Here are some musical pairings - talents complementing each other, even if individually they are of different stripes and sounds. The chemistry works.
CHRISTINE EBERSOLE & BILLY STRITCH
If you dared me not to smile while listening to Sunday in New York, I'd lose the bet very quickly, no matter which of the 13 tracks on the CD came up. There's infectious joy in the snazzy, crackling duets of Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch; her solo ballads bring smiles of satisfaction in appreciation of the loveliness and uncluttered sincerity of the singing. This album, based on their live act that won a Nightlife Award, is pleasure from beginning to end - that beginning being a song expressing the attitude of their fun-fests, "Haven't Got a Worry." The Broadway leading lady has five solos; two are no-frills, no-fuss renditions of Stephen Sondheim works: "So Many People" and "Not While I'm Around." Billy takes just two vocal solo tracks, a breezy "Walking My Baby Back Home" and a rip-roaring celebrational, bursting-with-ebullience medley of an old movie song, "Give Me the Simple Life" and No, No Nanette's old chestnut "Tea for Two."
There's some familiar territory here from past recordings. The sprightly title song, a duet here, is also on Billy's accomplished recent solo album, Billy Stritch Sings Mel Torme. Christine also provides a new, rich reading of "Will You?", her tender song from Grey Gardens. This CD also repeats two items from their duet album from a few years ago: "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and Christine's simmering, slowed-down version of "Lullaby of Broadway" from 42nd Street (Christine and Billy crossed theatrical paths when both were in the cast of the Broadway revival of that stage musical about a stage musical - she playing the diva and he played, as he coyly says in their live show, "the small but pivotal role of Oscar, the rehearsal pianist"). Here, Billy provides a thoughtful piano solo with the romantic "I Only Have Eyes for You" before "Lullaby of Broadway."
The two are given shared credit for the album's arrangements, and Billy's piano accompaniment throughout is full of flair and care and affectionate flourishes that suit the old songs' sensibilities while keeping them fresh. Their several very fleet jazz romps are packed with cheer and charm, both sounding very hip and sure-footed. It is in these playful duets, like a swinging and corn-free "My Favorite Things," where their chemistry and camaraderie really come through and let us in on the feel-good spirits. More good news is that two top New York musicians are also on hand: drummer Tony Tedesco and bass player Steve Doyle (he adds some back-up vocals, too), who regularly is onstage with Billy for Birdland's popular Cast Party on Monday nights. Billy is a busy recording artist these days - in addition to his solo album, he also has a duet album with Klea Blackhurst due on Ghostlight next month, featuring Hoagy Carmichael material.
In their second album, singer Capathia Jenkins and songwriter Louis Rosen shine again, this time with poet Nikki Giovanni's works set to his music. Mostly warm, open-hearted and life-affirming, the quite varied musical settings set moods and illuminate the emotions, memories and bits of practical life philosophy in the poems. This set is a stronger showcase for Capathia's vocal dexterity, demonstrating more colors in her voice, although these mostly gentle and thoughtful pieces do not allow her powerhouse belt to be employed. More discrete, she subtly shapes the tales and confessions in the material with attractively modulated vocals that personalize the emotions and serve the material.
Capathia does almost all the singing this time, with just one solo for Louis' amiable style, the quirky and low-key "At the Ball (Convenient Haystacks)" and a charming duet for the final track, "Things That Go Together," a sweet list song that makes for a mutual admiration society. He's prominently featured on acoustic guitar throughout the album, is the arranger and conductor, and adds some of the percussion. The band, playing with taste and skill, includes Andrew Sterman on sax and flute, who adds much atmosphere, and the valued pianist Kimberly Grigsby, known for her playing and musical direction on Broadway from such shows as Spring Awakening and one that featured Capathia, Caroline, or Change.
If the idea of poetry set to music makes you hesitate, thinking they might be melodramatic recitatives with arty and abstract musical accompaniment floating around in the background, forget it. These feel more like songs, generally accessible and with the music coming on as a full partner to the words rather than tip-toeing around them out of awed respect. And some of it is relaxed and cozy. For me, the instant standout is "Telephone Song," which is captivating from its instrumental groove-setting start. It paints an evocative picture of innocent homey childhood recollections and friendship, with long talks on the phone: "Cans and strings and backyard trees/ Giggles coming through the wire/ Summer mud pies, lemonade stands/ Hang Up/ No, you hang up ... first." Capathia sings it with recalled affection, as if she has happily stepped into the past and touched it. The purposely mixed-up word play of "I Wrote a Good Omelet (After Loving You)" becomes an effervescently giddy song with music billowing through its love-happy switcheroos of verbs ("I rolled my bed, turned down my hair/ Slightly confused, but I don't care/ Laid out my teeth and gargled my gown"). As a song, it reminds me of the old novelty tune, "I Said My Pajamas (and Put On My Pray'rs)" without trying so hard to be adorable. A heavy selection like "You Were Gone" is done with drama but dignity, keeping the proceedings from getting too bubbly and blithe. Things can get dark and haunting quite suddenly, but the gloom card is not overplayed.
Some of these pieces are more engaging than others, some cameo-like and feeling more like appetizers than fully satisfying meals, but I like a good appetizer. There's usually something to capture interest, whether it be the grace of the melodic line, the sound of a marimba, a cooing or biting vocal sound that brings attention to a moody phrase. Don't come looking for too much high drama. The not-very-inventive song about sex, "That Day," wears out its welcome for me (though the use of a trombone adds to its effect), but more sophisticated pieces on desires and longings work quite well.
The two have been doing a series of concerts at Joe's Pub at Manhattan's Public Theatre to celebrate the release of this album. The final performance is May 26.
DON CHERRY & WILLIE NELSON
The combination of veteran singers Don Cherry and Willie Nelson proves to be a very satisfying one. These seniors (Mr. Cherry turned 84 this year, while Mr. Nelson marked three-quarters of a century three weeks ago) have had careers that have included genre-sampling through pop and country and standards. The still-smooth-and-light croon of Cherry makes for a pleasing and interesting combination with the yearning, craggy, lived-in Nelson sound. The tracks here are mostly duets, performed unpretentiously and sincerely, though they more often are taking turns singing lines or choruses solo rather than harmonizing. Thus, it's the contrast in their voices that stands out as we frequently switch back and forth within a number. At times, this casual alternating gets in the way of a listener getting deeply into a song. Some do not work so well with two people expressing what seems to be the point of view of one person's feelings about a specific single person that would not be a shared or duplicated commiserating experience ("'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' she'll be sleeping ..."). But it doesn't matter too much when two old pros just settle down and pull out a bunch of tunes that range from the old "Give Me the Simple Life" (also heard in the Ebersole/Stritch CD reviewed above) to the title song by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, one that benefits from a twang of country-and-western sound that both emphasizes and realigns its somewhat sticky romantic sentimentality.
A wistful "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks is a highlight. Who can deny that such a song about reaching back for memories is all the more poignant when handled by two who have plenty of mileage. It works wonderfully. Also on the subject of recollections, but perhaps not totally welcome ones, Mickey Newbury's "Sweet Memories" is quite moving and even haunting.
The whole album has an effortless ease with the material, and the few sadder songs are not overly droopy. One lament is a Cherry solo, the standard "You've Changed," and it resists the cry-in-your-beer approach fairly well, though there is a bit of a sob in the voice. The Nelson touch is more subtle, with a more resigned and accepting sense of life's mixed blessings coming through.
With the presence of such session musician stars as (the late) Boots Randolph on sax and Charlie McCoy on harmonica, it's a real shame that it was decided to add what sounds like layers of synthesized, mushy strings. Everything else feels so real and true, and then the slushy sounds get plopped on like some karaoke background leftovers. Sweetening is not needed; it works against the naturalness of every other factor. Also, regrettably, the musicians don't get much solo time. But the integrity of the singing and simple-but-effective approach shine through brightly.
Somewhat Under the Radar
Dyad is a word of Greek origin meaning "the principle of twoness" or "two units regarded as one." In music, it means a chord consisting of just two tones. On their CD Dyad, vocalist David Thorne Scott's interaction with his pianist Mark Shilansky is one of partners: they weave in and out of each other's work and share the spotlight, with lengthy piano solo sections on tracks. This is the singer's second full-length album as a solo vocalist; he also has an EP and has recorded as a member of vocal groups. The pianist appears on many albums with various performers (including David's prior album, Shade) and has a few out as a leader (he sings, too). Dyad is an inventive and refreshing jazz excursion demonstrating confidence and adventurousness from these two men, who both teach at the Berklee School of Music in Massachusetts.
The vocal sound is clean and strong, supple and natural-sounding rather than trained, with the timbre being close to a speaking tone. With his original tunes and liberties taken with established material, his singing can be rather athletic and rangy. The voice is not strikingly rich and resonant, but it's impressive in its assertiveness and directness. His lighter, prettier, head tones are not showcased very much, which is too bad because there are attractive qualities there that are barely explored. Occasionally, I feel he's pushing a bit when he could lay back and float more.
Though we are mostly deep in jazz country here, two selections demonstrate that David's sound and Mark's playing easily adapt to pop/folk styles. They are old hits recorded by Emmylou Harris ("Boulder to Birmingham," which she co-wrote with William Danoff) and John Denver (his classic "Rocky Mountain High" by Denver and Michael Taylor). These two are sung relatively straight, with a sense of drama and storytelling in the approach to the lyrics, giving the vocal acrobatics a holiday.
The standard "When I Fall in Love" is treated to an especially open-hearted, convincingly optimistic rendering, with sparer accompaniment and parts of the vocal line revamped and subtly re-imagined. The Kern/Hammerstein classic "The Song Is You" is perhaps the best example of the Scott-Shilansky give-and-take, as they seem to be trading so many ideas back and forth, with instrumental mini-comments between sung phrases, followed by a light scat section, and piano solo. It develops enchantingly, repeating the title and the penultimate line, "The music is sweet, the words are true" (great mantra for these two). "A Simple Song" by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, from Mass is the longest track, at nearly seven minutes. Dignified and respectful in approach, it mixes a sense of mystery and awe with straightforward reverence.
Five of the ten songs are originals by the singer, the lyrics showing skillful use of language and the melodies full of surprising twists and turns. Close attention bears rewards, as the elastic and unpredictable melodies are often matched to very sensitive lyrics about nature. "Agitated" shows some humor, and David has a field day spitting out a litany of rhymes. Another, "Night's Affair with Day," written in collaboration with Hal Galper, includes an especially felicitous piano accompaniment and solo and the track ends with some scat singing. Dyad is satisfying and striking.