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Very Versatile Vocalists
Reviews by Rob Lester

Talented singers successfully taking on wide-ranging repertoire—encompassing contrasting styles, moods and tempi—demonstrate the virtues of versatility. Hooray for range and arrangements that bring out the best in performers and songs. Always a blessing is the permanence of recordings, especially in connection to artists who've passed away; here that sadly applies to Rebecca Luker as well as Holli Ross, a member of The Royal Bopsters (and one of their guests, Bob Dorough). Also heard from are another Rebecca and two artists recording for the new Club44 label, one of whom is a guest on the other's collection. All except one have something by composer Harold Arlen, two presenting "My Shining Hour"—but all the artists have shining hours with these fine recordings.


PS Classics
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With sublime solos and duets—an eclectic mix of musical theatre treats, pop, sly comic relief numbers, poems set to music, and even a brief bit from the opera Lakmé—Rebecca Luker and Sally Wilfert's All the Girls directly hits all the targets. And it touches the heart, too. Obviously connected to the material and each other, the rich-voiced sopranos are a joy to hear, in part because of their palpable joy. Song choices celebrate friendship, explore feelings, and tell stories.

Working from what was recorded in 2019, pianist/music director Joseph Thalken (also composer for the poems) recently expanded his original orchestrations that then had three musicians joining him. With added instrumentalists recording tracks separately, now we hear ten players, but the ladies' vibrant voices and personalities remain front and center. All this makes for glorious listening that illuminates the music and lyrics.

The duets are dazzling. All the Girls takes its title from the lyric of "Be Careful," a striking piece by Patty Griffin, which is blended with "Dear Theodosia," a tender moment from the musical Hamilton. Stephen Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" gets a rather unusual treatment in this one non-Thalken arrangement, the work of David Loud. While this number from Anyone Can Whistle is typically taken at a gallop, as a release of frustration, here it builds to a frisky pace only after a luxuriously slow start unspooling the lines to provoke thought and blunt the killjoy admonishments. It works. Bonding and bonhomie (and some belting) are all elements of the mostly frolicsome fun when the women indulge in a big, splashy mash-up of classic theatrical showstoppers. A deftly musicalized Dorothy Parker poem, "Marilyn Miller," recalls the impact of the signature role (conveniently, the title character in Sally) of that Broadway star of a bygone era.

While consistently captivating in the voice-intertwining duets, Sally Wilfert also delivers mightily as she puts her stamp on solos. The standout is a heartbreaking and well-melded medley of two rueful reflections about paths taken (and not taken) in life. Masterfully nuanced, they are the drudgery-describing "Millwork" (by James Taylor, from the musical revue Working) and the wistful "I Could Have Been a Sailor" by Peter Allen. Putting all this vulnerability aside, she nails sarcasm (with terrific timing) on the topic of overdone cosmetic surgery with the laugh-out-loud "What Did You Do to Your Face" (Susan Werner).

Musical theatre fans will get a kick out of the numerous references to iconic characters and songs when a winking Rebecca Luker solos in lamenting the lot of sopranos being sadly saddled with numbers that are "Not Funny" (Michael Heitzman/Ilene Reid). Her acting chops and conviction are on fine display in the sung poems and an emotion-laden character piece written expressly for her some years ago; with a lyric by Beth Blatt and music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, it's called "Lovely Lies." And, of course, lovely also describes—in understatement—the late star's shimmering sound and grace evident on so many recordings over the years. (Much of the legacy is on the same label bringing us this recital: the invaluable PS Classics).

The strong individualism, multi-faceted solo portraits, and complementary camaraderie throughout All the Girls make the recording very good company, too.


Club44 Records
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It's hardly news that Jane Monheit can make almost any kind of song sound kind of wonderful. Dreamy ballads get dreamier, jazzy up-tempos become euphoric, bossa novas ingratiate themselves, and her winsomely playful renditions are always worth playing. Over the years, to my mind and ears, any release from the honey-voiced chanteuse is cause for celebration, but I note that the issuing of Come What May may present a special reason. It is timed to mark 20 years since her debut on CD. The selections are all oft-covered old classics, none being of newer vintage than 1962, but these are all new recordings. What does reflect her distinguished discography is that each of the 11 numbers was written (or, in a few cases, co-written) by someone whose work she's taken on before, with composer Harold Arlen represented three times.

Optimism and contentment are often invoked. Smiling through lean times with no opportunity for traveling, "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block" (Arlen/Ira Gershwin/E.Y. Harburg) has an irresistible bright bounce. Similarly, but less literally, it's the bright side we're welcomed to as we stay "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields). It gets even happier when combined with "Get Happy" (Arlen/Ted Koehler), in an approach that wisely cajoles and convinces rather than pleading or preaching.

Sorrow is approached with discretion. Despairing and drowning in Drama Land's tears are not on the agenda, even if the Arlen/Gershwin torch song about "The Man That Got Away" and Billy Strayhorn's bleak "Lush Life" could definitely go there. These melodies and the Monheit voice flow with beauty more than throbbing or sobbing, respectively. Still, the Jane Monheit manner suggests some life experience related to the end of a romance (but not painting it as if it's the end of the world).

While the differing tones and tempi also easily accommodate the zing of "I Believe in You" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the Jobim bossa nova "Samba Do Avião," sung in Portuguese, the best by far is the uber-romantic take on "The Nearness of You." In the plush zone known as seventh heaven, it's intoxicating, the mood set from the start by the wise inclusion of the melting introductory verse.

This is a highly polished affair with accompaniment and arrangements that quite suit the artist. Musicians include Rick Montalbano, drummer (and husband), and Michael Kanan, the pianist/music director. Love songs benefit from added strings, and the jauntier arrangements provide and provoke a blithe ambiance. Sweet and swinging, certainly lush and lively, Come What May suggests we'll be happy to hear what may come from Jane Monheit in the next 20 years.


Club44 Records
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Crooning a sumptuous "But Beautiful" with heavenly-voiced Jane Monheit in a recent recording, Nicolas King sounds suave and sold on seeking rapture. Knocking "God Bless the Child" out of the ballpark as a pre-teen, he was all precocious pizzazz. A 2020 take on "Come Back to Me" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever shows showstopper engines haven't stopped. The presence and his pleasure in entertaining always come through, whether he's in powerhouse mode or pensive mood. His musical garb can feature velvet or sequins or fashion borrowed from a role model. All these things are sampled in Act One, a survey of his career thus far—from the prodigy to the polished performances throughout his 20s. Some of the selections are released here for the first time and some have been around before, on singles, guest tracks on songwriters' CDs, and his own solo collections.

There are two classics from the pen of Irving Berlin: "How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (which starts with a snippet of the guy as an irrepressible four-year-old and segues into a recent rendition). Each of his solo collections had something with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and three of their works are presented here, with three different composer collaborators (although the liner notes by Connie Francis give a wrong co-credit on "What Matters Most," which is set to Dave Grusin's theme from the film The Champ).

A couple of things on Act One recall the young Mr. King's Broadway experience and star-crossings. We hear him singing "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" from 2001, with Tom Selleck (whose kid he played that year in A Thousand Clowns) and he references the following year's appearance in Hollywood Arms based on Carol Burnett's memoir by caressing the theme to her TV variety series, "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." The latter, one of several tracks with top-tier Mike Renzi as pianist and arranger, segues into a gratitude-imbued "My Shining Hour" that makes the Harold Arlen melody and Johnny Mercer lyric especially warm and wondrous. And, speaking of gratitude and radiance (and Broadway people), a special highlight is the duet with the sterling Norm Lewis, counting life's blessings on "What a Wonderful World."

The CD's nicely designed booklet's many photos make this a visual scrapbook, too, as we listen to Nicolas King grow up and grow into his place as an all-around entertainer and interpreter. As the curtain comes down on Act One, much applause for the star.


Motéma Music
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Prepare to be dazzled! The skillful close-harmony vocal quartet known as The Royal Bopsters brings a lot to the table for a banquet of musical treats. The blend is blissful. (I dare you not to sigh on the Billy Strayhorn/John LaTouche ballad "Day Dream.") With creative arrangements mostly by the two men (Dylan Pramuk and new Bopster Pete McGinnis), they bend notes, navigate tricky song structures and tempi, go on high-flying jazz excursions, follow their jazz heroes in the tradition of acrobatic scat-singing, and expand established source material by setting their own lyrics to instrumental solos recorded by jazz stars who approached the material before. On top of all that, they comfortably/respectfully share the spotlight with star guests. It's no surprise. All this was abundantly clear from their superb 2015 debut recording, with the individual members' reputations preceding them from other solo/group work. With the exception of bassists Cameron Brown and Christian McBride, the instrumentalists happen to have the same first name: pianist Steve Schmidt, drummer Steve Williams, and percussionist Steven Kroon.

Soprano Amy London's voice sweetly floats above the group, and she's featured effectively. In Latin mode, alto Holli Ross takes the lead on the percolating "When I See You," singing her own English translation for a Tito Puente number that becomes bilingual ("Cuando Te Vea"). Party of Four is dedicated to the memory of this member, who lost her battle with cancer this past May. (Jeanne O'Connor, her past colleague from the trio String Of Pearls, will be stepping in.) As the prior recording did, this one includes a souvenir of The Royal Bopsters' association with the late jazz hipster Bob Dorough (1923-2018). This time they all chime in on revisiting his cutely offhand collaboration with Ben Tucker, "Baby You Should Know It."

Multi-tasking by providing lead vocal, arrangement and new lyrics, Dylan Pramuk does some nifty borrowing and mixing for a number that doubled as a presentation at his own wedding. Calling his concoction "How I Love You (Let Me Count the Reasons)," he stirred together an old jazz improvisation on 1945's "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet that asked "How do I love thee?/ Let me count the ways" for an endearing and hip hybrid.

Followers of golden age Broadway and screen musicals will find familiar turf, too. The Gershwins' "But Not for Me" includes a deep bow to an improvised section recorded by jazz giant Chet Baker with words adeptly set to that by Holli Ross and gets a nifty reading by the group. On the Town's "Lucky to Be Me" gets a mega-dose of the appropriate sense of gratitude and joie de vivre when the special guest, the very welcome veteran singer Sheila Jordan, cunningly shows how to play it commanding but cozy. "My Shining Hour," the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer Academy Award nominee that tells of a time that will be "calm and happy and bright," de-emphasizes the calm, giving it atypical swiftness and swing. It's surely "happy and bright," which is how Party of Four can make things feel.


Summit Records
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"Clear" and "crisp" are the adjectives that keep coming to my mind when listening to the singing of Rebecca DuMaine and the piano-playing of her father, Dave Miller. It's refreshing to listen to their direct, unpretentious approach—with her bright vocal timbre and excellent diction, his respectful precision reinforcing the melody line during instrumental breaks, and their economy.

This is the sixth release combining the singer and jazz trio which includes drummer Bill Belasco and Chuck Bennett as the current bassist. The recording is dedicated to the memory of his predecessor in the California-based group, Mario Suraci (1928-2021).

Plucking items from Broadway scores of three different decades, this collection shows ease with the title song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, "The Gentleman Is a Dope" and "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan." Other material here is a mix of jazz, pop, and a couple of things sung in French. On the topic of choosing the repertoire, liner notes and publicity frame Someday, Someday somewhat as a reaction to the pandemic, acknowledging the frustration it's brought and the hope and patience we need. These feelings inspired Rebecca DuMaine to write her own words and music for two inclusions. One is the title song (about the claustrophobic looking at the outside through a window and also looking forward to the time things will be better). The other is a sprightly thing that encourages the addressee to be positive and productive, titled "Time to Get Unstuck (Happy Little New Song)." Being able to dismiss woes and cheer up can be an easier-said-than-done kind of goal, but such comfort food cooked up by songwriters is nothing new, as demonstrated by the presence of the 90-year-old advice to "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (and Dream Your Troubles Away)." The seriously sunny singer seems sure of her optimistic stance whether she's delivering this lyric's bromide to "Just remember that sunshine always follows the rain" or from "Sunny," a hit dating back to the 1960s that announces that "the dark days are done and the bright days are here." I did find myself smiling.

With just piano accompaniment, Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" gratifyingly allows for something mature and reflective. (More of this kind of introspection and vulnerability would be an asset to future releases.) Otherwise, much here is energizing and brisk, with agreeably longish instrumental sections with Miller's straight-ahead and strong driving of melodies. Meandering and extra decoration are not big priorities. A perky, plucky attitude suits the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler promise of unchanging affection, "As Long As I Live," but it is unexpected with the Edith Piaf signature "La vie en rose." In this case, the facelift is a nice change of pace, and also has a Charlie Parker-derived jazz twist.

Something that especially delights me on many Someday, Someday tracks is the flair and care in handling the way an arrangement ends, with fresh and cute jazz ideas (often vocally) to cap something off. Each such unanticipated kind of "P.S." accents the mood, becoming a savored, perfect cherry on top of the sundae. As writer Whitney Balliett once described the genre, "Jazz is the sound of surprise." That sound is something I like. Like father, like daughter ... I think that inkling runs in the family.

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