Warm Spirits and Spirited

The recordings in week's column are full of warm spirits and high spirits - just right for the holiday state of mind.  Interesting voices and interesting choices of material abound. 



Arriving just under the wire for the season is A Holiday Sampler, with songs by Karen Benedetto. Sincerity and the human condition are foremost on her mind and she wears her heart on both sleeves. The first CD of her songs concerned romance and personal growth. That recording, Right From the Start ... The Songs of Karen Benedetto, featured several singers as well as the composer-lyricist herself. Same story here, except this is a five-song affair, and the holidays are on the agenda. Forget about the more commercial trappings, or frolicking with snowflakes and sleigh rides; this is more spiritual.

A recording artist I've admired for several years now, Marieann Meringolo, gets a number whose title is self-explanatory: "The Perfect Gift" ("I'm Giving Love This Christmas"). She sounds warm and fully committed to the material, as always. The strong and heartfelt voice of Anthony Santelmo Jr. does full justice to the stirring track, "A Chanukah Prayer." His performance is reverent and noble.

Peace is always a topic in this season, especially as it's in such short supply this year. Therefore, the simple "Peace Is" might resonate a bit more than usual, even if the children singing on the track could use a little more seasoning. The adult vocalist, Pamela Palmieri, has an innocent, hopeful quality in her voice which makes her an appropriate choice for this ode of determined optimism. "Time and Truth" is sung persuasively by Benedetto, with her own guitar accompaniment. Folk-flavored and thought-provoking messages ("the truth is we're all eternal souls in the end" and "don't be afraid to love too much") abound. Certainly, this is not a songwriter curmudgeons and Scrooges will warm to, and those who reject a chance to reflect are thus advised.

There's an invigorating and soulful burst of energy at the end from Lennie Watts. He's a familiar New York nightlife presence as a director and the man who runs the cabaret/piano bar The Encore, as well as being a strong singer, as his own CD (I Want ... You Want) and live performances have shown. Lennie's assignment is a wish for a "Happy New Year," and the song fills an additional need: there aren't that many songs about New Year's, and parties need them - as we all do, as we turn that page into the next year with hope.

More information about Karen Benedetto and her songs, awards, and other news can be found at her website, www.InTheFlowMusic.com. That's the only place where this brand new CD can be purchased directly at this point. The earlier album with some fine singers like Lisa Asher, Scott Coulter and Connie Pachl can be sampled there or on www.CDBaby.com. You'll also find samples of songs you can obtain individually, including one sung by my Sound Advice predecessor, Jonathan Frank.


Bellalua Records

Tremendous variety is found in Lua Hadar's CD, It's About Time. She is clearly comfortable in many styles and genres. With songs that are perky or placid, serious mood pieces or swingers, even a couple in other languages, she is right at home. This singer, whose rich voice has a luscious tone, is based in San Francisco. She has sung there at The Plush Room and The Purple Onion, and also worked in Italy for an extended period (it's not surprising that the song included on this recording sung in Italian sounds so effortless). Lua has performed as a member of The Kitchenettes, with Linda Kosut and often a (changeable) third member. Their CD from a couple of years ago was mostly a light-hearted affair, with vocal harmony fun that would not prepare you for the depth and versatility she reveals here.

A full-fledged "legit" voice is fully and gloriously employed on John Bucchino's "Grateful," making it as stately and elegant as possible. I would have voted for a few more tracks using her voice this expansively, as some of the lighter moments don't showcase her as well. The best illustration of this is right at the top, an OK but not terribly special "Give Me the Simple Life" which is in a medley with the emotional "Make Someone Happy." She has changed a line in this lyric, dropping the suggestion, "Once you've found him, build your world around him," to the less subjugated " ... throw your arms around him." Kander and Ebb's "Colored Lights" from The Rink is another high point, almost seven minutes in length but it doesn't feel that way. She finds the longing and uncertainty in this piece without missing the comedy.

The album title comes up in numerous lyrics referring to the passage of the years and changing perspectives. "Colored Lights" is one, certainly, and more literally close to the album title is "It's Time," a Frank Wildhorn/ Jack Murphy collaboration that suits Lua well with its long vocal lines. Another "time" tune is by composer-lyricist Dennis Livingston. He also contributes the arrangement for his "It's Time for Roses," a captivating story song with some word choices that got my ear (I like hearing "zen" and "Bartok" in this tale of a well-read but isolated person finding a new love). Lua co-produced the CD with Candace Forest who wrote and arranged "Your Face Flew By My Window," a sensitive and poetic piece.

"Two for the Road" puts an emphasis on a rhythmic groove that I think shortchanges the romance and pledge of devotion in the lyric, making it too smoothed a road. I have mixed feelings about that one, but am not at all undecided about "Undecided" which finds some great rhythmic ideas and is a ball - best of all, this old 1939 song includes the verse most people don't do.

Pianist/ arranger Jason Martineau, like Lua, has a broad musical palette. The other musicians are bassist John Wiitala and percussionist David Rokeach. This is a rewarding album to listen to, its 14 tracks with a playing time of 54:40 generous in length and spirit.


Quirky, adventurous and happily hopscotching across musical genres, Joan Crowe is determined to sing almost everything, including the song "Everything." And she doesn't necessarily do things as expected. She takes "Everything" (heard in the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born) at a much faster clip. Her "Never Never Land" is a jazzy, fast-paced tour of that idyllic place. It doesn't sound like it would necessarily work, but it does. The celebratory approach rather than the usual tender one still makes you think it's a nice place to visit. A Beatles song that's not on most singers' short list to cover, "I'm Only Sleeping," is as unexpected as its treatment, with a slight reggae beat. You'll even find her singing in German at the end. I'm not won over by every chance and choice she takes, but I admire her pluck and joyful sense of adventure.

Joan shows her serious side with the standards "I Cover the Waterfront" and "The Way You Look Tonight," both pretty, but the former could use more heft, having such a forlorn lyric. The latter is on the languid side; when Joan is laidback, she appears too drained of energy for me for stretches in a song (not the whole track). Her gear shift seems to stick on high or low without too much use of the middle. She pumps a lot of energy and cranks up the arrangement on "Every Night I Sleep With an Angel," written by Tom Andersen and Tim DiPasqua, two especially good songwriters who double as fine singers. (Tim also did arrangements and keyboards on two tracks on the holiday album reviewed above.) I don't think this sweet song needs all that, and I think the sparer sections at the beginning and end serve the emotion of the song better.

What tends to win me over here is that Joan performs with some super jazz musicians who make me want to join the party. Her co-producer is George Walker Petit, who is on guitar and percussion. Arrangements are by Joan and the top notch pianist Tedd Firth, who really gets to go to town with some hot playing. She is in good hands with Firth and foremost bassist Jay Leonhart.

Joan's intentionally off-kilter take is perfectly illustrated with her choice of the Annie Ross trademark, "Twisted," which she does as more of a comedy monologue than a jazz piece, and you can even find cute twisted comments on her website, www.joancrowe.com.



Looking forward with optimism is what it's all about as we approach the new year. Here's a singer whose first album is largely concerned with that. The title of John Abernathy's CD, Look Straight Ahead, is a line from the lyric of "I Can See Clearly Now," one of the life-affirming tunes he does so well. John lives in Rhode Island and has just returned to his first love, performing, after a dozen years. He has an instantly likeable sound, refreshing and invigorating. His musical accompaniment is solid, with arrangements and production in collaboration with his pianist Tom LaMark, who also did the orchestrations. This is not one of those quickie, made-on-the-cheap self-produced CDs. It's done with care and polish.

Broadway songs make up a good chunk of the menu. A medley of two Jerry Herman songs is especially effective: "It Only Takes a Moment" from Hello, Dolly! is linked with Milk and Honey's rarely tackled "Let's Not Waste a Moment." This particular track won him an invitation to sing on a bill honoring the songwriter at New York's Cabaret Convention two months ago. The score of Peter Pan is mined for two other medleys; A sly "I Won't Grow Up" (with flute) leads into "Child in Me Again" and the wistful lullaby "Distant Melody" is paired with another show tune of memory, the Charles Strouse/Lee Adams "Once Upon a Time" from All American. In each case, the Peter Pan selection brings a new perspective to the more "grown-up" tale. It's all sung with tremendous tenderness, but still there's a quiet strength which pervades the album, keeping it almost always from verging on anything too mawkish.

A highlight of the album is "I Was Here" from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren's score, The Glorious Ones. What a gem of a song and what an intelligent reading John gives it. The lyric is about making your mark, the desire to leave something behind, with specific references to the drive of a performer despite hardships.

From John Bucchino's anthem, "Taking the Wheel," to "Infinite Joy" by William Finn, the album is full of welcome song choices. Some of the subject matter is intense, but the going doesn't get too heavy. John's naturalness in phrasing and sound production prevents that fate. Two forays into songwriting bring the kind of product you'd expect from a singer who gravitates to material that confronts emotion. They are deeply felt and highly personal stories, determinedly honest in looking at the past as it informs the future. Not bad for a New Year's Eve reflection and a New Year's resolution, too. For more about John, visit his website: www.john-abernathy.com.

Whether you are filling your last December days with Christmas carols or Broadway ballads, work or play, I wish you harmony. I'm preparing my "Best of" lists for 2005 - feel free to email me to share your own favorites of the year.  Feedback is always welcome. I'll be listening for you, merrily, as the year ends and the new one creeps in.

-- Rob Lester

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