Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

New recordings with familiar old songs
Reviews by Rob Lester

Once more we have recent releases with singers dipping into the rich standards of the previous century. Guitar accompaniment is prominent with most, starting with the voice of Steven Pasquale paired with John Pizzarelli on Some Other Time. Its title song also shows up on the recording by Jan Cronin, with just guitar and bass, I Thought About You. That album's title song is on Judy Whitmore's offering, too, with full orchestra. It's a Trio situation with singer/guitarist Andy Pratt and his colleagues.

Center Stage Records
Digital | Vinyl release later this year

Yes, I know it's only January, but it's difficult to imagine that 2024 will bring your tired ears a vocal album of standards more sublimely satisfying than the gorgeous Some Other Time, with Steven Pasquale's invested singing accompanied just by John Pizzarelli's graceful guitar. Listening, it's one of those rare instances when I find myself so magnetically attentive to the in-the-moment delivery that I wait breathlessly during tiny pauses for what might come next, which seems illogical because I know the words to these famous songs by heart. Relish the ravishing head tones of the pretty Pasquale timbre on the highest notes of "Star Dust" and "When I Fall in Love." Without doing anything radical, in a stripping of these oft-recorded numbers to their basics, they sound startlingly fresh.

Even though there is some very open-hearted content, this is a gratifyingly schmaltz-free zone. Less is more. The guitarist seems to breathe with the singer, truly sharing the storytelling or confessions, sometimes enriching or "commenting" on a feeling expressed in the singing with a mini-mighty instrumental phrase. Nothing feels superfluous. Instrumental introductions aptly set the scenes so that we're escorted into the right emotional climate. Some Other Time's title track (from the musical On the Town) gets a luxurious two full minutes of the Leonard Bernstein melody before Steven Pasquale embraces the bittersweet lyric by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Trusting the material, the unabashed feelings come through so that that old advice to simply "Smile" ("...through your fear and sorrow") doesn't come off as simplistically pat, but seems supportive and sage. The story-song "Nature Boy" is reverent, with requisite mystique.

The idealistic, noble goals of Man of La Mancha's "The Impossible Dream" is heartbreaking in its sincerity, urged on by simple guitar strums. As with the approach to another musical theatre standby, South Pacific's lament, "This Nearly Was Mine," the Broadway veteran only unleashes his vocal power in the final moments, building to the climax.

As with Steven Pasquale's only previous solo set, Somethin' Like Love back in 2009, guitarist/arranger John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey are the producers of a marvelous and memorable project that will invite repeat plays to melt or fortify the heart.

This is the first vocal album to be released on the new label, Center Stage Records, launched by Van Dean. The label has announced they have over two dozen albums scheduled for the coming year, including titles from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and London's West End, concept recordings, and major Broadway solo artist recordings.

CD | Digital

Her deep, throaty timbre gives lyrics a kind of lived-in quality, with verisimilitude that more pristine voices can't deliver, so vocalist Jan Cronin makes her blues-tinged treatments especially convincing. Meeting again "Some Other Time" doesn't seem a sure thing in that wistful On the Town farewell that usually looks back and forward via the bright side. The sensibility is of someone who knows that life holds no guarantees. There's a larger dose of rue while looking back on "The Night We Called It a Day."

I Thought About You is a good listen, named for the included gem written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer. (The CD's packaging actually does not credit songwriters anywhere, although the unsigned liner notes indicate that the Nashville-based vocalist co-wrote "The Scent of Breakfast and You" with someone by the last name of Madill. In praising the collection, these notes also mention a certain well-known "tender ballad" which is not present.)

Misery loves company and catharsis is at hand with "Cry Me a River" spotlighting the sadness rather than its strong potential for unleashing anger and resentment. Happy endings in "Lullaby of Birdland" and "My Foolish Heart" are somewhat upstaged by their elements of caution. The former is typically a swinger on the blithe side, but gaining focus here are the worried words in the middle usually glossed over: "That's how I'd cry in my pillow if you should tell me farewell and goodbye." It suddenly doesn't seem like a casual comment. And in "My Foolish Heart," each self-addressed "beware" and "take care" about an attraction's risks weighs heavy with trepidation. In these cases, the songs are deepened dramatically.

Guitarist Andy Reiss and bassist Jim Ferguson provide excellent, if understated, atmosphere, giving Jan Cronin plenty of space to parse the lyrics. The sorrows are eased into if one listens to the 10-track collection in sequence, with its opener being the happiest expression; it's a breezy, blithe trip through the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful" giving no hint of the more impressive seriousness ahead. The Nashville-based singer previously worked in the genres of rock and blues, and it will be interesting to see where she lands next.

Arden House Music
CD | Digital

Here's a lady who sings with a smile in her clear voice. Judy Whitmore radiates a mix of geniality and joie de vivre. The subject matter of her new recording's old songs mostly concerns the sights and delights of various locations. Come Fly with Me is an amiable tour. Notably, half of the dozen selections appeared on Frank Sinatra's same-named, same-themed 1958 LP, including "It's Nice to Go Trav'ling" and the title number, both written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. There's no need to fasten your seatbelts for this trip, however, because it's a smooth ride through friendly skies with only gentle swinging, no high drama content to create troubling turbulence. The singer knows whereof she croons in Come Fly with Me: she's lived in/journeyed "Around the World" to many locales and is indeed a licensed pilot.

The ambiance is mostly breezy and sweetly serene; there's no gripping intensity, no belting or big sustained notes, no bold strokes radically changing the standard approach to standards. Vocalist Adam Aejay Jackson joins her for "Georgia on My Mind" and, as they take turns on solo lines, his appealingly gutsy and earthier singing with embellishments contrasts with her reserved manner and straightforward approach. Still, the combination is effective in demonstrating two worthy ways to handle a classic.

Produced, arranged and conducted by Chris Walden, this is quite the elaborate endeavor, with a grand total of 47 musicians involved, more than half of whom are string players. (It seems a shame not to have longer mid-song instrumental passages.) Although conservative, respectful choices aren't groundbreaking, much ground is covered (literally) in the cheery choices, with stops to spend "April in Paris" and "Autumn in New York" and somewhere "Beyond the Sea." And she abandons the airplane for the track about a trip on a train, "I Thought About You." This is Judy Whitmore's third full-length recording in just a few years, so this pilot has logged frequent flyer miles zooming through the Great American Songbook in her own graceful, warm way.

Thrift Girl Records
CD | Digital

The adjectives "cool" and "hip" certainly come to mind while enjoying Andy Pratt's work as singer or instrumentalist on his new release. It's simply called Trio to refer to this outing's band: himself on electric guitar, Joe Policastro on bass, and Phil Gratteau on drums. There are only nine tracks, but no song is explored just briefly, with playing times ranging from 4:06 to 5:41. And there's an interesting variety of material and moods, from mellow and meditative to zippy. There are three numbers that are strictly instrumental: an impressively fleet romp through the Gershwins' "Soon" is addictive and the others are the evocative "Love Theme" from the film Chinatown and the mambo "Patricia" that was a hit in 1958 and later showed up in various films and cartoons. Trio's set of covers is Andy Pratt's third full-length recording; the earlier ones focused on self-penned material. (He's not the same-named pop/rock singer-songwriter who released albums starting in 1969.)

The deft guitar work is front and center. Singing often has an intimate feel and can be languid, fondly evoking old-timey stylists with the vintage fare adopting a sentimental slant, veering toward quaint with "Little White Lies" and "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)."

Two Burt Bacharach/Hal David numbers linger on the heft of the emotions in their lyrics, rather than relying on the catchy melodies of "Something Big" and the more well-known "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," the latter slowed down from the brisk pace of Dionne Warwick's hit version. "From This Moment On," the incurably optimistic classic by Cole Porter, brings on a pep rally with punch–the voice is not big and bravura, but amiable and unforced.

Messrs. Policastro and Gratteau support the star player well, getting some spotlight but not at length. It's a solid team. Brush work by the drummer is agreeably subtle, suitable to the laidback numbers. Just released this month, Trio can be found at sites digitally with the CD version offered at Andy Pratt's website and he can be found performing live in and around his usual stomping grounds of Chicago.