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Here we 'R': Rodgers, Ringwald & Rivera

We open our musical book of singers to the 'R' page this time, and spend some time with recent recordings by Johnny Rodgers and Molly Ringwald and a reissue of early record albums by Chita Rivera. These singers' styles and persona are very different, but each pulls from pop and the Great American Songbook, and two of her classic songwriters are represented on all the recordings: Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser.


Melody Thread

With his tight and terrific band, Johnny Rodgers is back, and back in fine form. The guys have been touring the world as ambassadors of American music in major jaunts sponsored by and endorsed by the U.S. State Department. So, different genres of our cultural heritage and history are embraced here and they sound as firmly rooted in standards as they do in country/western and pop-rock or soul. And two originals are the icing on the cake, worthy partners to the classics.

Opening with an evergreen (by the songwriter of whom Jerome Kern famously said "has no 'place' in American music—he is American music!"), we are off and running with Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek." And I'm in heaven with this tasty, juicy opener that sets the pace for a good, professional outing. Joy abounds. Although this oldie can work as a dreamy devotional, its lightly playful and ebullient lyric, including references to thrill-seeking from mountain-climbing and the less strenuous pastime of fishing, is bait for exulting over dancing with that certain someone, and the celebrational tone sells it well. Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorell's "Georgia on My Mind" gets a strong reading that shows true involvement and thinking, with a real feel for appreciation of this classic. Not for a moment in these two often-recorded numbers did I feel a sense of ho-hum on my part or automatic pilot on theirs. They're alive and in the moment and very welcome.

Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh's "Let's Get Lost," favored by jazz-leaning musicians, gets a rich reading, too. And "Too Marvelous for Words" kinda is just that here. The avalanche of adjectives penned by Johnny Mercer's let this Johnny immerse himself with apparent glee, including some of the lyric not always recorded. All are owned and relished. And Richard Whiting's melody gets a real romp. None of these standards sound creaky or tired. Johnny Rodgers's own "Take Another Chance on Love" is playfully full of references to giants of American music and lyrics: a couple of Rodgers & Hart songs, Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Getting to Know You," legends like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Louis Armstrong, etc. While not an "answer song"/sequel to the classic "Taking a Chance on Love," but with flashes of its playfulness, it's adorable and this track also gives the four-man band members all a chance to stretch out on solos. Brian Glassman on bass, Joe Ravo on guitar, and drummer Danny Mallon (who also adds some vocals throughout the CD) all shine and are a great team with Rodgers generous but firmly in charge, playing piano, organ, and harmonica in addition to being the vocalist. All four are credited with the arrangements. As a special added treat, brass giant Randy Brecker sits in on four tracks and adds a special richness and subtlety (on flugelhorn) notably to the last cut, opening with "Ain't No Sunshine" and becoming an extended instrumental "American Jam" written by the band. And while it is 12 minutes long (!), it sustains interest and energy.


Concord Music Group

You may recall that Molly Ringwald was one of the replacements, a little over a decade ago, in the leading female role in the revival of Cabaret in New York. After that, she toured as the star of Sweet Charity. Her singing goes back to childhood, when she played one of the orphans in a West Coast production of Annie, sang along with her jazz pianist father's band, and made a previous album back in the 1970s (she was seven years old). Now she's taking on material from Broadway/movie musicals and standards and more in a set where most of the tracks are longish (seven of the ten tracks time out at well over four minutes), but don't always show a lot of the longing needed. While her voice has a pleasant enough sound and a gentleness, much of the material sounds lugubrious. There's a sense of things sounding labored or studied, with cautious tentativeness, and a decided lack of energy and abandon. The sort-of title song of Except ... Sometimes, the original title of the poem by Jane Brown Thompson on the aftermath of her husband's death that led to Hoagy Carmichael expanding and musicalizing it as "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," has attractive moments and some admirable sense of wistfulness, despite not coming across as heartbroken.

While some pretty sounds emerge through the album and a certain romantic sensibility is strongly suggested, it doesn't quite flow easily along. The Ringwald rosiness can be a bit pale, and laments feel lethargic rather than devastated by distress. There are many times where she sings a few words, then the more graceful or energized piano or band plays a phrase, and so it goes back and forth, making the contrast stark like two unequal tennis players trading shots. The band, with Peter Smith on piano and doing arrangements, seems to be doing the heavy lifting with ease and more oomph.

The CD opens with Stephen Sondheim's "Sooner or Later," written for the Dick Tracy film femme fatale, a role she was considered for, Ms. Ringwald reported in an interview. But here she doesn't quite sound at ease with the ooze of breathy sexy come-ons and confidence. The number is all about bravado and determination, and it's too tepid. Effort and hesitancy tend to be noticeable in this and other haltingly phrased songs' lines. And while she can sound kindly and warm, it's more a kind of lukewarm. Oliver!'s "Where Is Love?" is gentle and reveals some vulnerable honesty, but there's no palpable sense of yearning or aching loneliness. "Pick Yourself Up" is the pick of the lot, as this short piece (2:04) is efficient and chipper, picks up the pace, and is briskly straight to the point. Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You" (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) can be rather trying as the required energy in the vocals lags and lags, while that "slam bang tang" comes mostly from instrumental phrases in between vocal lines.

Some tracks, at least in part, find the vocalist looser and lighter in feel. She's not by any means totally at sea. She conveys the basic emotions of each number, but doesn't get in deep enough to sound fully invested. "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (written for The Nervous Set, the "beatnik" Broadway musical of yore) leans toward sympathy rather than empathy, but there are numerous nice moments of phrasing and image-projecting storytelling that keep us afloat on this longest track of all (6:29).

Fans of the teen movies Molly made her mark in will recognize the pop song "Don't You (Forget About Me)" as one heard in The Breakfast Club, which helped stake her claim to fame, and that album-closer feels like she's more at home, singing it from a more mature, thoughtful perspective. Now, there's an idea: deepening and darkening some pop fluff, including fare heard in her early films and those she grew up on. That might be her path, rather than tip-toeing in the footsteps of the many heavy hitters who've crooned or sashayed through these well-covered numbers over many years.

Performances of this material in person might add a needed dimension; a chance to judge for yourselves is when the performer comes to Iridium NYC, the nightclub on Broadway, on May 8 and 9.


Stage Door Records

What a pleasure to have two very tough-to-find Chita Rivera solo albums from the early 1960s on one CD! They are full of songs from musical theatre and films, such as three Rodgers & Hart classics, Rodgers & Hammerstein (Oklahoma!'s "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" (spectacular fun in its gleeful assertiveness), that Flower Drum Song song of heartbreak/self-protection from the pain of love, "Love, Look Away," and other cross-pollinations of American writers: "Old Devil Moon" (E.Y. Harburg/Burton Lane); "The Lady's in Love with You" and "I Hear Music" (both by Burton Lane/Frank Loesser); "Small Fry" (Frank Loesser/ Hoagy Carmichael); and "The Nearness of You" (Hoagy Carmichael/ Ned Washington), a number that's cozy and devotional.

I've always preferred the numbers on Chita! with its more interesting, spiffier arrangements (Alyn Ainsworth) and more personality and spunk in the vocals. Our longtime Broadway fave really bit into this material recorded half a century ago. Its brash playfulness is evident from the word "go" with the opener, "Ten Cents a Dance," and there's big-voiced singing and belting throughout. She struts cutely with vim and coyness with the boisterous, honking "An Occasional Man" with more than an occasional sassy wink. My Fair Lady's "Get Me to the Church on Time gets an insert of some extra lines midway and a brassy finish. For respite, there's some rich ballad singing that evidences thoughtfulness and lyric connection/ characterization in the phrasing and tonal colors, as strings sweep us through the more legato melodies.

Joe Cain was arranger for the more subdued And Now I Sing!, with some gimmicky, cluttered orchestrations and rushed or draggy tempi. Overall, it's more ballad heavy and restrained, while its upbeat items are fluffy rather than zingy. There's a smile in the Rivera voice when she sings love songs, which prevents them from getting too gooey, although that same pleasure-taking sometimes strays into "cuteness" that might be too stylized for some, especially when combined with busy, tinkling, or slushier orchestral figures. Frustratingly, one kind of senses a real reluctance to fully get into—or give into—sadder lyrics and letting bittersweet or rueful lines sink in. In "Moon River," she flows somehow into sounding like she's girlishly romancing the river itself and taking things light and sweet, rather than bittersweet. "It's Easy to Remember" is memorably un-subtle, with sudden broad shifts in pointed intent at the end. The sorrowful "There Is Nothing to Say But Goodbye" borrows its melody from the old tune "Greensleeves," but is credited as Cain/Noble. But there are adorable and worthy gems in this album as well.

The cheery Chita may be minus some fire and drama, but the exuberance and jauntiness are major attractions and there's something, well, quaint about the lovey-dovey sentimentality. And we get hints of the saltier, throatier Rivera voice we came to know in more recent years. Long may she reign!

- Rob Lester

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