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The American Song Book standards and its numbers plucked from theatre and film scores, always ripe for reinterpretation, show their versatility and durability in some recordings by singers with distinct styles.


Savant Records

With her newest CD, Pamela Luss demonstrates that she is a growing and developing singer. Listening to her, I get the sense of on-the-job training. This is the most successful of her three albums (the first was released in 2006). There remains, to my ears, the projection of a kind of resistible attitude/persona that could be described as the old-fashioned "girlish" or kittenish stance, a passive resignation to emotions and situations. It might be insufferable if the songs chosen were intrinsically coy, come-hither types or overtly flirty. Fortunately, they're mostly solid standards and show tunes with intelligent, reflective lyrics—so the singer comes across more as wistful, which works.

Innocently ruminating over the wave of emotions that come with romantic entanglements, without irony or pessimism. Pamela can be fairly convincing with Guy and Dolls's "I've Never Been in Love Before." There's a tender, tip-toeing tentativeness in the approach that works for the number, rather than the headiness and bursting with joy often associated with this selection. Mellow, cozy contentment is satisfyingly appropriate in her effective reading of the mature lyrics to "Why Did I Choose You?" from the musical The Yearling (Michael Leonard/ Herbert Martin). This and the old standard "For All We Know" are the longest cuts, both well over five minutes, but they don't feel lengthy, as they are two of the more convincing, involved performances, unfolding and developing with sustained focus.

A major attraction of this CD is the presence of strong jazz musicians who are used judiciously, soloing and sharing the focus, but never overwhelming the vocals. Personnel vary somewhat from track to track, but drummer Victor Lewis and pianist John di Martino—both are especially subtle—are the constants; the latter did most of the arrangements. Veteran tenor sax player Houston Person is on six of the 14 tracks and his presence is particularly gratifying and strong. Freddy Cole is a guest for one vocal duet, "No, Not Much," his husky voice and minimalistic approach making a nicely mushy mesh with Pamela's sound and style. There's chemistry that thankfully avoids overdoing the cute factor on this, making it a highlight.

Godspell's "Day by Day" comes as a surprise; who would think the fervent plea to the Lord had potential to seem OK in a laidback, jazzy comfort zone? Wisely, given the risk, Stephen Schwartz's melody is given more attention than his lyrics here, with the band soloing more and Pamela doing some vocalese. The effect is that of praying in fuzzy slippers while sipping tea, but it's a sweet change of pace.

"Sweet" may be the operative word with this whole enterprise, but the tasteful jazz playing of the band undercuts that, and the singer's determined sincerity becomes more dominant than anything else.


Original Cast Records

There is something quite likeable about Yvonne Roome, who has made several albums. Maybe it's the deep, throaty voice. Maybe it's the sultry attitude that seems to sometimes have a wink in it. She isn't always on the surest musical footing and her reach may exceed her grasp occasionally on rangy songs like the opener, Schwartz and Dietz's challenging and dramatic "Dancing in the Dark." But her basic sound is appealing and attractive, and there's a respect and love for the old standards that comes through strongly.

The CD's highlight is the Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke classic "It Could Happen to You," where everything comes together: mood, sensibility, thoughtful phrasing, and solid musicality. Also extremely convincing and thoroughly captivating in its melancholy is "Johnny Guitar" (the movie song by Victor Young and Peggy Lee, who introduced it, and whose breathy, mournful approach she successfully captures. Another song favored by Peggy Lee, "Alright, Okay, You Win" is the change-of-pace upbeat, playful number on an otherwise mostly slower, simmering set, also alleviated by two Cole Porter numbers taken at medium pace: "I Love You" and "I Concentrate on You." The latter seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Yvonne seems to want to take it seriously at first, but the pianist leads a jaunty instrumental break, and she gives in, coming back with a lighter feel.

Once again, Yvonne is joined by famed harmonica player Toots Thielemans, adding much class and underscoring the moods, especially on Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So" where he stretches out. Neal Kirkwood, who is on piano and vibes, arranged and produced. The small band is completed by Jed Levy (sax and flute), Ralph Hemperian (bass) and Eliot Zigmund (drums), and generally things are kept low-key and rather restrained.

There are interesting touches throughout the album. Most notable is the way introductory verses are used. Most singers either drop them entirely or give them major focus. Though she takes these approaches, too, there's an interesting middle ground here: "You've Changed" starts with the melody to the verse played on the flute, with the singer just coming in on the final and key line, "I honestly believe that you are bored." With "Embraceable You," she takes the same kind of shortcut, and makes it work in its succinctness. Another "trimming" liberty that I like is with the title song to the Harold Rome musical, Wish You Were Here; its lyric as written repeats the title line so often (three times in a row at the end of each of a few choruses), but Yvonne avoids the redundancy by humming the phrase, letting the instruments take it, or skipping it entirely at times, letting that desire be implied or thought by the listener. This allows us to have the rest of the words become more prominent instead of being overwhelmed.

Though Roome for Romance is rather uneven, its gems make it worth a listen. The title, however, might be a bit misleading if you're expecting all happy, romantic love songs. There's a fair amount of sorrow, caution and regret, noting that romance can be a rocky road as much as a joy ride.


No babe in the musical woods, but new to me is ....


I'm happy to spend some nice moments with Moment to Moment, Don Discenza's amiable and solid album. This musician, who spent the first decades of his career as an instrumentalist and conductor—in Ohio and then touring—turned to singing more in later years. He plays piano and accordion and sings on all tracks except one: his own composition, "Marianna," which begins gently enough and features the flute of Eric South before it gets a bit wild. Don is joined for some pleasing harmony singing by the other three members of a vocal group he's part of, The South City Voices. They make "Georgia on My Mind" indeed "just an old, sweet song." The sweetness dominates, rather than the longing for home (he actually is a long-time Georgia resident). He duets with warm-voiced Canadian singer Jennifer Hanson for the Frank Loesser favorite "Baby, It´s Cold Outside," where he also has perhaps his most effective and prominent piano solo. They avoid any cutesy, teasing dialogue and "seductive" posturing so many others have inserted into the number.

This is not the first Discenza disc. He recorded with the aforementioned vocal group and had a self-released CD, Free as a Bird, several years ago. I'm happy to belatedly get acquainted with his talents.

There's an easygoing, nothing-to-prove sense about the album, taking things breezily. That's fine, because with the exception of the title song from the film Charade (Henry Mancini/ Johnny Mercer), which seems wanting for some drama and a more serious take, the selections suit a relaxed, casual approach. A three-song grouping of Nat King Cole favorites works well, with no slavish imitations of Cole, but incorporating his ingratiating manner and some light, swinging jazz flavor. The happy, carefree feel is brought out from the beginning with the opener, "Pick Yourself Up" (accidentally credited in the packaging to the wrong writer; it's the Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields standard).

Don seems quite comfortable on the old standards, with an especially crisp, clear vocal sound and a comfortable command at the keyboard, without grandstanding or being self-indulgent at all in either capacity. Some of the instrumental breaks may go on a bit long (each of the 11 tracks runs longer than four minutes), but that may be because he's an instrumentalist first and a singer second. A portion of the money received from sales goes to the charity Music Cares for musicians in need.

And that's a wrap for now.

- Rob Lester

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