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It's June 9, Cole Porter's birthday
His songs (and more) on vocal releases
Reviews by Rob Lester

Anniversaries of the births of major songwriters for Golden Age stage and film musicals is always a good reminder to turn attention to recordings that include their ageless standards. And so remembering the June 9th birthdate of Cole Porter prompted my attention to a few releases among things I hadn't gotten to earlier. Even a single presence of Porter piques my curiosity, but these singers' collections have other fine numbers, too. And there's some overlap in material: two offer "So in Love" from Porter's score to Kiss Me, Kate and two coincidentally include the same non-Porter songs ("I Thought About You" "Detour Ahead"). Another coincidence: One of the singers shares Cole Porter's birthday, so let's start with him, even though his May release only has one choice from that writer's catalogue—but it's a highlight.

with JOSHUA WHITE (piano)
On CD and digital

Recently revived again on Broadway, 1948's Kiss Me, Kate boasts one of Cole Porter's most lauded scores, and its "So in Love" is one of the most passionate and earnest ballads in his whole oeuvre. The descriptions of devotion and intoxicating attraction could risk becoming suffocatingly obsessive and borderline masochistic ("...So taunt me and hurt me/ Deceive me, desert me/ I'm yours 'til I die..."). Fortunately, the charismatic Jonathan Karrant takes it thoughtfully and tenderly, the feelings feeling warm instead of overheated. He's not tortured and surrendering control, but definitely comes across as being oh so in love and recognizing the grip romantic magnetism can take. And with his laser-beam focus and the superbly simpatico sole accompaniment of pianist Joshua White throughout their new Shadows Fall, there's a lot of magnetism in interpreting songs of various genres and eras. All feel truly inhabited, confidently owned—from "(simply) The Best," recently featured in the Broadway musical bio of Tina Turner, to time-tested standards and the hip, sly jazz of the late singer-songwriter Mose Allison's "Stop This World."

The versatile, canny Karrant sounds equally authentic with vintage material and latter-day pop, cabaret, and jazz sensibilities. While there are many aging standards here, they don't seem like retro romps or just cozy nostalgia. Instead, they feel refreshingly relevant and owned in a present-day way. Sincerity trumps any risk of cavalier cuteness or cornballitis. Some indulgence in scat-singing is competent, pleasingly non-showboaty. There's no musical clutter here.

Serious numbers that are introspective and/or lamenting are balanced by smile-inducers like James Taylor's jaunty "Your Smiling Face" and the 90-year-old simplistic advice to just "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away"). In all modes and moods, the pianist and singer are on the same page, seemingly responding to each other, taking turns as leader and follower. Intros and instrumental breaks can be longer than on most vocal albums, but it's all to the good for such caring and colorful playing. Only a languid "Lush Life," that titanic tale of woe by Billy Strayhorn, feels studied and mannered as things are drawn out, with almost every phrase parsed and picked apart as if examined with tweezers under a musical microscope and then toyed with to relish every word or note that could possibly be colored with emphasis. (But maybe it just comes from loving the song's many articulate images and wanting to linger over them.)

A strikingly sensitive rendition of "Detour Ahead" paints a rich moment-by-moment consideration of a particular perspective with a song that fully realizes the more cerebral potential of this number's below-the-surface drama. (This and "So in Love" are the immediate standouts for me.) In a lighter vein, the two performers put plenty of "thought" in "I Thought About You," the Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Mercer standard wherein absence makes the heart grow fonder. The piece itself grows fonder in their capable hands.

There are no liner notes in the packaging of the CD (self-produced, it's the singer's third full-length release; there are singles, too), and there's no credit for the arrangements. While the songwriters are credited, there are two errors in addition to Mose Allison's surname spelled wrong: "My Romance" from the 1935 Broadway extravaganza Jumbo—heard in an atypically driving, uptempo version—only lists its composer, Richard Rodgers, not naming lyricist Lorenz Hart. And the elegant, wistful treatment of "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over" written by Allie Wrubel and Herb Magidson is misattributed to David Porter (no relation to the aforementioned Cole, but someone who recorded this 1939 gem in 1971).

With a baker's dozen of well-chosen performances with outstanding piano work showing talented Joshua White reinforcing and expanding the impressions and moods that the lyrics state in words, I willingly and repeatedly fall under Shadows Fall's spell.

featuring CHRIS ROTTMAYER (piano)
Timucua Arts Foundation
On CD and digital

For a collection titled for a memorable Cole Porter song, what do you do for an encore after nailing the number with panache in an ingratiating groove? In the release called So in Love, singer Ashley Locheed and the top-drawer trio led by pianist Chris Rottmayer have an answer that works well: Just to do it a second time in an even cooler way and make the love last half a minute longer. Bookending their 11-track treat with the Kiss Me, Kate declaration of ardor, the in-between stuff is more than mere filler. We're served a satisfying sandwich of songs with multiple flavors.

Among the items is a second sampling of Cole Porter: his "I Love Paris" from the 1953 Broadway production of Can-Can, set in that city. The enthused valentine to the locale as experienced in each season of the year offers a welcome surprise bonus the first time you hear this piece that's almost four minutes long: Although not indicated in the song list (and the CD packaging has no liner notes), it's so good to find the group segueing into "C'est si bon" with much joy. The latter is one of three selections that have a short title in a foreign language while everything else is sung in English. The others are another French standby, "La vie en rose," and the percolating Brazilian "Agua de Beber."

The two last-mentioned tracks have feisty arrangements by the trio's electric bass player, Chuck Archard. Other settings are credited to the pianist. The instrumental group was completed by the late drummer Keith Wilson, to whose memory the recording is dedicated. Ashley Locheed has a likably breezy manner in some of her singing, seemingly in a no-sweat comfort zone in the quicker-tempoed jazzy jaunts. So, the refreshingly reflective and vulnerable sides shown a bit later might find a listener caught off guard but grateful. Two items taken at slower pace than we usually hear them make them resonate more deeply and bring extra admiration for their already brooding, literate lyrics. One is the Academy Award-winning "The Windmills of Your Mind," which becomes less overwhelmingly about the trademark swirling, whirling Michel Legrand melody when the relaxed pace puts the spotlight on the words that aren't just close relatives to the "circle" concept. (Regrettably, only Legrand is listed and not those masterful married wordsmiths Marilyn and Alan Bergman; "Agua de Beber" likewise only credits composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, not Norman Gimbel who penned the English lyric—or, for that matter, the writer of the original Portuguese lyric, Vinicius de Moraes.)

Another great case of slow-burning embers lets in the regrets and sadness not fully on display in "Summer Wind" when sung with less rue or regret by Frank Sinatra or its lyricist, Johnny Mercer (composer: Heinz Meier, originally with a German lyric). The loneliness due to a lover leaving and summer, autumn, and winter all having gone by is palpable and poignant. Mercer is also in the mix for his collaboration with Rube Bloom, "Day In, Day Out." Like everything here, it's a pleasing treatment of an established song. It took a while for me to get to this release from last year, but that delay pales in comparison to the gap between recording and release. Like another Locheed/Rottmayer release that came out last year, it was actually recorded back in 2011. I don't know the cause for delay, but good things are worth waiting for, and So in Love is a good thing.

On CD and digital

If, like me, you're drinking a toast to Cole Porter this week on his birthdate, and thus are on the lookout for his evergreens sung by artists perhaps new to you, see CeCe Gable's More Than a Song. This vocalist takes on three of them in her 10-track playful, relaxed set: a pouty, perplexed "What Is This Thing Called Love?" (1929, from the musical Wake Up and Dream); a determined "I Concentrate on You" (introduced in the film Broadway Melody of 1940 from the year 1940, of course); and a mix of bravado and resignation for "It's All Right with Me" (from Can-Can, bowing in 1953). The singer maintains interest through intimacy, sometimes getting almost whispery. Imagine lounging in a hammock and swaying as she takes her sweet time. And how sweet it is! "I Concentrate on You" concentrates on blissfully beaming confidence and serenity during moments when naysayers challenge love's viability. And she takes in the ambivalence and darker hues of the other two. Porter's well-chosen words about the frailties of romance and romantics are nicely shaded and well considered by this vocalist in her fourth outing (but the only one widely available beyond her own website).

Well-known works by other golden age songwriters are similarly blessed with attention, with Johnny Mercer's canon getting two shots via "I Thought About You" (music by Jimmy Van Heusen) and "My Shining Hour" (music by Harold Arlen). And Arlen's melodic gifts are also on display in zippier mode with "As Long as I Live" with Ted Koehler's words. The interpreter can be conversational or whimsical, direct or seductively mysterious. CeCe Gable's jazz instincts are in evidence, but embellishment is subtle when bending notes or letting words slip out half-spoken/half-sung. Much is imbued with a quiet confidence that has the patina of cool serenity.

And the vocals are framed dazzlingly by the musicians, who really get prominence. Referencing the Can-Can song title, in the muscular instrumental break she shouts out to the band to take another chorus because "it's all right with me." Brian Landrus wails on sax and clarinet, and Sylvia Cuenca provides low-key percussion, but some of the tastiest work in the piano-less group comes from the two co-arrangers. They are Roni Ben-Hur, with evocative guitar work, and veteran bassist Harvie S, demonstrating prominence and reminding me of his long history of demonstrating the versatility of that instrument, playing lots of melody lines and accenting moods, with memorable album tracks to his credit where he's the only musician with a singer. That's much more than just "support" and keeping the rhythm.

The most rewardingly explored lyric of all is "Detour Ahead" from the 1940s (officially credited to then-bandmates Johnny Frigo, Herb Ellis, and Lou Carter—but later generally acknowledged to be almost entirely Frigo's work). It's fragile but intelligent, unspooling questions, advice, and observations line by luxuriously slow line. The "smooth road" mentioned in the text never sounded smoother.

From the trio of Porter perennials to the dash of snuggly bossa nova with Antonio Carlos Jobim/ Ray Gilbert's "Fotografia," the songs on More Than a Song are more than diverting—they captivate.

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