Welcome to Valentine's Day. Here are some vocalists with taste in presentation so love songs don't turn to mush. Besides being a card or sweetheart, a "valentine" can be an artistic work expressing affection for something or someone, so included is a CD that's very much a singer's valentine to another artist and his work. Let's start with a posthumous release full of Valentine's Day-worthy romance.


(2-CD SET)
Midder Music

Love songs sound especially lovely and real when Nancy LaMott's voice delivers the valentine. She had a quality that touched the heart because she sang with so much of hers. Her gimmick was that she had no gimmick. Her honesty came through - and cut through everything. Brave enough and smart enough to just sing directly with a deep well of feeling, all the humanity was there and it still has a stunning effect. The 20 tracks on Ask Me Again - named for the rarely done, buried ballad by the Gershwins - are great to have at last.

This potpourri is made up of live performances (mostly for radio) and demos. They are from the last two years of Nancy's life (she passed away in 1995) and six demos made in 1988. Only a couple of the songs appear on her other albums. Most have just piano accompaniment (her very in-synch and sensitive musical director Christopher Marlowe or the polished pro Tony Monte). For a singer whose great strength is intimately connecting with a listener, spare accompaniment only accentuates that. Likewise, the tenderness and vulnerability so emblematic in her general sound and vibrato feel even more wonderfully intense. Not a fan of the pallid ballad, Nancy is heard on quality songs and always sounds involved with the lyric, phrasing conversationally and with wistfulness.

For torchiness, there's her passionate "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from Funny Girl and the rapturous, riveting "Right as the Rain," a Bloomer Girl ballad. Nancy's version of "September in the Rain" is one of the best I've heard, really bringing out so much in the lyric. Others sing it lightly or paint a general picture; Nancy lets in the full bittersweet treatment - the sights and sounds that are memory triggers painting a whole story of recollections of a September romance: "the raindrops seemed to play a sweet refrain." So does she. The package's one medley is a Stephen Sondheim double-header of seriousness well-handled: "No One Is Alone" and "Not While I'm Around." For respite, there are a few looser outings, like a breezy "Cheek to Cheek" and a charmer of a duet with Michael Feinstein on "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me." There's one devastatingly bleak and lonely tale: "Killing Time" (Jule Styne/ Carolyn Leigh). Coming across just as real and deep as the deep-in-love songs, this excellent song is etched with despair.

Not everything feels like she's fully absorbed the song into every pore of her body, as she sounds on her superb studio albums, which are all back in circulation. That's to be expected with the 1988 demos which predate her album debut and radio shows (for one, she was called to be a guest in a salute to composer Harry Warren, yielding four numbers heard here). On the other hand, there's sometimes the plus of an informal feel or the sense of a determinedly attentive singer still discovering her way with twists and turns of a song - thus being very present. They still sound fresh. And classic.

Released at the same time is a DVD that covers a wider range of years, and captures Nancy in nightclub and TV performances plus an interview.


Blair Lake Music

Sigh a sigh of romantic ahhh and a sigh of relief because Billy Stritch's valentine to Mel Tormé does the pretty-darn-impossible. He "gets" the essence of Tormé, knows and liberally borrows his style, very specific mannerisms and lifts judiciously chosen exact phrasings, licks, idiosyncratic moments and Tormé-isms without sounding self-conscious, coy, studied or losing his own identity. If you don't know the Tormé recordings or are fuzzy on them, you can easily enjoy this CD on its own merits. Billy is a terrific entertainer, vocals and piano, with these mostly upbeat tracks of great songs with some especially snazzy moments. But if you know well a lot of the Tormé personalized takes on these standards (or even a generally informed overview), there's even more to appreciate with this loving identity theft. He climbs every "Mountain Greenery" peak of specialized business in a busy chart for the long lyric. The sensational endings, those embellishments in "You're Driving Me Crazy," the repeated lines varying the title phrase in "Just One of Those Things," and the juicy bits in "Lulu's Back in Town" .... they're all there and obviously play in his head.

Billy's musicality is very fluent and his energy never lags here; he keeps the ballads lightly afloat, too. "Blue Moon" is dreamy and "A Cottage for Sale" is a nice story song, though the lyric is delivered in a rather clipped way that prevents it from being sadder or just letting us languish in the sorrowful melody. Its second half, however, is much more effective. Tormé's own melodies of "Born to Be Blue," and "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire"), the one instrumental, are well served here. Also laudable is Billy's diction and the teamwork of the trio- he is joined by star bass player David Finck and Mark McLean on drums.

After Mel Tormé died in 1999, his songbook was taken on for several tribute albums. His sons James and Steve have both fallen in line and carried the torch. However, Billy Stritch is a very logical candidate. He has some of the same qualities: confidence, jazz smarts and playfulness, plus he knows the repertoire and arrangements as a fan and knew the man. Billy Stritch Sings Mel Tormé feels like a guided tour of the repertoire.

The Mel tour may be yours in person if you're free this Monday night and can get to midtown Manhattan. Billy is celebrating the CD's release by performing the songs at Birdland where he is regularly found playing for anyone and everyone at the popular Cast Party open mic on Mondays ... when he's not otherwise engaged on other stages doing his show or musically cohabitating with Liza Minnelli, Christine Ebersole or Marilyn Maye, who keep him pretty busy, too. I caught this show last year and loved it, and the CD is now a pleasured souvenir.


FreeHam Records

"My Funny Valentine," of course, is the song synonymous with this holiday, and one of the most covered standards of all time. Appearing on her second album, Flippin' Out, alto Charmaine Clamor's version is one of the most unusual in that she never sings the word "valentine." This Pinay (translation: a woman of the Philippines) recasts the ballad to be a song of racial and ethnic pride for her own people. Additional spoken material she wrote urges confidence and rejection of forced standards of beauty. I have mixed feelings about this hijacking that becomes "My Funny Brown Pinay," though I can see the analogy about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. She keeps most of the original lyrics except the last line. Her rewrite is "Each day we celebrate our way. Pinay!"

Moving to romance, Charmaine takes a more traditional road for the old songs "I Hadn't Anyone Til You" and "Candy." She takes these slow and easy and jazzy (accompanied by some great jazz musicians, including pianist Christian Jacob), with an emphasis on the sultry. Sometimes she sounds like she's slithering about or luxuriating in a bed of rose petals or a bubble bath.

Charmaine is not shy with lusty stuff, like Nina Simone's "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" and "I Need a Lot of Love" where she's joined for some scat singing by songwriter Zaxariades. There are some okay musical moments in these, but I find some of it overdosing on the sass and horny strut. I prefer her work on the prettier side without tricks or tics or attitude strut and embellishments: the album's closer is a long, tender version of "Be My Love." There is also a lot of sweet vocalizing in The Filipino Suite, a group of six songs. English translations are provided in the booklet, but it would have been a safe guess that they are mostly love songs on the contentment side, plus a lullaby. There's a lot to love in this section, featuring gentle percussion and evocative, understated moods thanks to the guitar and ukulele.

Very pleasingly legato on the gentler numbers, Charmaine can also sing in a more clipped way, using little voice. In these instances, the musicians really keep things feeling filled-out; their work is so much more than "accompaniment." Charmaine Clamor will spend her Valentine's Day singing in Long Beach, California, at the Seabird Jazz Lounge. Looking at this CD when I received it in the mail, it was the standards that caught my eye, but these Filipino songs that caught my ear. In any language, romantic is romantic.


Cupid strikes again bringing a lot of romantic activity to the final love-fest.


Major Record Label

All About Love is an apt title for Chelsea Palermo's debut album. She sings about the different sides of love, from perky ("I Just Found Out About Love") to positive (Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love") to pecuniary ("Love for Sale"). There's also variety in tempi and style with the dozen cuts allowing for bossa nova, rhythm and blues touches, a nod to Puccini and lots of jazz. Joe Muccioli is the versatile arranger letting Chelsea show her many stripes. She scat sings with her pianist, Vance Villastrigo and sings in French for the classic "La vie en rose." Generally, she succeeds in impressing with her versatility and comfort level in different styles. She has a strong, flexible voice and can swing.

There are a few times when Chelsea seems to be trying too hard and it sounds like she's pushing vocally or she overindulges in embellishing notes. Her "When I Fall in Love" and "You're Gonna Hear From Me" fall into that trap (the latter is also too tentative, an unfortunate thing especially for that title and the needed confidence). However, there's so much to enjoy here that there are always major compensations for minor missteps. "Mean to Me" starts off with a bit that threatens to be a rap song, but after this false alarm, it turns into one of her best jazz romps. If she (understandably, at 22) can't quite sell the bluesy hard-won perspective of "Fine and Mellow" or find her own way into it, there are lots of nice vocal touches. The highlight of the CD by far is a Ray Charles hit, "If I Give You My Love." Everything clicks with this track: there's connection with the lyric, a mood is set and built, and she soars and simmers.

Chelsea's "My Funny Valentine" is a Love Goes Latin approach with a hectic and high energy treatment. She races through the lyrics, but it's kind of fun for a change to hear this speed drill as she sings the famed questions, "Is your figure less than Greek?/ Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak, are you smart?" When she opens hers to sing, is she smart? Usually. And All About Love is a nice start. There's a pile of talent under that pile of curls. Chelsea's Valentine's Day plans are publicly known: she'll be at Novita in her home state, New Jersey, in concert.

With good recorded love songs, "each day is Valentine's Day."

- Rob Lester

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