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Jessica Molaskey Make BelieveTo say that I was eagerly anticipating Jessica Molaskey's latest CD, Make Believe, is an understatement of epic proportions. Both of her previous albums, Pentimento and A Good Day, made my annual 'best of' list and I was intrigued to see if Molaskey would be able to pull off a hat trick. I must admit that at first I was a bit concerned with Make Believe, as its first track, "I Cain't Say No" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! had me worrying that her latest album would be in the mold of her first two: breathy and jazzy easy listening albums (which would not have been a horrible thing - it's just that after two albums in that style I wanted to hear her shake things up a bit and display the vocal chops she amply demonstrated on cast albums such as Parade and Songs For A New World). Thankfully, Molaskey took her desire to fuse the 42nd Street songs of Broadway with the 52nd Street sensibility of jazz seriously and has crafted a delightful and powerful album chock full of songs culled from the stage, many of which she performs with theatrical panache and vocal acuity.

To pick a favorite on this album is impossible. Is it the fusion of John Hendricks' "Cloudburst" and Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," which is performed as a counterpoint duet between Jessica and her husband, John Pizzarelli (and amusingly arranged by Jason Robert Brown)? Or a version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Stepsisters' Lament" delivered with a great deal of gusto and humor by Molaskey (her guttural interpretation of "I could break her little arm" alone is worth the price of the album)? How about a simple but evocative rendition of "Growing Pains" by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields? Oddly enough, my personal choice would be a number written by Molaskey and Ricky Ian Gordon called "Cradle And All," a heartrending number that stays with the listener long after the final track (a beautiful rendition of The Music Man's "Goodnight My Someone") has faded.

Tim Di PasquaAnother eagerly anticipated album was Purpose Of Love, Tim Di Pasqua's long-awaited follow up to one of my favorite albums, Monster Under These Conditions. The album was inspired by a benefit in 2000 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that featured Di Pasqua's songs (and won him a 2001 Backstage Bistro Award for Special Cabaret Event). Purpose Of Love features eleven songs performed by a dozen performers and encompasses a variety of styles. There's the anthem to Broadway belting ("My Favorite Note, performed by the iron-lunged Alix Korey), an ode to the fantasy of closing time ("Big Hairy Man," tenderly and beautifully sung by Scott Coulter), a rollicking blues number ("You Got No Style," performed by the incomparable Baby Jane Dexter), and the warped high comedy song ("You Make Me Nuts," delightfully sung by Tom Andersen).

With all those styles and performers, this is one of those albums that has something for everyone (and conversely has a song or two that won't match a person's individual taste). As, to my ears and heart, Tim Di Pasqua is a songwriter with a unique and evocative voice that is at its best when describing yearning, be it desperate or fulfilled, my favorite numbers are the haunting "So Good" (beautifully sung by Ann Marie), the heartbreaking "It Shouldn't Have Happened" (sung by Jessica Hendy, who plucks every heartstring like a maestro) and a number celebrating a person's true accomplishments in life, "You" (performed by Tim himself). The last number is by far the best on the album, sparking the only complaint about this album: Tim Di Pasqua is as good a performer as he is a songwriter and the album would have been even more magical (to this listener at least) if he had preserved more of his interpretations.

Purpose of Love is the first volume of the Tim Di Pasqua Songbook series with Volume Two scheduled to be released sometime in 2005. For more information visit www.timdipasqua.com.

Deborah TranelliBest known for her role as Bobby Ewing's faithful secretary Phyllis on the long-running TV series Dallas, Deborah Tranelli has released a surprisingly solid and enjoyable debut album, A Lot Of Livin'. While she is the recipient of a Back Stage Bistro Award, she is not widely known as a singer. Hopefully this album will rectify that as it is one of the best debut albums I have heard in quite some time.

The CD features a remarkable collection of standards (such as a sultry "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home"), showtunes (a joyous rendition of the album's title song), and pop and country tunes (a tender version of Carole King's "Home Again" and the rollicking proto-feminist "A Mattress In The Kitchen," which will grace many a cabaret show in the future, methinks). It also includes up-and-coming cabaret standards, such as two songs by John Bucchino ("I'm Not Waiting," a number that will probably join "Grateful" and "Unexpressed" in the cabaret singer's songbook, and "Gentle Souls and Tenderhearted Fools," a tender number written with Lindy Robbins), Stephen Schwartz and Steven Lutvak's "Rewriting History," and my favorite song on the album, "Like The Heavens Hold The Stars," a number by Paul Rolnick and Bill Soden that is one of the most romantic numbers written in recent memory. Throughout the album, Tranelli displays a great sense of warmth and intelligence which, when coupled with strong vocals, makes for a powerful CD indeed.

Scott AilingOne of the most frustrating things about living in New York City is that one often comes across performers who knock one's socks off, are better than 99% of people in the recording industry, and could out-sing every single person to ever have appeared on American Idol, and yet these people are invariably toiling away largely unrecognized. Hopefully Scott Ailing will not be among those ranks for too much longer, as his CD, Troika, displays an incredible vocal instrument that deserves much greater exposure than the Manhattan piano bar scene. The word 'eclectic' is overused in CD reviews (in fact I shudder to think how many times I have probably used it) but in Troika's case it is certainly justified. After all, how many albums do you have in your collection that feature Chopin art songs ("Prelude"), pop standards ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), contemporary pop numbers (Basia's "Time and Tide," performed in jazzy, bass and guitar driven style), electronica/pop ("Take Me Back"), operatic arias ("Nessun Dorma"), and original songs by the singer and musical director? Even more importantly, how often do you come across a performer who is equally adept at each genre?

While some of the production choices are not as strong as the album deserves (the use of electronic keyboards instead of a real piano is especially galling and grating on one's ears and cheapens far too many numbers, including an otherwise spectacular "Nessun Dorma"), and some of the arrangement choices are perplexing (why interject religion by way of a reading from Genesis into the gorgeous, spiritually uplifting non-secular "Sailing Home," one of the most beautiful numbers on the album?), overall this is a highly enjoyable album and one to be savored. For more information visit www.scottailing.com.

John BarrowmanBritish actor/singer John Barrowman has had quite a relationship with Cole Porter lately, having made an appearance in Porter's recent biopic De-Lovely and in the latest London revival of Anything Goes. Thus, it is not surprising that his latest album, John Barrowman Swings Cole Porter, focuses on the songs of one of America's (if not the world's) most sophisticated and entertaining songwriters. What is surprising, though, is that, while the album is beautifully sung and the orchestrations sound fantastic, thanks to the efforts of over three dozen instrumentalists and some lush and intriguing arrangements by Larry Blank, overall the album makes for a highly frustrating listen to anyone familiar with Porter's work.

First of all, the title is a misnomer as the songs are performed in a very strict, square manner (for an example on how to truly swing Cole Porter, check out the album from which Barrowman 'borrows' his title: Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter). Even more mystifying is the fact that Barrowman performs most of the songs as if they were written by Irving Berlin, with everything earnestly expressed on the surface. This is not to put down Berlin, who ranks with Porter among the pantheon of great songwriters, but rather to illustrate how different songwriters possess a different 'flavor' if you will, and one can not sing Porter's "Just One of Those Things," one of the best 'kiss-off' songs ever written, with the emotional earnestness of Berlin's "Change Partners." Without that playful, self-aware (if not out-and-out self-mocking) edge, Porter's tunes fall flat and lifeless, even when sung as beautifully as they are by Barrowman. For instance, "Do I Love You?," one of Porter's more heartfelt ballads, is not all it should be, delivered as it is without the slightest twinge of gentle teasing. While performing "Miss Otis Regrets" as a dirge can be an acceptable and effective choice (as illustrated by Ella Fitzgerald, whose Cole Porter Songbook albums are essential additions to anyone's music library), it takes someone of Fitzgerald's gravity to pull it off (and Barrowman's assertion in a recent interview that the song is about a mixed race love affair that ends in a lynching is a bit of a puzzlement as it is not supported lyrically nor in any research book I have found, which makes me wonder if he got the song confused with Berlin's "Suppertime").

Part of the problem is that Barrowman largely ignores the verses to the songs, which are helpful (if not downright essential) in establishing a song's mood as they usually give the performer something to play with and/or against. Even when he does include them, he treats them more as an after thought than as an integral part of the song (starting the album's first track, "Just One Of Those Things," with only the last line of the verse is not only frustrating to those familiar with the song, but makes one think one's CD player is malfunctioning and has skipped a chunk of the song). Even more damaging is the fact that all but one of the numbers, "Ca, C'est l'Amour," (a rarely performed number from the MGM film Les Girls) have been performed by some of the best interpreters ever grace a song, Porter or otherwise. While it may be unfair to judge his renditions against the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli and Andrea Marcovicci (to name just a few), the truth is that every one of the performers listed above instinctively understood what makes Porter's songs a delight to sing as well as listen to: a sly undercurrent of playful mocking that lurks under the surface of just about every one of his songs.

While Barrowman's strong and beautiful vocals are amply on display (especially on the bonus track, "Easy To Love," of the few honestly earnest numbers Porter ever wrote), John Barrowman Swings Cole Porter ultimately fails to do the works of Cole Porter justice and displays all the fizz of leftover champagne.

Scott DreierThere are two reasons to purchase Scott Dreier's self-titled album. First of all, it's a solid and highly listenable album featuring standards (a swinging "Put' Em In A Box, Tie 'em With A Ribbon," and "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket," both of which include the verses to great effect), showtunes ("Suddenly Seymour," with Katey Sagal), pop (a tender and highly effective pairing of "Yesterday" and "Since You Stayed Here," the latter of which is both a pop song and a showtune and thus performs double duty), and unfamiliar numbers (the premier recording of "Pieces of Dreams," a tender number by Beverly Bremers, whose "Don't Say You Don't Remember" was a '70s hit, and "Love, Me" a wonderful storytelling/relationship song reminiscent of "Where Have You Been"). The second reason to buy the album is that a portion of the proceeds benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

The album has a few missteps (starting a CD with "Pure Imagination" has become a cliché, and the arrangement has a synthesized feel that is not found throughout the rest of the album, giving the erroneously assumption that synthesized versus 'live' will rule the CD - which can be an eye-rolling turn-off to listeners). But Dreier has done an excellent job of creating a cohesive and highly enjoyable album. For more information visit www.scottdreier.com


-- Jonathan Frank


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