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U.S. Male
Some romance from the guy singers

In the world of male vocalists, there are many variations between the sweet and the swaggering: the lilting crooners, the hard-driving swingers, the bombastic belters, etc. Here are a couple who have strong chops, but both favor romantic sensitivity in their latest albums.


Miranda Music

The maturing Marcus Simeone has released a very fine album. Eschewing past tendencies to go too far, oversinging to the point of sounding overwrought, his newest work is his most consistently compelling. The passion is restrained and crystallized, without being dismissed. The calibrated use of vocal dynamics and a more obvious dedication to serving the song now serves the singer more and more. Communication is bold and heartfelt. At his best—which he often is here—the voice's qualities are arresting and the stories told command moment-by-moment attentiveness.

Indicating the absence of other musicians for all but the final two tracks, the CD is titled Alone... with Tracy Stark, naming the arranger/pianist who, a few weeks ago, picked up her latest award as Outstanding Musical Director from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC). Another artist on the roster of the album's label, Miranda Music, she is his most frequent collaborator and their comfort level shows. Her sensitive but potent partnering anchors the proceedings and I swear you can hear her leading and listening.

With two consecutive duet tracks by the angelic-voiced, impressive Maria Ottavia, Alone... is not the most accurate title, as she proves sublime company. A New York City singer I saw grow by leaps and bounds over the last several years, including her attentive participation in a singing contest, she really shines in their pairings. One is "I'll Never Say Goodbye" (the theme from the film The Promise), written by David Shire with the lyric about steadfast eternal vows by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The other is from a musical currently in revival in New York: The King and I's "I Have Dreamed," the second number from this score Marcus has recorded. A change of pace in structure works very attractively on this one: rather than the usual division of vocals, a major section mid-way has them taking turns echoing each other's lines.

Another Rodgers melody (this time with Hart instead of Hammerstein), "Where or When," opens the disc and is reprised towards the end. It is sung and played with wonderment and pleasure, with an endearing dollop of the mystique of the song's potential (even though they don't do the introductory verse that sets that up). Tracy Stark's serious and original mood-setting playing plays a big part in suggesting the atmosphere and anticipation. There's real drama in a lot of her work on the album, and both artists know the power of a pause and dramatic tension.

The CD is also notable for its variety of material, spanning the years. Marcus revisits a powerful piece from a 2008 live album, Billie Holiday's groundbreaking record of the lynching tale, "Strange Fruit," and it's a knockout this second time around. Longtime cabaret followers will recall Simeone's tribute show to Johnny Mathis a little over a decade ago, and two souvenirs from that work with his musical director of that act, pianist-guitarist Michael Sansonia, are added at the end of the recording. Channeling the Mathis sound and style, the signature numbers "The Twelfth of Never" and "Misty" add a double dose of nostalgia and lyrical, lovely romanticism. These also contrast with the more psychologically complex and intense material earlier, ending the musical banquet with a lighter, sweeter dessert.

But there's so much more in the way of felicitous work before we come to that charming end. Some of it brings tears and tales of regret, but they are cathartic and intriguing, rather than soap opera. "Kindness Makes Me Cry" (Maria Gentile and Caren Cole) is tender and touching. Two story-songs of people who settled—or settled down—and wonder about the road not taken, are well painted (Barry Manilow/ Enoch Anderson's "Sandra," aka "Jeanette's Song," and Peter Allen's "I Could Have Been a Sailor" in which the lyric is tweaked from mentioning "wife" to choosing "husband, not a wife"). Two Janis Ian items also grace the songstack—a change-of-pace satirical one to lighten the heavy going, also on the subject of same-sex marriage, "Married in London," and the emotional "When Angels Cry."

It's the underlying sincerity and musicality on the part of the talented people on this project that make tears threaten to flow or thoughts get provoked, rather than manipulative button-pushing or premeditated trickery or gimmicks in arrangement and presentation. And that, with such material, is quite an accomplishment.


Retropolis Records

It's all about kisses on Chicago-based vocalist Peter Oprisko's new CD, right down to little puckered-up, hot pink-colored lipsticked lips seen as part of the design. Also shown are photos of 10 of the 22 musicians (including conductor John Porter) on this ambitious project, two brass players' lips dutifully puckered on their instruments. Smooch-centric songs, or at least those making a nod to the activity—many with the word "kiss" in the title—make up the set list of 14 items. Do I need to point out that it's a rather romantic album that conceivably could lead to life imitating art, serving as what used to be called a "make-out album" by those who listened while loving? While not everything on the agenda of this very capable, smoothly vocalizing baritone dramatizes requited, rhapsodic love expressed by lip-locking, the content suggests mostly content coziness.

"The Touch of Your Lips" (words and music by Ray Noble), a song going on 80 years old, is an elegant senior citizen with its poetic, formal phrases like "Such tenderness/ Lies in their soft caress/ My heart forgets to beat" leading to the title action, described as "that moment divine." Oprisko seemingly maneuvers his way through this more refined outing as comfortably as he does with the slangy, hip invitation favored by '40s jazzers and their cool followers, "Knock Me a Kiss" ("I like jam/ And no film flam/Scratch that off my list/ This ain't no scam/ The jam can scram/Baby, c'mon..."). He may sound more square than those drenched in jazz when the lingo was newly minted, but there's goodwill and enthusiasm as he digs into the piece.

With a half dozen string players, the more lilting and silky tracks let the singer lay back as they swell and swirl and he lays the honey on pretty darn thickly. But it's more Valentiney lush than lusty, the lovey-dovey atmosphere more high-toned sentimental than gutsy. In "My One and Only Love" (Guy Wood and Robert Mellin, from the 1950s), singing "Every kiss you give sets my soul on fire," the flames feel perfectly and politely contained. While not one of the great love songs, "Love After Midnight" (Bert Kaempfert / Joe Seneca/ Herbert Rehbein), alas, sinks in its excesses of wannabe images of mystery rather than evoking them. On the other hand, "Everybody Loves Somebody" is wonderfully rescued from the schmaltzy sing-along commercialism that Dean Martin's hit version encumbered it with, and it's thoughtful and even mature, nicely phrased. Interestingly, it's the longest track at 4:14, yet it doesn't overstay its welcome at all.

But too often, the selections show a kind of overly even style of unimaginative and non-personalized treatment of lyrics. The very pretty, mood-drenched sounds of the orchestra offer some compensation, especially if one's interest is the generalized ambience more than the song's story or singer's proffered point of view. But, to me, it's those latter aspects that are paramount in creating and sustaining interest.

An uptempo treatment of "A Taste of Honey" picks up where Bobby Darin's suggestion of swagger and swing left off on the same tune. It's an oddly wrong-headed sacrilege, on the wistful story-weaving lyric, to ditch the poetic "e'er" and "ne'er" and replace them with their two-syllable equivalents, killing both rhyme and scanning. The cavalier attitude toward the poor gal waiting in vain for her lover's promised return seems out of place with the rest of the album.

Two of the most successful tracks all around are those he co-wrote with the album's arranger/ keyboardist/ associate producer whose name is given to the orchestra: Sean Baker. While the packaging and liner notes fail to credit any of the other songwriters, it's pointed out that they wrote the attractive title number (with the notable phrase "grander than grandeur can be") and "One Tender Kiss." Both seem to be treated with the loving care not so apparent elsewhere. The singer is convincing as he unspools the lyrics and the orchestra supports him in nicely-shaped arrangements and orchestrations.

One never feels concern that Peter Oprisko will hit the needed notes or need to cut corners, and either a careful listen or exposure to his other work makes it clear that he's got more vocal heft than is on display in this latest of several albums by the constantly working baritone.

- Rob Lester

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