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Let's listen to four female singers: two named Clark (Victoria and Petula) and two named Esposito (Julie and Jenna) plus our token male, Lee Cadena, under the radar.

Victoria ClarkVICTORIA CLARK
15 SECONDS OF GRACE

PS Classics

Keen intelligence and deep emotion meet and are fused in the rich performances of Victoria Clark. Her debut solo album has many exquisite, thoughtfully wrought interpretations of songs that allow her to showcase her talents as singer and actress. With the mostly serious-minded repertoire, her glorious voice is alternately soothing and thrilling, always in service of the material. The arrangements and orchestrations, with tasteful and gorgeous writing for strings, are exceptional, especially those bringing out a sense of awe and relished joy about the beauty in life and relationships. Serenity and clarity of vision are expressed with guileless, adult sensibilities, the intent set forth immediately as she opens with an adaptation of the old Shaker hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing?"

This Tony-winning star of Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza presents that songwriter's excellent "Life is But a Dream" from Saturn Returns, with Ted Sperling's dramatic orchestration. On this one particularly satisfying track, we kind of get it all: pensive beginning, tension, wistfulness and those sensational strong soprano high notes. Poems put to music make for some fine work: they are Jeff Blumenkrantz's setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Departure," the Dorothy Parker poem "The Red Dress" set by Ricky Ian Gordon and the singer's own setting for Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing" used as a brief introduction for the charming "Thomas" by Jane Kelly Williams who also wrote the CD's title song embracing life's little moments. She guests on guitar on that track and another guitarist-composer, John Pizzarelli, does the same favor (along with his fellow guitarist and father Bucky Pizzarelli and brother Martin on bass) on "Someone to Cook For." The singer has fun with this clever and spiffy tune John wrote with his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, who appeared with Victoria on the recording of Dream True, also on PS Classics.

Classic Broadway numbers are here, too: "Before the Parade Passes By" (Hello, Dolly!), "Right as the Rain" (Bloomer Girl) and "I Got Lost in His Arms" (Annie Get Your Gun), all treated with respect and majesty. 15 Seconds of Grace is 46 minutes of sublime time.

Petula ClarkPETULA CLARK
IN HER OWN WRITE

Sepia Records

The sound of Petula Clark's singing voice is always welcome, and this issue from Sepia puts the spotlight on her skills as a composer, and a couple of examples of her lyric writing. In addition to the 13 of her vocals recorded in the 1980s and '90s (some are rarities), there are instrumental compositions, too. Seven of the songs have lyrics by Dee Shipman, including two from their musical Someone Like You: the cut "Green Hills of Old England" (a buried treasure well sung and full of nostalgia and longing) plus the ardently dramatic title song in duet with strong-voiced Steve Barton and reprised as a full-length instrumental (Sepia also released an album of the score).

From the Clark/Shipman musical Zola come two demos. ("I Love You") "Ti Amo" is a simple but effective declaration of love that Petula handles with directness. The other is "The Face of Love." The liner notes' disclaimer about sound quality difference on the home demos is a non-issue; the singing sounds wonderful and their simplicity is actually a relief from some of the busy arrangements of the commercial records. Though the piano accompaniment sounds like it's under a blanket, the singing is more personal and riveting, so it's a good trade-off.

Veteran singer Petula sounds terrific and vital throughout, though some of the more commercial fluff is just that. The material ranges from the cheery pop of "Got It" to the earnest "Cross the Border" for a charity album released only in Germany in 1995 with Petula the lyricist and singer joined by a chorus of voices. A flashback to the pop past comes with a 1986 revisit to the catchy "You're the One" from the 1960s, a collaboration with the writer of many of her songs from that time, Tony Hatch.

The instrumentals, written for films, vary in length, polish and how engaging they are. The soundtrack selections from an educational film Pétain contains some nice tracks, especially those with cello, and the featured theme, "Valse Adolescent." There is musical direction by Kenny Clayton, who did the arrangements for Someone Like You and wrote the earlier version of one of the songs heard with a vocal, "Give It a Try" (apparently Petula gave it a try when a rewrite was decided upon).

Also included is a powerful extra: "My Love Will Never Die" in a new recording by British musical theatre performer Amanda-Jane Manning. All in all, the CD is an interesting cross-section of music from a favorite performer with quite a bit of the Clark spark and the more mature, thoughtful side of her talents.

Julie EspositoJULIE ESPOSITO
UNSUNG HOLLYWOOD

Rule the World Productions

Any CD with not one but two songs from the not-quite-classic 1969 film with the title Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? certainly gets my attention. But Julie Esposito wins points for far more than excavating these two songs by Anthony Newley and Herbert Kretzmer. She's a solid, confident, singer who brings flair to all the songs here. But the two from this film are especially well done: she takes "I'm All I Need" and avoids making it just another self-empowering pat-yourself-on-the-back anthem. It has vulnerability, too. She also has an easygoing go at "When You Gotta Go," once also picked up by Barbra Streisand, three of whose movie musicals Julie also addresses, but she doesn't seem on totally sure musical footing with the melodic leaps and power notes. From A Star is Born, "I Believe in Love" has some gusto. Yentl's "Where Is It Written?"'s big, rangy melody presents challenges, but Julie has no problem with the emotion and sense of disquiet and wanderlust. And then there's Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl. Her liner notes state she wasn't familiar with "If I Love Again" until it was incorporated into that latter day film. One of its specially-written Kander and Ebb songs, "Let's Hear It for Me" is her other choice, and while it's nice to hear another version of this, she seems to back off from the song's big notes and its written-in feisty determinism, making this more light than fight.

Determination and assuredness are not in question with Julie's straight ahead grab of "Journey to the Past," one of the glorious ones written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for the film Anastasia. Her other journeys to the past of movies are quite successful; I especially like the medley of two songs by the Sherman brothers for the musicalizations of "Freedom" and "If'n I Was God" from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer respectfully. The pairing works well, a good example of her stated goal to bring attention to movie songs rarely heard outside of their original recordings. "The Turntable Song" is a 1947 bit of heaven in its nostalgic sweetness and happy (in fact, its adorable lyric, "the truth of the matter is I'm happy while the platter is spinning round and round" could be applied here with the singer's swell rendition of this, my favorite track on the platter).

Julie has a warm sound, and a comfy and sympathetic musical ambience is added with the work of musical director/pianist Shelly Markham. He is a sensitive accompanist and knows how to insert fun, too.

Based in California, Julie will be making a trip east to sing in the Any Wednesday series of free concerts at the Barnes & Noble store on 66th Street and Broadway on November 28th at 6:00.

Jenna EspositoJENNA ESPOSITO
13 MEN ... AND ME!

Good Fortune Records

There's a lot of sunshine in the sound of Jenna Esposito, a singer full of positive energy on her debut disc and in person in New York's cabarets. Since 2004, she's become quite ubiquitous, having done several solo shows, guesting with others, and I see her performing regularly around town at the open mics and consistently attending the shows of other singers. (She has a blog on her website where she enthusiastically reports and recommends and relishes the work of many others.)

Jenna also radiates good spirits on her album, breezing through bouncy tunes and snuggling up to the sultry songs. Most tracks feature the fine work of her father, guitarist Fortune Esposito, and Kelly Park (pianist and sometime percussionist, also the CD's producer). The vocalist's gleeful enthusiasm can result in her swallowing her words here and there, and phrasing more like a band singer than an actress, she attends more to the overall mood and melodic structure than to mining lyrics for complex characterization. On "One Less Bell to Answer," however, she gets impressively deeper into the words and projects a woman still somewhat shell-shocked by the end of a relationship. The vulnerability revealed on this track shows the potential of this still-developing singer for doing more than just the happy and snappy singing she generally does - and does well.

The highlight of the album is also a delightful discovery of a song, "Sorry Said the Moon" by David Goldman (who guests on acoustic guitar and back-up vocals) and Brian Seymour. This sweetheart of a tune about the moon nostalgically evokes a gentler time and it's performed with charm and care.

Show tunes include "Just in Time" and "Down with Love," both performed at a zippy, carefree pace. "What Good Would the Moon Be" is another, and this much more serious number by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes from Street Scene finds Jenna in a more reflective mood. It's an unusual and challenging melody with twists and turns not always easily maneuvered, but again there's more maturity demonstrated, and an attractive vibrato, too, on this slower-tempo track. On the pop song "Since I Fell For You" there's some passion unleashed, with more belt and more deeply felt.

It seems that "cute" is a strong suit, and suits her youthful sound well. A playful and upbeat personality comes across as real rather than forced, putting sparkle in much of the CD. You can hear it through much of the repertoire, from the lively opener about a kiss, "Eso Beso," to the final track, with the same activity on her mind, "I Feel So Smoochie." It is the one track recorded live, from a performance at The Metropolitan Room where Jenna will once again be performing on December 1, her birthday. Happy birthday.

UNDER THE RADAR

And for another cabaret singer's songs, come under the moon and under the radar and under the spell of some loving moods with ...

Lee CadenaLEE CADENA
LOVER'S MOON

An evocative slow-burning, slow-dancing romantic mood with a Tex-Mex flavor comes via Lee Cadena's Lover's Moon. The debut album of this Texas-born singer/ New York City transplant with a mellow croon is very enjoyable. An ingratiating version of Marc Shaiman and Ramsey McLean's "A Wink and a Smile" begins the CD in a relaxed, take-off-your-shoes manner and then things get more seductive and/or tender. Lee's intimate style of singing is made even more vulnerable when his vibrato comes into play, as in "Unchained Melody."

Some numbers completely or partially in Spanish add to the atmosphere. They may be familiar since some were pop hits with English words. Some may recall "You Belong To My Heart" ("Solamente Una Vez") was sung in films by Ezio Pinza and Roy Rogers and was a chart hit for Bing Crosby, though I know it more from a Disney cartoon, The Three Caballeros. "Manhã de Carnaval" by Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá is sung with its sorrowful English lyric (by Carl Sigman), but Lee sings the melody line so tenderly and with lack of melodrama that its beauty wins out over the lonely despair of the words.

"I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love" (by Peter Allen/ Carole Bayer Sager, employed in Broadway's The Boy from Oz) shows a more cabaret style impassioned singing. Lee gets out from the Lover's Moonlight there into the cold light of day. But having it placed as the final track prevents it from breaking the mood and ends the album with an invigorating sense of strength rather than a whimper or lover's sigh.

Federico Chavez plays piano on the bittersweet title track written by Glenn Frey of The Eagles; otherwise the only musician is master mood maker, keyboardist-guitarist Dan McLoughlin who also produced and engineered the album.

With an easygoing, smooth sound, the CD has a relaxed sense of sultriness without a sleaze factor. The layered background vocals are also Lee's voice. This is a great late-night album, and what I especially like about it is that the calmness never becomes too droopy; there's a sincerity in the legato singing. Well programmed, the tracks flow into each other, and there's subtle variety in style and mood. Sometimes it borders on getting too mushy, meaning both dripping with sentiment and muddier accompaniment in the bed of sound.

There is expressed gratitude "to the composers of these beautiful songs" in the liner notes, but it's an oversight not to have their names found anywhere. What is found everywhere is straight-from (and to)-the-heart vocalizing.


We'll be taking off next Thursday for Thanksgiving, but there are some extra things to be grateful for above. Coming up will be looks at more interesting albums, including Carols for a Cure, this year's Christmas album sung by stars of Broadway shows. The strike on Broadway closing most shows has hurt awareness of the release of this annual pleasure, a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, but you can find out about it and buy it and other CDs at their website.


- Rob Lester


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