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One CD, Many Singers

Back in the day when physical record stores were aplenty and flipping through racks of actual physical recordings was my favorite form of physical fitness, the three albums reviewed this week might have been found at the back of the Vocals rack. The category would be "Various Artists," meaning lots of singers on the same CD with a unifying theme—singing the work of one writer, material from the same era, or on the same topic. Here it's a duet partner, a band, or a songwriter supplying the common thread.


Original Cast Records

A 27-track collection of almost exclusively previously unreleased material—mostly demos—from his teenage years to last year, paint not just a revealing portrait of composer-lyricist Brian Gari, but of changing musical styles as well. To quote the earliest song title, with two included versions, there's a "Bright Spectrum of Colors." We get bouncy pop-rock, more thoughtful storytelling folky stuff, sly comedy, ballads, and then nostalgia for that bouncy pop-rock we began with ("If Our Songs Can't Make It" and "Where Did the Music Go?" recorded by the group The Tokens). While the former is a bit of a self-pity trip (with Tokens-specific tweaks at their request), the latter is a very satisfying longing for—and evocation of—pop sounds of the 1960s like the heyday of the good vibrations of The Beach Boys. (Practicing what he preaches, Gari took a break from theatre scores and pop songs to do a tribute album to them and has been involved in other work related to that group.)

While there's nothing representing his scores to A Hard Time to Be Single or Love Online, which have their own albums, there is a cut song from his Broadway show Late Nite Comic (whose score has been recorded twice; all these albums, like this one and his earlier studio outings, are on Original Cast Records). That lively cut song features him with Broadway's Karen Ziemba and is a highlight. They have good chemistry and it's a good fit for the dancer-singer to take on this one, recorded two summers ago, titled "She Dances Anywhere She Can." It is imbued with affection for that "she," and, by extension, anyone in love with being able to dance. (The plot of this 1987 musical involved the relationship of a struggling comic and his ladylove, a dancer.)

One of the few previously released titles is "I Live in L.A.," sung by Kaye Ballard, neatly mocking the trendy lifestyle there, which she nails in her adorably comic way. While his funny side is not his most-seen style, the writer does have a flair for it. It's also demonstrated by the late Arthur Siegel (a theatre writer himself and Miss Ballard's longtime musical director), who sings the grandly goofy "I Sang the Blues for Nothing" as a guy who was bemoaning his gal leaving him, until he realized—oops!—she was just in the next room, which he would have known had he been observant. All those wasted tears! But there are plenty of real tears and troubles elsewhere as many of the pop ballads look at love matches, quite often the doomed kind, going back to Brian Gari the high school tunesmith. He got a few numbers recorded, but not released, by a group in 1970 called The Great Train Robbery.

Although images of someone weeping over bathwater being drawn because he knows it's the last bath his departing lover will take in his home make another kind of waterworks flow in what amounts to a kind of awkward soap opera, there's potential and craft glimmering in the early break-up numbers. And nice word play is evident in looking back at friends' pairings fizzling out with the title "A Couple of Couples Ago." Having just read the year's giant best-selling book ("soon to be a major motion picture"), 1970's "Love Story," young Brian was inspired to write about its protagonist in "Jenny," whose weeping lyric talks about her husband holding her for what he knows will be the last time. Pass the Kleenex. But it's age-appropriate sweet, and Bob Esty (later a music biggie) sang it with heart on the demo. There's also very strong singing from Don Ciccone on an all-stops-out ardent "The Non-Affair Affair" and Andrea Marcovicci sounds elegantly lovely in a very early demo recording along with duet partner/accompanist Gari, "The Guessing Game."

Like the song maturity quality (blame it on his youth), the sound quality varies, too. Some is rather murky, some has more advanced/sophisticated recording equipment and production and more involved interpretations. In the liner notes, the writer admits to not being enthusiastic about setting to music a number pitched as the title song to the movie version of Jacqueline Susann's novel "Once Is Not Enough." Family friend Coleman Cohen's lyric is not very literary or concise, but some may have said the same for the book. Lesley Miller gives it a reasonable try. The one other collaboration is far more rewarding; musical theatre/movie composer David Shire was his partner for "He's Not Home Yet" and it's a nicely adult torch song of diminishing hopes, well performed with calibrated emotion by Tammy Quinn.

Saundra Messinger is heard on three appealing tracks, including "The Real Me," which is even more poignant in the songwriter's own version, one of two bonus tracks. The other is "Can It Be This Good?" which is also presented in a sublimely tender version by the ultimate in classy singer-pianists, Steve Ross. This moving hesitation to believe something that's too happy to be true was the wedding song of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Gari a few years ago and deserves wider recognition. Like "The Real Me," it's one of his very, very best.


Time Out Media

Russian transplant Oleg Frish is such an enthusiastic vocalist that it doesn't surprise me in reading his own liner notes that he ends so many sentences with exclamation points. He loves his work! And his idols! Also a radio host and cabaret performer (he's been seen at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room), he's come a long way since his first album in terms of phrasing and sounding more involved with a lyric. He sounds much more like he knows what he's singing about, and being more and more his own person. It seems to "up" his game sharing the CD stage with these singers he admired for years as he grew up with a fondness for The Great American Songbook and its interpreters as well as pop stars of an earlier generation. Rather than sound shy or intimidated, he sounds at ease and confident. Besides the vocal company, he's got excellent musicians on board: John Oddo and Kenny Asher share piano duties and other instrumentalists include jazz great, bassist David Finck and Broadway orchestra vet Glenn Drewes, with Bob Mann on guitar, who also provides the often swinging arrangements.

The album includes the last studio work by Ben E. King, who passed away on the last day of this April. Their choice was "Day by Day" (the 1940s ballad that goes "Day by day, I'm falling more in love with you," not the number from Godspell). It's a nice souvenir and, like other cuts on the CD, a welcome reminder that those whose claim to fame is rock and roll can sound comfortable with the standards. Gary U.S. Bonds, like King, was born in 1938, and he and Frish sound particularly at home with another number advocating love, putting a lot of razzle-dazzle nightclub polish on a very lively "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You." It's surefire panache that they both deliver with glee.

Peggy March sounds sweetly just-right and appealingly fresh with Frish on "The Way You Look Tonight" (Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields). Everything is relative: Melissa Manchester, who has lots of zing and good timing duetting on "A Fine Romance" (Kern and Fields again, with that sassy treat) is the youngest of the partners. All the others were born between 1940 and 1943. So there's a real feeling of veterans strutting their stuff. And maybe happy to do so, because, with the exception of B.J. Thomas (sounding effortlessly cool but involved on the 1960s hit "Sunny"), most of those joining the ebullient Frish for the duets have not recorded much at all for quite a few years. (Manchester this year released her first album in a decade.)

Show tunes include the title song of Hello, Dolly! where Oleg is paired with Lainie Kazan which is half in English and half in Yiddish. It's kind of fun if that's your cup of matzoh ball soup (It's "Shalom, Dolly!" and they seem to be having a ball, somewhere between offhandedly casual and a winking blast). Despite the album title, Frish goes solo with two other classics from musical theatre writers: The Music Man's "Till There Was You" and Rodgers & Hart's evergreen "Dancing on the Ceiling." While his Russian accent and evident affection for the material will gain him some points, the solo tracks are not as engaging and, at this point, lovestruck ballads are not his forte. A third solo is the novelty tune praising love for a "Bagel and Lox." OK, one can't help but smile (and get a little hungry) when this silly bit struts along.

Also on hand are Bobby Rydell for a vigorous "Volare" that's a winner, as well as more male bonding with Lou Christie, Chris Montez, and Tony Orlando. Orlando shares a stroll "On the Sunny Side of the Street" to the jaunty Jimmy McHugh melody, making for three Dorothy Fields lyrics represented. It's the kind of album where the guys address each other by first name in asides between lines of songs, cheering each other on. And no one sounds happier than Oleg Frish, clearly enjoying his dream come true in the spotlight with his idols.


Summit Records

"It's the little things you do together that make perfect relationships," sings Joanne in Sondheim's Company, but the Certain Relationships of the so-titled album by the company kept in drummer/bandleader/sometime arranger Art Lillard's Heavenly Big Band aren't so much little things, but big swingin' ones. It's a big band, after all, and the emphasis is on happy. But, actually, it's not a big band in the sense of blasting you away loudly, with well over a dozen pieces in their revolving membership as recorded here in three different years (2005, 2007, and 2011, but just released this year). You can really hear the individual sounds and instruments distinctly, and not just when they have their generous solos. It's crisp, yet the attitude is smooth. Muddiness would be anathema. The teamwork is terrific. And that goes for the vocalists, too: they get plenty of focus, but are decidedly part of the band. The arrangements make it all a joyous tapestry. There's not a hard moment to be found.

There's a sublime contented feeling, not a sense of trying too hard to prove anything. At ease, but not "easy listening," things are entertaining and accessible, the solos quite engaging and adept, without being showy. Those who like sax work will be especially gratified, as that instrument family is especially represented: sax, alto, and soprano sax.

Also gratifyingly heard is the flute. Flute player Jan Leder does double duty as a co-songwriter with Lillard. These use blues in interesting ways in repertoire that is mostly upbeat. Their "Happy Blues" argues that the genre doesn't have to be a downer, and vocalist Andrea Wolper, the most prodigiously present one among several, makes a good case for the theory with her sunny-smooth vocal. And the skillfully sly Mary Foster Conklin gets the songwriters' "You Bluesed Me," using the word as a verb, cleverly, in a song that could easily be too cute or cumbersome in its scolding in less skillful hands. This number calling out a rather heartless lover, which includes spoken sections that would stymie many, is more than a simple guilt trip, but rather a kind of unique blame game that is dramatically hip.

Other highlights on the singing side include the disarming vocal performances of Pete McGuinness, sometimes with Miss Wolper in interesting support. "Let's Get Lost" (Frank Loesser/ Jimmy McHugh) includes the rarely used verse and keeps my interest throughout it lengthy seven-and-a-half-minute timing. And "God Bless the Child" (sure to be heard aplenty in this year of Billie Holiday's centenary) is presented in a highly unusual lively rendition that doesn't sacrifice the essence of the lyric. It simply illuminates the positive side of the picture. The two vocalists' interplay is as delightful as it is adept, a seesaw of sharing. Hilary Gardner's voice is silky on Lillard/Austin John Marshall's number which is the band's theme ("Heavenly") and Dominique Eade is likeable on the CD's final cut, another Heaven-centric choice: the oldie "Pennies from Heaven." Perhaps in deference to the happier and "fun" overall mindset, the verse—which admonishes us about the grand design of the world and not appreciating the bounty we have until it's taken away—is omitted.

And the instrumental tracks have much to offer. I admire very much how there's no stodginess with an old piece. If you didn't know that "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" was born in a Sigmund Romberg operetta many decades ago, you might not guess it. It sounds fresh as tomorrow, and Jon Davis' piano solo is a winner there. My favorite of the instrumentals is another oldie not showing its elderly status either: James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," which makes me grin from ear to ear as played here. It's my candidate for the feel-good band track of the season. Lillard sure knows how to do happy. In fact, this album is just right to elevate a steamy, oppressive summer night or day. A hammock and a spiked lemonade would complete the picture. If there can be a "certain relationship" between cooling and energizing, I guess that would indeed be Heavenly. So here it is.

- Rob Lester

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