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Old Standards in new hands
Two Cool Guys who started young with old songs:
One vocal, one instrumental

Here are two young gentlemen who put their marks and bookmarks in the Great American Songbook as teens. Instrumentalist Aaron Weinstein made his first recordings in high school about a decade before his latest effort. Singer Nick Ziobro has now just done the same thing. Both albums in question happen to be greatly aided by the musical talents of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, another youthful talent (age 88 and a half) and with primo pianist Tedd Firth. Standards and show tunes are given fresh readings.

Birdland Records
Digital: Amazon | iTunes

It's a "Lucky Day" indeed when you play a recording for the first time and it's so ingratiating and thoroughly entertaining that you just keep playing it and playing it, smiling appreciatively, and knowing it's one that you'll be coming back to often. For me, Lucky Day with violinist and sometimes mandolin player Aaron Weinstein—and top musical colleagues—is one of those. It's no surprise, as anyone would surmise from having heard his past work as leader or sideman. (One can also add "snide man" as his low-key but sarcastic and quirky on-stage commentary and invented musical histories are memorable as well, in a voice/attitude that's a combination of comedians Steven Wright and Woody Allen. While his humor and put-ons aren't represented on his studio discs, the cerebral and mischievously zingy sensibilities are, happily, not submerged.) This is a jazzy musician who is also an entertainer of the first order, making the songs jump out as accessible instead of internalized, distancing exploration. Although it took many months for this album recorded in 2011 to see the light of day, what a bright light it and he shine! His adept showmanship is in full evidence, though he never comes across as self-indulgent or showy. His own appealingly bright and blithe arrangements and production stress a joyful love and respect of melody, getting down to business immediately and crisply. While adventurous and collaborative, the musicians don't take up time with extended side trips that ever feel like experimental exercises of excess.

Many of the pieces are classics from scores of stage and films, honored without being slaves to their original contexts and moods. Tracks have their own individual and distinct personalities that don't oversimplify or patronize what could be their obvious attributes: A few of these numbers have ties that bind them to dancing, imprinted on many memories by Fred Astaire films. But Weinstein and his rhythm-mates are not nesting in nostalgia to follow in Fred-ly footsteps, sweetly swirling. "Dancing in the Dark" is elegantly pensive, never overly "dancey" or dark. (After all, its lyric, unheard here but known to many listeners, is a metaphor about going through life, not just about ballroom dalliance.) Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" has zest and snap rather than settling for emphasizing its sentimentally romantic dreaminess or its dance-centric theme. And quite briskly buoyant is "Every Night at Seven," from the Astaire-starrer Royal Wedding and recently re-purposed for the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. The masterful Warren Vaché has some juicy cornet spotlighting on this one, also making a cozy closing that satisfies.

The 1926 title song from the triumvirate of songwriters DeSylva, Brown & Henderson from one of the George White's Scandals Broadway revues is a sprightly, carefree romp with a Cheshire Cat grin. Not the mindless Pollyanna pap it could be, it's got a tart flavor of sophistication, with more freedom of going off the beaten path of melody than on most of the selections. When Aaron scales things back and takes up the mandolin (acoustic or electric), the spare simplicity of solid melodic lines impresses in its own way. And charm reigns supreme. "Don't Like Goodbyes" from the musical House of Flowers is disarming and nostalgic, what I imagine a mint julep on a Southern porch rocking chair to be—comforting, but not overly sweet. Subtle but savvy Bucky Pizzarelli's guitar work, understated and modest, nevertheless helps anchor the more happily hyperbolic and wilder wanderings by others. He's always a pleasure to have on hand, and I wish he had even more solo focus on a few pieces. Likewise solidly reliable, but miles away from just blandly dutiful, the ever-tasteful Tom Hubbard presides on bass on five tracks.

So sensational, personal and prominent is pianist Tedd Firth's muscular presence that had he been employed on all the numbers rather than half of the dozen here, one would expect his name on the cover or more prominently billed. This in-demand, creative and versatile keyboardist has not just sensational "chops" on generous display, but can be felt listening, responding, and embellishing and underlining musical phrases in all the best ways. Weinstein and Firth are great teammates who, each in his own way, really gets a listener to fall in love with the deliciousness and craft of great melody lines, even ones we may have taken for granted. This comes partly from outlining them metaphorically before adding frills.

The CD is populated by top-drawer musicians. Neal Miner is on bass on four splendid tracks, in each case the pianist is Tardo Hammer, and three of those four melodies are by Burton Lane ("Moments Like This," "The Lady's in Love with You" and the aforementioned "Every Night at Seven"). The non-Lane number where Weinstein is with Hammer and Miner is "Twins," a composition by someone we can guess is an inspiration: another swinging violinist, Denmark's Svend Asmussen, who turns 98 this year. Aaron himself just turned 29 a couple of weeks ago and is maybe able to finally graduate from the boyish "wunderkind" image that he's had since his prodigy period that found him making his professional mark in performing and a recording debut while juggling high school homework assignments. He is also heard prominently on albums with singers such as Jessica Molaskey and Christine Ebersole (her recent pointedly titled Strings Attached features his work and Firth's fantastic fingering) and this past year's Jim Caruso/ Billy Stritch/ Klea Blackhurst Christmas CD based on shows at the Manhattan venue Birdland, a place where Aaron is often on hand, and the label this delightful recording is on.

A young guy who is clearly an old soul who knows and loves the music now well into senior citizen status, Aaron Weinstein makes it all sound fresh and vital. Bravo for that.

Titanium Entertainment
Digital: Amazon | iTunes | CD Baby
CD: Website

Although he has some performances coming up (upstate New York) shortly and one in October in Brooklyn with Liz Callaway and Marilyn Maye, singer Nick Ziobro, who has started a promising performing and recording career, is about to start something else in a couple of weeks—freshman year of college! Recently turned 18 years old, this energetic fellow fond of material from Broadway and the Great American Songbook is making an impact. Sparking attention was his first-place win at age 16 in the Great American Songbook Initiative High School Vocal Academy and Competition, the contest and training intensive for American high school students begun by Michael Feinstein (who produced this debut CD). In addition to seeing video footage of that event in Indiana, I've seen Nick becoming increasingly assured and suave as he performed in New York: dazzling patrons as he guested at the posh Feinstein's at Loews Regency; in a concert of work by songwriter Larry Kerchner at the York Theatre; winning second prize (over far more experienced vocalists) in the annual Noël Coward Competition; and at Birdland where he's popped up at Jim Caruso's Cast Party open mic and recently in his own very impressive solo show in celebration of the release of this debut CD. While the in-person engagements were, understandably, somewhat dominated by the visual image of someone still very fresh-faced, eyes-aglow, grinning and grateful teen in a suit singing old songs that somehow suited him, the playing field could be different with just the audio of a CD. No worries.

The arrangements, piano work and musical direction by the invaluable and versatile Tedd Firth are a major reason this package works so well and sounds so classy. His flavors and accents really enhance and support Nick's singing and stylings. Together, they tell a story and sustain moods, with Tedd adding shadings and subtext, kicking things into gear or gently emphasizing details and dynamics. There's a sweet symbiosis here, a feel that they are collaborating and listening to each other. Their breathing together and interacting on "Here's That Rainy Day" is an excellent example as one musically "comments" and responds to the other. Nick's tender, free, sensitive phrasing on this sad ballad shows real thoughtfulness, and it does not feel as if the demands of the structure are pushing or restricting him. Although detailed and graceful, it comes off as in-the-moment real and realized. Much more than pretty crooning—which it is, in spades—it's vulnerable and touching, with restraint rather than bathos. A simple but effective reading of the title song of Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle also brings out the singer's wistful, yearning side. "Blame It on My Youth" would have benefited from more palpable heartbreak and pangs, but it's still a lovely rendition, proving that the fellow's strongest suit may be as balladeer. Quite a neat little triumph is the treatment of "This Guy's in Love with You." Never a victim of the Burt Bacharach melody which often comes off as too strictly bouncy or laidback, it gets a new musical coat of paint and it and the Hal David lyric comes across as a diary-entry confessional, all its haltingly stated, fingers-crossed hope for requited love reading as sincere. The close-mic intimacy works. From the album's opener, the ever-likeable Bye Bye Birdie song for which it's titled, it's clear he has a ball with lively numbers. Some of the singing in the beginnings of such tracks feels rationed and held back, OK, but nowhere near as satisfying as when he shows more oomph and vocal power as a song builds and modulates. "Too Close for Comfort," another Broadway-born blast (Mr. Wonderful), is fun, but doesn't quite take off as totally "owned," the driving arrangement itself grabbing more attention.

With Firth's playing and arrangements mixing in Bucky Pizzarelli's terrific guitar work, Nick couldn't be in better hands. Add the presence of champion drummer Ray Marchica (who knows the power of cool over machine-gunning or banging) and super bassist Jay Leonhart, and you have the pros supporting the new kid on the block. Also valuable and evocative are the work of Marc Phaneuf (sax, clarinet) and Brian Pareschi (trumpet and flugelhorn) who bring even more welcome colors.

Sure, the "youth card" is still in play (he still sounds young, though not in a coy or cloying way). Poised, polished and confident, Ziobro retains a natural exuberance which hasn't been tainted with smugness or a sense of entitlement. Throughout a lot of A Lot of Livin' to Do, there's an endearing "gee whiz" factor of the well-scrubbed, clean cut boy next door. But it's clear that he's more than willing to side step some of that to try on shiny shoes, tux and swaggering swing of a would-be big band singer with frequent flyer miles logged from Vegas outings.

While he still has a way to go and grow to get out from the long shadow of the great male vocalists to find some uniquely personal takes on oft-covered standards, he covers a lot of ground and stands his ground, being quite effective. And it's not about being precocious or the younger hope for longevity of the standards: He's very good! With a real musical sound, good intonation, and flair, his voice and manner are a pleasure to hear on disc. Unlike many singers weaned on the great singers of the Sinatra school, his phrasing and approach aren't mere pallid or slavish imitations of the classic records.

As Ziobro sings in Billy Joel's restless rumination "Summer, Highland Falls," sometimes it's "either sadness or euphoria." He can musically carry off either extreme quite well. Here's to a long, happy, and successful career to the guy at the end of the alphabet, but the beginning of an adventure we get to witness.

- Rob Lester

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