builds, builds, builds as she builds her case for how unquestionably special the man in question is. And Wildhorn himself takes his turn at the piano for "Living in the Shadows" from the stage score of Victor/Victoria, and again it begins with quiet, focused intensity and then turns up the tear ducts and shifts the power level to high gear.

As a respite from the method they ordinarily take, "Ordinary People," written with Brenda Russell, stays in a cozy zone of more hushed appreciation while reveling in romantic satisfaction. The title song is from an aborted album project with Maury Yeston that was to present portraits of couples; "Now" had as its subjects none other than that dynamic duo of Adam and Eve. This track, with a musically circular structure featuring odd non-belted high notes and extra vocal layers, perhaps meant to sound mysterious or decidedly non-contemporary, is of another stripe altogether.

Over the years, my favorite Wildhorn lyricist has been Jack Murphy, whose words are often juicy and more specific with choices and attitudes. The uptempos can be sizzlers bringing out Linda's zingier, splashy less affected style to great effect. Happily, there are two here: "Goodbye" is sung appropriately to a faretheewell, a tarty ta-ta and good riddance send-off at a parting; and the upcoming resident on Broadway, the musical Wonderland, is represented by the sassy song of "The Mad Hatter." What a treat this is! Its zip and strut are a delight, and apparently the prideful prowess paraded by the character suits Ms. Eder well (" ... I can get the job done/ Like Attila the Hun/ And, buddy, that ain't no fairy tale ... I will track you down, and then hit 'delete' tout de suite ...").

Though Now now and then takes a holiday from heavy duty depths of despair or characterizations of people so very deep in love, its that oh-so-serious grand and aggrandized style that dominates. And Linda Eder is up for (or down for) wrapping herself 'round the rhapsodies and laments—in a big way.

Mary Jenson BeyondMARY JENSON
BEYOND

Come share a pillow with Mary Jenson. Her second album states its purpose as exploring the dream state. Based in California, this singer, who's performed at various venues there, including Yoshi's, is beyond intriguing on Beyond. She is accessible and yet mysterious, direct and yet elusive. Her website characterizes her sound as "jazz/world/fusion," and it's full of unexpected depths, whether she's singing originals or a standard or pop song. She was a disc jockey for a while and seems comfortable in various genres, but with a mention of dreams in the lyric being the magnet for this theme album that doesn't go for the obvious choices of songs with the word "dream" in the title.

Although there is an ethereal quality to the proceedings, the fact that Mary has a notably clear sound to her voice works toward preventing overkill that a whispery, wispier sound would encourage. And she sounds involved or focused, with the accompaniment having some grooving energy, generally avoiding any New Age affectations or drowning in musical mush. But when she and her musicians of impressive credentials choose to indulge in moody, drifting, smoke-rings sensibilities, the ambiance can be invoked and poured on. Not "commercial" or obviously gimmicky, the tracks don't grab you by the collar and shake you, but rather sweep over you like waves or seduce in a subtle way. A sitar here, a haunting echo there, a floating figure of sound, poetic images ... some tracks, like the title number she wrote herself, use some of these elements but then anchor things with a determined approach to the vocal and some more traditional repetition of simpler, terser lyrics ("Brother of mine/ Stand with me/ Eye to eye/ We are free ..."). Another original, "Flying, Falling" is the quintessential expression of the album's intended "purple glow" and "cloudless atmosphere" as singing, song and delicate piano work by Frank Martin elegantly and mesmerizingly recall the common dream of weightlessness of some kind. The talented Mr. Martin collaborates on two songs: "Say My Name," about being blissfully "lost" in love, and an album-ending change of pace called "Things My Mother Said." Its lyric is a litany of adages and advice, nags and nudges many a Mom muttered (maybe yours). It's the shortest track on an 11-song album where all the others are over four minutes long, often way longer.

The old standard based on a classical piece, "The Lamp Is Low," is a welcome representation of that genre, with its lyric's opening invitation, "Dream beside me ..." a natural fit. It's sung with a snuggly, warm manner. Non-self-consciously rewarding re-shapings of songs from singer-songwriters Tom Waits ("Temptation") and Joni Mitchell ("Moon at the Window"), Mary Jenson might have some chameleon characteristics. Her page from the Beatles' songbook is a more assertive, mid-tempo, driving "Come Together" with its barrage of words spun out with abandon. Stevie Wonder's "Too High" is a bit jarring in parts, with the the sudden appearance of a bit of rap by Darian Gray; for this rap-allergic listener, it's like a brief nightmare in an otherwise heavenly series of sweet—but hardly mindlessly vapid—dreams. I find myself rather addicted to this album late nights and daytime.

Jane StuartJANE STUART
DON'T LOOK BACK

Whether soaring through Stevie Wonder's "Bird of Beauty" with a chorus of singers or creatively revisiting Beatles memories of the lonely "Eleanor Rigby" and "I'll Follow the Sun"—which finds new depths, replacing the cavalier approach with more vulnerable, bittersweet reality checks—Jane Stuart's latest CD is rich with the pretty and the gritty. Don't Look Back looks back at some older songs with fresher perspectives and looks ahead to a singer who has found a more entrenched, trenchant, personal style. Far more compelling and commanding than her previous effort, this album shows striking growth.

More secure and assertive in her approach, with a more adventurous repertoire, she is digging into the material and owning it, rather than just pleasantly floating over it without leaving notable footprints. I like these new footprints. With one track, "Let It Come to You," she proves herself to also be a promising songwriter. Her wise lyric advising serene patience about reaching goals and not holding on to fears sounds like hard-won understanding rather than some pat self-help homily, as she seriously sings her lines, "When you try too hard, it can slip right through your fingers" and the simple "Let it go and you fly."

The title song, by Johnny Mandel and K.L. Dunham, is another welcome balm of mature perspective, easier said than done, perhaps, as implied by an underlying lingering mournfulness, with tears more or less dried. It advises the need to "let go of those memories, the songs your heart has sung/ ... Who cares to feel what went on before?" The musicians shine on this sparer track and elsewhere; the album features some of the same people from her earlier CD. Like fellow jazz singer Jane Monheit, she's married to and works with a drummer named Rick: it's Rick De Kovessey, solid on drums for this very rhythmically-assured singer. He is joined again by Sue Williams and Kermit Driscoll alternating bass duties, sax player Frank Elmo, and keyboard player Rave Tesar, who co-produced the CD with the singer and did most of the arrangements with her. Others present include guitarist Dave Stryker, who is the sole accompanist for tenderly taken "You Are There" (Johnny Mandel/ Dave Frishberg).

Show tune seekers up for something other than cast album-like cloned fare will find Jane fares well with this material, too. There's a rougher-edged, bluesy/moody take on the Porgy and Bess lullaby "Summertime" that ain't no sleeping pill, with some liberties and lyrical embellishments and expansions (purists may dismay, those with jazz tones in their bones—like Gershwin himself—may well shout hooray). And there's Cole Porter's life-affirmingly encouragement to "Experiment" in the adventure of living and Oliver!'s "Who Will Buy?"—the latter taken on a funkier, confident jazz excursion complete with some scat-singing. Her sound and projected attitude sometimes recall bold and earthy Lena Horne's grittier, fiercer attacks on material. Jane also has a burnished sound with a captivating yearning quality that reminds me a little of one of my all-time favorite jazz vocalists, the superb Stephanie Haynes. Rodgers & Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" ends the CD on a brisk-breezy-bright feeling. And it's clearly Jane Stuart's time.


- Rob Lester


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