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It's tribute time again, honoring musical figures from past decades, but these vocalists aren't trying to sound like a particular American idol. A couple of beloved Freds dominate, with one album tipping the top hat to Fred Astaire—sharing the bill with songs of Ethel Merman— and more Astaire in a salute to songs from movie musicals. Songs of another Fred are still ahead under the radar.

Fred and EthelBENJAMIN SEARS, BRADFORD CONNOR
VALERIE ANASTASIO, TIM HARBOLD
FRED & ETHEL: GREAT SONGS OF ASTAIRE & MERMAN

Oakton Recordings

Dapper, elegant, soft-voiced Fred Astaire and the brash, brassy, bugle-throated Ethel Merman would have made an odd couple if they'd ever been cast together in a musical. They did appear on TV together on "The Hollywood Palace" in the mid-1960s and, in one of those TV mega-medleys, sang their hits and duetted on a few, including "They Say It's Wonderful" from the Merman stage hit Annie Get Your Gun. That's included among 21 tracks on the album Fred & Ethel, a respectful and affectionate tribute that can sometimes creak, sometimes are lacking in color, for my taste. In various combinations, the repertoire is essayed by Valerie Anastasio (vocals), Benjamin Sears (vocals), Bradford Conner (vocals and piano) and Tim Harbold (basically piano, chiming in a couple of times on company numbers).

The modest piano-only arrangements/accompaniments and the often formal-but-not-exactly-stodgy singing approach make the offering seem like a music recital. This is especially true on the more serious or quaint numbers. Some will welcome the old-fashioned, parlor style of song presentation that doesn't re-outfit the songs or revamp their architectures. This is unapologetically low-key, but sometimes low energy on ballads. Though Valerie doesn't have the sass or brass of a belter in the Merman mold, she totally gets the often-missed bittersweet resignation/frustration in "I Get a Kick Out of You." She gives it that drama and tension, makes it a heart-tugger and a highlight.

Some tracks might benefit from more zip and personalization. An "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" mindset is in the spirit of a high-spirited Benjamin Sears/ Bradford Conner duet, "Please Don't Monkey with Broadway" by Cole Porter. Though Merman and Astaire may not have crossed musical paths much, the set list reminds us that both introduced scores by the great writers like Porter, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. Sears and Conner have been recording as a duo for over a decade, with albums collecting the songs of each of these writers, the Porter sharing honors with Noel Coward selections, and the only other to have Miss Anastasio and her accompanist join them. Prior albums were of special interest to song collectors because they contained notable, drool-worthy rare and unpublished numbers by the songwriting giants. That isn't the case here, and they have to stand in the shadow of some indelible and charismatic performers. Ben comes off as rather stodgy and not in his best or sturdiest voice, with a widened vibrato, in numbers such as the ballad "Night and Day." He's far better on the peppier tunes. Brad seems more relaxed vocally, yet livelier in energy.

Creatively compensating for the lack of professional overlaps in the careers of the two icons, who both died in the 1980s, two swell medleys combine their separate but similarly themed numbers. The "Dress-Up Medley" outfits the team with two Irving Berlin items: Astaire's classic, the title song from the film Top Hat joined with "My Walking Stick" which Merman sang in another film. For the "Show Biz Medley," another Berlin contribution—you guessed it—"There's No Business Like Show Business" shares the spotlight with Schwartz and Dietz's "That's Entertainment." Yes, there is entertainment here for sure, but it's somewhat mild, though one never doubts the performers' affection for the material. Near the end, the gang can't resist taking turns at quick impressions of Merman vocal tics. And we even hear the tip-tap of dancing on the album, to remind us of Fred.

Laura Wolfe ... Also DancesLAURA WOLFE
" ... ALSO DANCES"

(A TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT DANCERS OF FILM)

Fred Astaire is on tap again, a few times, on Laura Wolfe's CD. It's a generous clutch of songs heard in old musical films, sung by those known (perhaps primarily) as dancers. The album title of  ... also dances ... comes from the underwhelmed reaction to Fred Astaire's audition for a movie contract (some sources say the scribbled notes said "dances a little"). Laura Wolfe sings more than a little, and a lot wonderfully—she has a big voice, but it's particularly warm—on her second full-length CD. Her first, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not reviewed here last December, was an auspicious and exciting recording. She's only gotten better and more confident. Rather than just focus on numbers that were big dance extravaganzas (they wouldn't necessarily translate to audio-only spectacular), Laura widens the net. Her criterion was just that a song was delivered by someone who, well, also dances. As in the album reviewed above, there are major songs by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin.

Laura has rich tones and a versatile voice that can handle many different styles and attitudes. She can take on a big, almost bombastic showstopper and then pull back to an intimate and trembling ballad. She can handle the sizzle of "It's Too Darn Hot" and the playfulness of "A Man Chases a Girl 'Til She Catches Him," a refreshing choice recalling the Donald O'Connor performance of the Irving Berlin piece, where his "girl" was Marilyn Monroe.

I've been playing this CD more than most this autumn, and unlike many that I keep on rotation and repeat over a period of time, my favorite track doesn't change. It is the under-recorded, under-appreciated "It Happens Every Time" (Burton Lane/ Ira Gershwin) from Give a Girl a Break. Laura is at her most romantic and disarming here.

Musical settings are generally creative and fresh, occasionally seeming to try too hard to bring the music into the new century or become cluttered a bit here and there, though she hasn't quite found a way to bring something new to the very overdone standard "Love Is Here to Stay." However, there's some fine playing on the album, and it's not a cheap, gimmicky kind of "dance along" record by any means (not that there's anything wrong with that). A feast for fans of movie musicals, or just great songs, or just impressive vocalists, Laura Wolfe's work is recommended. For more information, visit Laurawolfe.net.

UNDER THE RADAR

A jazzy singer salutes another Fred who's left us, a special favorite of (much) younger people ...

Mister Rogers Swings!HOLLY YARBROUGH
MISTER ROGERS SWINGS!
HOLLY YARBROUGH SINGS THE FRED ROGERS SONGBOOK

Vintage Discs

Yes, that Mr. Rogers. The children's TV host who defines the word "gentle," coming off as warm and fuzzy as the ever-present cardigan sweater he'd don while singing his opening theme invitation, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" That is here, of course, as the opening track tributing the music of this low-key, kindly neighbor to countless kids. Done with jazzy, hip stylings, it's like having that familiar cardigan suddenly turn into crushed velvet and silk. Mr. Rogers (1928-2003) had a genial, supportive presence that was the television big friend equivalent of comfort food. And he wrote his own songs.

The family name of Yarbrough is hardly a new one on the music scene. Glenn Yarbrough is a veteran of many years, part of the folk movement. Although he's recorded many albums and three in recent years with his daughter, Holly, this is a chance for her to sing solo. Their other CDs include musical theatre material like "No One Is Alone," and they recorded a full CD of songs from Annie Get Your Gun. Papa Glenn is not on this album, but Holly is supported by jazz musicians featuring Richard Smith on guitar and Lori Mechem on piano and the late Boots Randolph. The title, Mister Rogers Swings!, is a bit misleading if you expect hot, hard-swinging, hard-driving jazz; it quietly swings and smiles with some ballads and nothing burning up the speakers. This adorable album takes Mr. Rogers' songs and lets Holly sing them without irony or superiority. She's a gentle jazz bird, singing in a confined section of her voice, seemingly holding back due to the genre.

The inspiring and encouraging pint-sized messages for pint-sized kids has more little spoons of sugar and thoughtfulness. Sincerity triumphs over corn and cute, and nobody's condescending. Musical values are intact and it's all wonderfully odd. One wishes for more vocal variety and range shown, but who wouldn't be mesmerized or at least curiously amused by the character-building songs and advice ("Sometimes People are Good" and later, we learn, "Many Ways to Say I Love You")? Though designed perhaps more for the retro guest with a strong memory of being glued to his seat by the television set, there are no references to TV characters, etc., and it doesn't scream "kiddie album." The self-penned tunes by this Fred are in good hands with sweet-voiced Holly Yarbrough.


Among the coming attractions awaiting review: another Mr. Rogers—Johnny Rodgers, that is, who has released a 2-song CD, one featuring his soon-to-be Broadway stage partner, Liza Minnelli. Plus cast albums from 13 and others.


- Rob Lester


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