Ah, the standard. The old, familiar, very familiar, maybe too-familiar song with a long history. You've heard them sung by Sinatra, Crosby, Mathis, Ella, every jazz singer you can think of, your cousin Shirley, and in watered-down "easy" listening versions which are not easy to tolerate. As years roll by, cabaret acts come and go, and recordings pile up, we sometimes wonder if we really need yet one more version of "Love Is Here To Stay" or "White Christmas" or "Send In The Clowns." Often, the answer is yes - if there is a fresh interpretation. And you can't blame a younger singer for wanting to take on a classic. Of course, there's also the marketplace: some CD shoppers won't take a chance on an album unless many of the song titles are familiar. What's a singer to do? Here are a few solutions.

Bayview Records

She began her career in jazz clubs, so singing well-covered Rodgers and Hart love ballads or old torch songs is more of a return than a departure for Sally Mayes. But fans of Broadway "buried treasure" (songs that were cut from shows or simply never before recorded) have come to count on her as one who brings those lost songs back to life. Her excellent CD Boys And Girls Like You And Me, and her appearances on the Lost In Boston and Unsung Musicals series are prime examples. On one of these, she preserved two songs from the unrecorded score of Welcome to The Club in which she made her 1989 Broadway debut. In Valentine, Mayes offers two better-known numbers by that show's composer, Cy Coleman. (Ironically, this CD was recorded a week before Coleman unexpectedly died.)

Another circle is completed with "My Funny Valentine," a duet with fellow Texan Billy Stritch. Way back when, Sally and Billy were two-thirds of a singing trio which gigged around for two years. This is one of the most recorded of all standards, usually in a wry, conversational mood. This version builds and builds, and then builds some more, sweet and rich like Valentine chocolate. Whether singing in unison or in overlapping phrases, the two keep topping each other in mood and tempo, never losing musical momentum.

As both the daughter and wife of musicians (husband Robert Renino plays bass here), Sally Mayes is attracted to melody and lyrics. Although versatile, she is known for sass more than sweetness, storytelling more than swing. On Valentine, there's some of each. But if we're "talkin' Broadway," it is not as theatrical (or even as "cabaret") as you might wish. She does not sound entrenched in self-pity and hopelessness as many have on classics like "Here's That Rainy Day," "Angel Eyes" and "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." Those who know how she can fully inhabit a character song may think this ain't good. The jazz arrangements by Jeffrey Klitz, her pianist, resist the drama; likewise, Sally's established persona of a clear-eyed, optimistic woman rises to the surface. Everyone is on the same page in the breezier happy songs, and she even scats a bit. All numbers are done with trio, Warren Odze being the drummer.

There are a couple of breaks from very famous standards: Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar" in medley with Michel Brouerman & Amanda McBroom's "Is It Hot in Here?" plus Kenny Rankin & Estelle Levitt's "In the Name of Love". The CD begins and ends with two different versions of "My Romance"; one broods, one bounces. The darker one is an interesting, effective choice and the album-closing version leaves the listener in a light, still-romantic mood. This serves to underscore the point that songs like this one last for decades because they are flexible and invite a wide variety of interpretations.

HyLo Records
(available exclusively at Barnes & Noble and www.barnesandnoble.com)

I'm assuming Rachel York didn't send the FBI to spy on Sally Mayes' recording session, but two of the same songs show up on her splendid first solo CD; no surprise and no complaint - "My Funny Valentine" and "The Best Is Yet To Come" are in very good hands and Ms. York is in very good voice throughout this 12-song love letter. Musical theatre fans know this talented lady from productions of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Victor/Victoria, and Kiss Me, Kate (London cast, recently shown on PBS). She is currently onstage in New York in Dessa Rose.

The vibrant singer sounds very comfortable here, with energy that refuses to lag - she never sounds sleepy or languid, even in the slow, tender sections. Simply put, she seems to be having fun and relishing the songs no matter how well-worn they may be. When waxing romantic, her dreamy, creamy (never screamy) vocal quality is similar to Christine Andreas with a hint of the Streisand ballad sound. The uptempo songs are joyful, jaunty and jazzy. They include Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)," Bart Howard's "Fly Me To the Moon," the Rosemary Clooney hit "Come On-A My House" (mistitled here as "My House") and the album's one original tune, a cute little bit of fluff called "Too Good To Be True," written by the CD's producer Tor Hyams.

All the arrangements are by Tim Davies (her drummer) and they sound fresh and zippy, always respecting the song but never coming off like cobwebbed copycat museum pieces. There's great brass (and sass), especially on Stephen Sondheim's "Sooner Or Later" from the film Dick Tracy. Pianist Eli Brueggemann provides excellent, thoughtful support all the way through, and gets to cut loose a couple of times.

Rachel York sounds like she's been busting to do this for a long time and she's raring to go. The voice and orchestra jump out at you in Let's Fall In Love - I think they did fall in love with the material, and it shows. Wouldn't you expect something this romantic from an actress who named her cat Romeo?

Midder Music

If ever a singer could freshen a standard without having to twist it, rip it apart, and generally knock the good sense out of it, it was the late Nancy LaMott. She was a song's best friend. She wrapped herself up in a standard and lived it as she performed it, from one emotional step to the next, taking the listener along for the ride. As a result, a lyric you may have known well sounded freshly discovered or had a different emphasis. Everything shifted. This is illustrated clearly in the newly released 1995 recording Live at Tavern on the Green, with frequently recorded and performed standards "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (Rodgers and Hart) and "How Deep Is The Ocean?" (Irving Berlin).) And with James Taylor's "The Secret O' Life," LaMott doesn't let things get either too laid-back or too preachy, but she becomes a wise philosopher.

When LaMott couldn't find a song that said what she wanted, she simply had David Friedman write her one. Two of those passionate, grown-up songs are here - "Listen To My Heart" and "Help Is on the Way" - and they soar. Much credit is due her most frequent partner in making this subtle magic, arranger/pianist Christopher Marlowe (who also plays along - literally - in a fun, quirky musical "joke" which I won't ruin here).

Nancy LaMott was in a class by herself. Much has been written and said about how this album was recorded so close to her passing, making some of the songs take on even more poignance. True. But what counts, after all is said and done, is that what you hear - what you feel in your heart - is something beautifully affecting. "The Promise" by David Shire and Marilyn and Alan Bergman throbs and takes wing. A couple of numbers are breezy and bouncy in balance. Nancy is in very good voice, and the songs in this set are especially fine and varied. The fun, down-to-earth patter is charming and representative.

Comedian George Burns was fond of saying, "The most important thing in show business is sincerity ... if you can fake that, you've got it made." Nancy LaMott didn't need to fake it. This is a singer who not only masterfully interpreted standards with respect, but who set the standard for those now poring through great old sheet music, soon to pick up a microphone in a recording studio or a cabaret room.

Selling well at Internet retailers since its release, Live at Tavern on the Green is now in stores, along with all of Nancy's previous recordings. The next release will be a 2-CD set of demos and songs not already on existing albums.

LML Music

Can you imagine playing the title character in The Phantom Of The Opera for more than six years? Doing so in San Francisco and on tour, Franc D'Ambrosio holds that record and now he has a new record of his own - filled mostly with standards from the musical theatre. D'Ambrosio is a trained theatre singer singing in a straightforward Broadway style, not trying to jazz it up, radically reinterpret, or play studio pop singer. No tricks or gimmicks. However, with overexposed warhorses like "This Is The Moment" (Jekyll And Hyde) and two versions (one partially in French) of "Bring Him Home" (Les Miserables), one might wish for an unexpected twist or turn in tempo, phrasing or arrangement. Nevertheless, D'Ambrosio sings with conviction, control and care and his high baritone-tenor has power and a distinctive timbre.

The recording has a few nice musical touches, such as (uncredited) musical quotes from other songs: hearing the familiar beginning of Sondheim's "Another Hundred People" brings a new perspectitve to the otherwise light "Lullaby Of Broadway"; likewise, a reprise of that tune serves as an intro to Sondheim's own "lullaby of Broadway," "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd (D'Ambrosio appeared in the 1989 Broadway revival). Solo cello lines on a few tracks are especially effective.

This being his first solo CD, the singer plays catch-up and includes his big song from Copacabana, in which he toured; the theme from the Godfather, as he played the opera-singing son in Part III; and the operatic "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" as performed recently in the Brian Boitano Skating Spectacular. And yes, of course, this Phantom does include the inevitable "Music Of The Night" and certainly doesn't sound bored with it. More credit to him!

The most fun cut on the album is a big, fat, juicy medley of nine showstoppers from Bob Fosse-choreographed shows. This CD may not win any prizes for originality, but if you want a big helping of big Broadway ballads with a big, beautiful belt, Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway will do the job nicely.

Sh-K-Boom Records
Live at Joe's Pub

The house at the corner of Broadway and Soul is a powerhouse, and Billy Porter is raising the roof. If show music were still all over the radio, some of the theatre songs here would be considered standards. Represented on this CD are some of the best writers working in theatre today: one song each from Adam Guettel (the achingly beautiful "Awaiting You"), Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley ("Let It Sing" from Violet), Jason Robert Brown ("King Of the World," which Billy sang Off-Broadway in Songs For A New World although he isn't on the cast album) and Ricky Ian Gordon (his setting of Langston Hughes' "Heaven," which opens this live set). There are also two Sondheim songs: "The Last Midnight" from Into The Woods and "Sunday" (Sunday in The Park with George) in which Billy is joined by Michael McElroy and The Broadway Inspirational Voices. For good measure, there's also "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from this Dreamgirls veteran. All but one of the theatre songs are in the first half of this live show, all sung with tremendous passion and energy. And then he brings things up a dozen notches.

What follows are six intelligent songs Billy co-wrote with various partners. They are R&B, gospel, high-octane, take-no-prisoners soaring, roaring and never boring chapters reflecting the turbulence and changes in his life. In these songs, Billy is joined by singers Capathia Jenkins, Aisha de Haas and Marty Thomas, who are up for keeping up, and the blend is great. The five-man band, led by James Sampliner, is strongly there every step of the way.

On this second solo CD, as on his first (titled Untitled), Billy Porter has taken a different path from the the well-trod. You haven't heard most of the songs hundreds of times, so you'll sit up and listen, but mostly it's about that amazing voice and the performer who is not afraid to sing about who he is, very openly and open-heartedly. Which is exactly what he is doing in his one-man show, Ghetto Superstar, at Joe's Pub this month.

-- Rob Lester

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