Sound Advice Reviews
Ten years ago, in my first year of writing this column, I was very happy to sing the praises of a lady singing twelve Chet Backer-associated numbers and hoped that the singer and her fine musicians would provide an encore with another release before too long. Well, it has been too longall of those yearsbut June Bisantz (she was previously billed as June Bisantz Evans) and her main accompanists have come through. Keeping their eye on the prize that is the very vulnerable sound of the trumpeter who turned out to be a disarmingly effective singer, they've simply picked up where they left off, with another set of twelve gems.
Baker, who died 27 years ago this month, was no stranger to woe. While most of this tunestack is downhearted, even hopelessly sad (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells' "Born To Be Blue" and Matt Dennis and Tom Adair's "The Night We Called It a Day," for example), there's never grand weeping and wailing from singer or accompanists. The approach is more reflective and perhaps resigned, the heartbreak more subtly expressed, never sacrificing musical values for emotional expression in high dramatics. The melancholy that was often intractably married to Chet Baker's trumpet sound and his not thoroughly polished, professional vocalizing is not truly aped or milked here. They tread more lightly into sorrow, but get there with honesty and a sense of perspective. (I don't believe most singers believe what they're saying on "Born To Be Blue"'s line "I guess I'm luckier than some folks/ I've known the thrill of loving you." It doesn't come off as self-pitying here, but rather a real appreciation of the theory that's it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.)
As on the earlier album, Rodgers & Hart are represented; but this time the choice, "Spring Is Here," is done a capella. It's the final track, in case anyone should need absolute proof that June can create melancholy, heart-stopping magic all on her own. But what sublime instrumental sounds enhance the album til that denouement! Mostly small-group accompaniment gets a change of pace midway with two back-to- back selections with strings: Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" gets a lush life and then there's the album's one sample of Chet Baker's composition skills. That one is "So che ti perderò," translated as "I Know That I'll Lose You." (I told you the songs were downbeat; even when not singing in English, the clouds hide the sunbut what attractive clouds they are to behold with those strings!) Three of the earlier album's superb featured musicians are back: Alex Nakhimovsky, piano; Norman Johnson, guitar; and Gabor Viragh on trumpet and flugelhorn. With Baker's own work being so centered around his brass instrument, it should be noted that Viragh only appears on four tracks. In my view, it lets us get away from that sound from being perceived as de rigeur for such a project. Nobody rocks the boat of tenderness, but the accompaniment is never bland or distractingly on a different wave lengthit's graceful and creatively designed mutual support.
June Bisantz Sings Volume 2 is another tasty and tasteful edition of classy songsmostly ones that will be known by anyone who is familiar with great standardssung with rationed voice in an extremely intimate manner. Yes, low-key is the key, hardly a ripple in the calm musical waters. But it's so laser-beam focused that this Baker's dozen just deepens the spell cast, rather than becoming too much of a nice thing. The prettiness of the voice is burnished with elegance, the singing is emotionally involved, despite the reserve that would otherwise damn it as perhaps coolly detached. It's moody minimalism as an art form. The gentle touch is never casualquite the opposite. One listens more attentively, appreciating the simple beauty and the refreshingly non-showy approach.
This is one of those recordings that's almost mystifyingly magnetic. Named for a Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke ballad from the film The Road to Zanzibar, which it contains as another highlight, It's Always You will always be a fine example of honoring a legend without feeling redundant. And it stands on its own.
While it's subtitled/promoted as being "Inspired by the Recordings of Irene Kral," a marvelous jazz vocalist especially admired by other musicians, California-based Lauren White and her musicians often veer from the tracks laid down by her inspiration. No one wants a clone or timid imitator, and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that the CD's choice of a title, Experiment, wasn't made just because it's the name of an included Cole Porter song. Indeed, the treatments can be adventurous in jazzy settings and new colors, but too often feel like poorer relations to the more assured and satisfying Kral treatments. Being different for the sake of just being different is a trap. Lauren White has a pleasing vocal tone, for sure, but something is preventing her from reaching her potential of putting a real stamp on these numbers. Being a jazz singer who eschews histrionics and comes off as somewhat detached and in control is a tricky thing, not easy to capture. The cool Miss Kral was the sister of another laidback jazz performer, Roy Kral of Jackie [Cain] and Roy; they were all always cool without risk of seeming cold. Alas, they're all gone now, Irene departing the earliest at just age 46 back in 1978 and leaving behind work that seems ageless. Her records, studio and live sessions, don't sound dated; the swinging, sly stuff is still hip and the ballads are sincere and heartfelt.
Even if I weren't an admitted dyed-in-the-wool Kral admirer, I would still have mixed feelings about this particular Experiment. One of the logical, "safer" re-settings is to take "Rock Me to Sleep," almost 360 degrees different. Kral emphasized the energy of rocking with winking, raucous energy, and here it's relaxed into something far closer to a crooned lullabye. Both are seductive, and this sweeter, more demure take is pleasant, lite jazz. Lauren White has a lighter, brighter voice than Kral, emphasizing a game and girlish approach, more glib than truly in charge.
Jazz favorites appear, of course. There are two with wry lyrics by the tongue-in-cheek Fran Landesman: "It Isn't So Good" ("...it couldn't get better/ It isn't so bad it couldn't get worse"), written with Tommy Wolf, delivers the goods with aplomb. Her collaboration with Bob Dorough, about being able to stay up late because of having a "Small Day Tomorrow," is very oddly set at a stretched-out crawl, the vocal spooled out in an ear-pleasing way that seems to want to be a pouting or ponderous lament, but weighs down the basic wordplay of the title and smug attitude. All parties seem lost at sea in "Wheelers and Dealers," Dave Frishberg's satirical look at society taken over by greed, vacillating wildly from states of confusion to anger and bemusement. A duet with a lively Mitch Ellis, "Better Than Anything" finds bonhomie and bounce. It's a song with lots of alternate lyrics, but they don't do most of the ones with name-dropping musicians and pop culture figures that date it. ("Cream cheese on celery" doesn't go out of fashion!)
There are a few souvenirs from Broadway. My Fair Lady's "Show Me" is a romp, missing its bite and rage, but nevertheless fun and fizzy. From the currently-in-revival On the Town is "Lucky to Be Me," always a welcome ray of sunshine, taken (like much here) at a more leisurely pace. The aforementioned title number "Experiment" is from Nymph Errant and is given some unexpected gravitas by the guest appearance of cellist Jodi Burnett, who is Irene Kral's daughter. She also appears on a non-showtune, the touching "You Are There" (Frishberg's lyric to Johnny Mandel's melody).
One of the best moments is "Sometime Ago," taken more seriously and slowly than I've heard it done before. Lauren sounds especially lovely here, and brings out a bittersweet reminiscence that works very well.
Pianist/trio leader Quinn Johnson has an eclectic background, creating musical settings for everything from Steve Tyrell's loose and ultra-breezy zips through standards to TV's animated "Power Puff Girls" to his own recordings (and Lauren's prior album). He goes his own ways here, the instrumental breaks sometimes seeming like distant cousins to what's been established with the vocals. Sometimes he's doing the heavy lifting, with longish intros, mid-track breaks, and instrumental endings that follow the vocal finish (too frequently all anti-climactic for me). The musicians here are indeed co-stars, at least, taking the spotlight with ideas that could use more variety as the longer tracks wear on. The lyrics' meaning take a back seat to rhythm, beat and groove. In "The Gentle Rain," which has the potential to be almost mystical in atmosphere, the arranger resorts to tinkling piano at the outset to suggest rain and then some more pounding effects that are hardly "gentle," while the vocalist labors more to establish the romance, although the snail's pace overemphasizes sadness, compounded by accompaniment than can feel ominous.
Certainly there's some competent and, yes, enjoyable jazz exercising with the trio (completed by bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker, who are regulars with the Tierney Sutton Band). At times muscularly assertive, they can also show a calmer and contemplative side. Trey Henry's graceful, emotive bowing on "This Is Always" (Harry Warren/ Mack Gordon) elevates this ballad to rhapsodic heights, and the vocalist's phrasing is earnest and involved. It's perhaps her best acting moment, making the candy-coated assurance of eternal love believable, with some nice vocal embellishments. The singer also scores with the attractive and quite interesting "Winter Moon" (Laurindo Almeida/ Portia Nelson), with Kleber Jorge's guitar adding just the right touch as a key accompaniment figure. Though it meanders a bit, colors of regret and rue flicker in the hindsight of lines such as "I learned to play the fool too soon."
Like The Bridges of Madison County movie soundtrack did by using tracks from Irene Kral's albums (many of which have in recent times been issued on CD), this album also shines a light on that classy singer who left the world so relatively young. Those who want an insider's look at the making of the album might want to look at this podcast with some of the participants in the project.
To the disappointment of her fans, Nancy Wilson, at age 78, has insisted that she is retired. She'd toured and made records, mostly for Capitol, for decades, with the guidance of her manager, John Levy, from her beginnings until his death at age 99. His widow, Devra Hall Levy, has written complimentary liner notes for a Nancy Wilson tribute album by songstress Cynthia Felton, a lady indeed worthy of praise who recorded her vocals at Capitol Studios. She has a dazzling, wide-ranging voice and comfortably mixes sounds of jazz, pop, soul, and contemporary R&B. A clear and youthful sound suggests a bright-eyed sprite with some sass and sleek elegance. Her previous recordings include tributes to Duke Ellington and Oscar Brown Jr., and now versatile vocalist Cynthia Felton turns her tributing attentions to the legacy of the wondrous Wilson.
It's hardly a wide-ranging survey in that half the 10 selections once approached by the subject of her salute came from a single very early album, a collaboration with sax player Cannonball Adderley in 1962. Two others come from an LP that preceded that. In fact, all the selections come from recordings made in that decade, even though the discography continued past the turn of the new century. That shortchanges a listener who would arguably be interested in the breadth of such a longtime artist's career. The singer can't blame the producer or arranger since she is listed in both those roles. With that disappointing fact aside, there's plenty to admire about this recording and the material.
Mrs. Levy states that the alum's opener, an a capella bit of of the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" not identified with Nancy, is "in tribute to her ancestors." It's exciting, demonstrates immediately that this is a voice to make one stand up and take notice. And if we're going to say that it doesn't seem to fit, it seems foolhardy to quibble about something that only lasts 35 seconds. The Felton voice impresses more in its dexterity and versatility than in maturity of pensive interpretive shadings. She can scat, riff, sail confidently through jazzy waters that many other contemporary singers wouldn't dare to approach.
Some tempo, styling, and phrasing choices echo the Wilson stylings, but there are conscious choices to avoid coming too close. As pointed out in the liner notes, most of the five selections from the album shared with Adderley don't even use a sax player. Vocally, there are practically none of the Nancy trademarks, like speaking crisply or getting super-breathy on certain words for emphasis and drama, the kind of cry she could put in her voice, or the embellishments in dynamics and soaring from a near-gasp to soaring climax. Oh, once in a while we hear the Wilsonisms, such as a particular bent note and certainly the whispering the word "Darling" in addressing her husband in the signature song. "Guess Who I Saw Today," which no one except Marilyn Maye has ever made as devastating as Wilson's rendition in its original very early version, later live versionsa staple in her concerts. It's not thought of as a Broadway showtune, but it was introduced on The Great Way in New Faces of 1952. Other musical theatre selections include jazzy, brisk versions of "Never Will I Marry" by Frank Loesser from Greenwillow and "A Sleepin' Bee" from House of Flowers (including its beguiling introductory verse not used in pop recordings by singers such as Wilson and Streisand). Those who know these two numbers as more serious-minded character pieces via their Broadway origins may miss the intensity they had there, but Cynthia's reference point is the Wilson/Adderley interpretations which were not in that vein. On some pieces that do show some acting chops, she acquits herself pretty wellsuch as "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over," though likeably showy styling often takes precedence over depth. (And, to be picky about this number's performance, someone should have told her how to pronounce "Pagliacci.")
The singer has quite an ever-changing roster of guest instrumentalists, including such heavyweights as pianist Cyrus Chestnut (who has a lengthy tour de force solo on the one number he appears on, "Dearly Beloved" by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer) with other tracks featuring Patrice Rushen, Ernie Watts, Jeff Clayton, and John B. Williams, who played bass for Nancy Wilson for years.
As with most tribute albums, this one makes me want to dust off some old LPs and CDs I haven't played in too long, stirring memories of the artist being honored. No, there's nothing like an original charismatic star with the luxury of a large discography, unmatchable history collecting into legend category, and just getting there first and sometimes definitively. But only a curmudgeon would begrudge the new generation the freshness and affection that they can bring. So, on my To-Do List will be not just having my ears remind me why I collected all of Nancy Wilson's albums since I fell in love with the one as a schoolboy I bought for my mom for Mother's Day, but will also pull out an earlier Cynthia Felton CD (and look forward to the next one). Both ladies are well worth hearing.