Vocal albums released this year brought some great listening. These are the ones I think especially bear listening to again and again. These are in random order, with two described in more detail because they have not been Originally reviewed previously, whereas links for the others will bring you to the original reviews.
An overflowing treasure chest of well-crafted and emotionally satisfying samples of the work of Georgia Stitt, This Ordinary Thursday is rather extraordinary. The versatile composer-lyricist arranges, conducts or is on keyboards on many of the tracks; the vocals are provided by a stellar line-up of contemporary musical theatre performers like Susan Egan on the winningly disarming title song. Many numbers are strong statements displaying naked, honest emotions and the artists here dive right into them. It's meaty material for actor-singers. There is variety in the kinds of accompaniment, with excellent work for and by the strings, and a rich musical tapestry that makes for a very full listening experience.
CAROLS FOR A CURE VOL. 9
When narrowing down the list of a year's favorites, a very good 2-CD set, of course, has the extra advantage of its sheer number of tracks delivering a double knockout punch - and the ninth volume of Carols for a Cure is a knockout. The annual benefit recording for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS impresses not only for its non-stop parade of talented cast members of the year's musical theatre casts (mostly current Broadway companies) singing their happy holiday hearts out. What is also remarkable is how extra-theatrical energy can re-enliven even the most overdone Christmas songs - and the icing on the fruitcake is the presence of funny new material. Some performances and song choices bring out the flavor or attitude of the shows or purposely cast against type. A nice mix of reverent and irreverent approaches, striking solos and glorious harmonies on group numbers, this is entertainment not just for the 12 days of Christmas but for the 12 months of the year. It's packed with pleasures, so why pack it away with the decorations and ornaments?
Red-hot and invigorating, Terese Genecco's sensational debut CD is a live recording of her super-high-spirited act, channeling and saluting the late iconoclastic nightclub entertainer Frances Faye. Brash, belty and bombastic, Terese comes out of the starting gate at a pace and energy some singers never even build up to, and she rarely slows down. With pulse-racing, smashing arrangements for a top-drawer band blaring away, they feed off each other, and the bravura celebration is truly exciting - and there's humor, too, in the offhand, cocky humor, too, a Faye trademark. Some of her one-liners and asides are in the patter. Terese has soaked up the raw style and "let's have fun" attitude, and it's contagious goodwill and good singing.
This performance of Drunk with Love took place at The Metropolitan Room where she returned a few months ago for the "sequel," with more splashy material from the Faye heyday. The CD is a triumph.
In her approach to the well-covered canon of the Gershwins, there's nothing pat about Patti. Miss Austin sings classic songs from Porgy and Bess and other standards with none sounding tired, trite or tedious. To the contrary, she sings them with a refreshing glow and with respect, too. Recorded live in Germany with a full orchestra, the glory of George Gershwin's music gets a grand sweep. The singer also takes delight in the playful lyrics of Ira Gershwin (and others) and the romantic element as well. Very much a concert entertainment showpiece, it's accessible and dazzling.
"Oh, Lady Be Good" shows her jazz chops especially well and the ballads provide a nice respite. The CD has been nominated for two Grammy Awards.
An intriguingly successful concept for an album, songs about those "in-between" moments of life and mixed emotions, Sitting in Limbo doesn't sit on the shelf for long. Emotionally charged yet subtle, Jessica Molaskey's latest is the rare album that's instantly captivating yet has an impact that continues to grow. Her warmly wise interpretations of a well-chosen, eclectic repertoire embracing pop, folk, jazz and theatre are rewarding and involving. A sense of wonderment, ambivalence, yearning, neuroses ... they are all facets of the captured moments. Truly a singing actress who explores songs and finds many layers, she sings her heart while presenting a panoply of thoughts.
Her husband, the prodigiously talented John Pizzarelli, produces, is on guitar and sings on a couple of tracks. The two will sing and pick up a Nightlife Award at the January 28 all-performance festivities at The Town Hall, as they've won for their joint cabaret work. Jessica is currently in rehearsals for her return to Broadway in the revival of Sunday in the Park with George as Naomi and Yvonne.
These days, David Burnham can be found on Broadway in Wicked, playing Fiyero again (he did the pre-Broadway workshop). His polished and powerful debut album features a song from that score, "As Long As You're Mine," in duet with Eden Espinosa. The self-titled CD has nods to his other theatre roles, like The Light in the Piazza (a sensationally gorgeous "Love to Me") and his Joseph days, cloaked in that dreamcoat, with "Close Every Door."
This impressive album should open even more doors as it amply demonstrates versatility, showing him to be not only an electric theatre singer but a honey-voiced crooner on ballads where he sounds involved and present with the lyrics. An antidote to cynicism, romantic sincerity radiates in his performances, and the afterglow lasts a while, encouraging repeat play.
Musical theatre performer Judy Kuhn, of the original production and revival of Les Miserables, has among her other credits being part of a theatre piece using the songbook of Laura Nyro. Her new CD revisits the singer-songwriter's intriguing material, a mix of the happy, the heartbreak and the hip. "Stoney End,""Sweet Blindness," "Lonely Women" and others take advantage of the singer's elastic voice and acting ability that can bring out the highs and lows of emotion. Some of the less traditionally structured songs find Judy carefully following the blueprint of the Nyro recordings in tempo and temperament rather than taking liberties, but it's all done with skill and love. Tender ballads like "To a Child" are touching, but since Judy does not sound as fragile or fraught as what Laura Nyro projected, there is as much spotlight on the fine songs themselves here. The band sounds tight and terrific and the licks and rhythms get under your skin. Judy is reprising the material on Thursdays at the Iridium in the theatre district.
Well, Barbara Cook remains a marvel. My only cavil with her 2007 CD No One is Alone and others has been that, for those who collect her always ravishing albums, she re-records so many numbers. But her singing is always welcome, fresh and deeply felt, and the intimacy of the small piano and bass or trio (with guitar) sound for some makes them feel somewhat different. Just the sublime new entry of a breathtaking medley of "Long Before I Knew You" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" itself is cause for celebration.
Nevertheless, beauty is as beauty does and there's no denying this is beautifully done. Whether revisiting "Never Never Land" or Sondheim Land, or traveling in new territory for her, a rarely heard Rodgers & Hart item, "You're What I Need," it's a journey well worth hearing.
She weaves a spell, certainly, but if singer Joyce Breach is a magician, there are no tricks anywhere in evidence. She has some things that are trickier to learn: taste and class, plus a voice that is immediately soothingly attractive and elegant with just enough vibrato to make it especially compelling. Her tender, velvet sound envelops a listener. As a performer who respects the kind of well-constructed songs she has always gravitated to in a series of rewarding albums over the years, Joyce knows how to get out of the way of a strong song. She trusts the material and serves it. In her work as an interpreter, she sculpts subtly, never overselling. Joyce knows the value of nuance and how the slightest pause or extra change of color to a word can make a difference. Frequent collaborator pianist Keith Ingham is very much of the same mind, accenting here with a little dancing phrase and there there with a halting one. Other instruments are guitar, bass, violin and bassoon.
Honoring cabaret icon Mabel Mercer, the master of shading a lyric to serve as a storyteller, like-minded Joyce's three CDs of her repertoire are especially rewarding. Not adopting Mercer's somewhat regal ways or the talk-singing style of her later years, Joyce stays in legato land, singing purely and surely with command of her instrument. It's the best of both worlds, and since Joyce has always shown restraint and focus on lyrics she imbues with intelligence and perspective, the match of tributer and tributee is not a mismatch.
The generous program of 20 selections includes Broadway songs like the opener, "Days Gone By" from She Loves Me, and "Time Heals Everything" from Mack and Mabel; the latter is reflective rather than more blatantly anguished and torchy, yet its quieter suffering makes it uniquely touching. There are four Cole Porter numbers among Joyce's choices. Though ballads are a specialty, plentiful and pungent, the singer has no trouble with "Trouble Comes," by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal, an ingratiating charmer that's short and sweet (just under two minutes).
In most cases here, Miss Breach and Mr. Ingham strip songs down to their bare essentials with few distractions from their basic attitude or story. Wistfulness prevails on the serious ones, with a bittersweet quality that feels natural, banishing self-pity or anything maudlin. The perspective is a reality check, and rings true. All that being said and true, I'll tell you a secret: with Joyce Breach's lovely timbre, I wouldn't be all that picky about what she sings.
Defying the reality of passing years, long after well-remembered, happily burned-in-my-brain cast recordings where she played the sunny ingénue in shows like the big hit revival of No, No, Nanette and Ben Franklin in Paris, Susan Watson sounds remarkably young and fresh on her solo CD. Earthly Paradise is a collection of songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, based on a show of their material she has been performing.
Susan has a long history with the writers. Prior to its opening Off-Broadway, she performed the role of the Girl in The Fantasticks when it was a one-act musical running for a week at Barnard in New York. (She opted for Bye Bye Birdie when it was offered at the same time as The Fantasticks, but got to do the TV version a few years later.) She sings the score's ballads "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You" with grace, and has fun with its pragmatic parental pronouncement, "Never Say No." She also delightfully revisits three numbers from Celebration, in which she appeared in 1969. Indeed, this whole album is cause for celebration. It is a pleasure from start to finish, filled with tenderness and an easy-going sense of accepting and embracing life (and a life partner in some cases) without getting preachy or too sticky.
I Do! I Do!, the story of a marriage, is represented by its big unabashedly sentimental love song, "My Cup Runneth Over" and a medley of proposed title songs. Several numbers from the Jones and Schmidt takes on the Colette story are heard, among others. There is a grace and serenity that flow through the album as Susan sings with optimism and real warmth coming through. One regret for me is that the excellent cut song from 110 in the Shade, "Sweet River" is heard too briefly, so the drama of its sadder latter part is not sung, as it is done in a medley with the same show's "Simple Little Things."
Though virtually absent from New York stages for years, Susan has continued to perform and sometimes direct, mostly in California. But, for those who enjoy her voice on recordings, there hasn't been a lot beyond several cast albums - long ago, she was heard on prized multi-artist LPs of 18 Interesting Songs from Unfortunate Musicals and a Jerome Kern collection. Now, finally, this charming lady has come out with an album of her own, and its smile-inducing properties, musicality and perfect match of artist and writers make it easily and breezily one of the year's ten best.
Though reissued albums are traditionally not my focus, special mention and attention are due a splendid recording made in the 1980s, pressed on CD only this year, previously only in limited circulation as a cassette and vinyl record. The songs are all from one popular musical, and to paraphrase its title song, it's still glowing, it's still going strong ... as is the singer.
MARILYN MAYE SINGS
ALL OF HELLO, DOLLY!
After playing the title role regionally, Marilyn Maye recorded a full album of songs from Jerry Herman's score to Hello, Dolly!, some numbers with small band and some with orchestra. She brings a big voice and big heart to the role, and tremendous warmth. Besides rollicking, high-wattage and tangy renditions of the numbers written for the character of Dolly, the singer brings tenderness to the ballads "It Only Takes a Moment" and "Ribbons Down My Back." It's a treat to have this collector's item on CD.
The ever-vibrant Miss Maye is back in New York performing as she accepts two big honors in awards shows in the new year: the Nightlife Award for Major Engagement in cabaret at their January 28 event, and a Lifetime Achievement BackStage Bistro Award, to be presented on April 7th.