Good times and bum times, with hope and humor in hard times, music is the salve, so it's time for song and time to swing—as this week's "time"-related album titles tell us time and again.

HOPE AND HUMOR IN HARD TIMES
VARIOUS ARTISTS ("GRACE NOTES" SHOW)

Chantooz Music

With a generous sampling of talented New York singers performing live, there's a cabaret caravan in store for you on the first release of a new label, Chantooz Music. The label, album and the series of monthly live variety shows they represent are the work of singer-producer Grace Cosgrove.

Serving as host to introduce the proceedings and each artist, Grace also begins and ends the show, from late 2008, with her own solos. She offers a tender and liltingly lovely "Skylark," wistful and endearing. Her closer takes what can be a treacly tale, the old Doris Day signature "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and teases it with surprising flashes of humor, finding fresh but understated warmth in its message. She's a gentle and sensitive spirit and that infuses her musicality; she has a particularly pleasing and sweet timbre. Serving to present vocal variety, some of her guests come on stronger and have more grit and gusto in their presentations. For example, Maria Moncada is full of brio as she brashly growls and struts her way amiably through "I've Got the Sun in the Morning." Though it would have benefited from more variety in the arrangement and vocal colorations, it's spiffy and likeable. This Annie Get Your Gun blast is just one of several show tunes, and certainly addresses the sense of keeping things in perspective, with a dash philosophy, in the stated album/show theme, Hope and Humor in Hard Times.

Especially exciting and stirring are two more theatre songs. Nesha Ward's simmeringly soulful rendition of "Feeling Good" (the Newley/Bricusse number from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd). She builds and releases tension in some unexpected ways, cloaking herself in the rich awareness of freedom and its images in nature and making it all celebratory. Wendy Russell, a singer of great depth (and great "chops") brings a banquet of skills to the table for "A Change in Me." This song, added for the Broadway score of Beauty and the Beast (Alan Menken/ Tim Rice) is illuminated and illuminating in this mature and moving performance that throbs with life and self-awareness. Out of context of the moment in the story, it becomes more universal and thus more powerful.

Tanya Holt's wistful, thoughtfully phrased "Laughing Matters" (from the Off-Broadway revue When Pigs Fly by Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop) is a highlight. By delicately shading the world-weary/wounded observations and avoiding wringing tears or playing up the casual humor, she finds deep humanity and nobility in the song. A nicely calibrated "Everything Must Change," sung with integrity and commitment by Clarice Mazanec, is quite riveting, eschewing any heavy preachiness or lamenting with this reality check. Tracy Stark singing her own "Find My Strength" is impressive in the writing and performance of this naked-emotion wish to get beyond hurt and self-protection to "start to chip away at this heart of stone."

Many of the numbers are true to the "hope" theme but the "humor" is less prevalent, and some don't translate as well on disc compared to the visual impact of facial expressions and reactions (I was in the audience). For example, in Adam Alexander's drooling lust for "Bacon," which he hams up deliciously, it's still fun and welcome comic relief. Also charming and sprightly is the plucky rendition of "Wonderful" from Wicked essayed with good spirits and cheer by Miles Phillips—nice to have a cover version of this likeable number.

The series of "singers' soirees," as they are called, is presented at Don't Tell Mama; the Manhattan theatre district cabaret is overseen by award-winning director Lennie Watts. An irrepressible and dynamic, gutsy performer in his own right, he scores entwining the upbeat mantra about not sweating the small stuff, "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," with the shrugging acceptance of "That's Life" (with its survival instincts and battle scars upfront).

Most of the tracks have the top-drawer musicians Tom Hubbard on bass and pianist Don Rebic, the series' musical director aboard. One would hope that they might have more spotlight on their instrumental skills in future releases. And while we're wishing, maybe a stricter adherence to a stated theme by all participants would make the next album even more special and impactful. The only other distraction, and it's a minor one, is the slightly muddy sound of the mic used to introduce each singer. But the overall sound is bright and captures the ambience of a live cabaret show's moments of human electricity and audience response. The in-person recording is produced by Doug Epstein and J-P Perreaux (award-winning sound and lights man from the Metropolitan Room, who engineered the next album reviewed, recorded there live).

Welcome to this new record label. It has started off with a bang that gives you a lot of bang for your buck (15 songs and no two-drink minimum for the recording, but plenty of talent to drink in!).

CYNTHIA CRANE
THE TIME HAS COME:
LIVE AT THE METROPOLITAN ROOM

Lookout Jazz Records

To these eyes and ears, Cynthia Crane is exactly what a cabaret singer and act should be:  a unique individual with her own take on songs who grabs you and makes sure you get it.  Lively, likeable, down to earth, very watchable—with the quirky facial expressions and reactions on her animated face, gestures and shrugs, buoyant energy expressed with her full body.  It's about communication and telling the story of the song which she does to a faretheewell (it's somehow fitting that in private life, she is Mrs. Story).  She has stage presence that radiates a joy in physically being in the spotlight and connecting with an audience.  Though not a "legit" or legato singer with a big range, she has so many colors in her voice.  Cynthia gives it her all and her life-loving, progressive, maternal but ageless point of view and plucky, sprite-like personality come through as brightly as her very orange hair.  What is especially marvelous (and maybe a bit of a relief, having been in her audience for the act recorded here) is how much of that pizazz and humor and warmth come through on disc.

Being a live album, it is not surprising that she brings back a few numbers she has previously recorded, such as the effective moment from her prior album (also recorded live, in 2007), If I Knew Now (What I Knew Then): her gripping and mournful lament about an America that once was ("My Country Used to Be" by Dave Frishberg) which she segues into the Dietz & Schwartz big ray of optimism, "New Sun in the Sky."  Like many live albums, there are some vocal moments that are not as polished or smooth as one might expect in a studio effort with multiple takes.  But that's the very real Ms. Crane, going for the involvement and taking risks where the emotion comes through even if here and there she may talk-sing a phrase she might have sung more purely another time.

Her repertoire here is especially rewarding—not only because most of the tunes suit her strong suit of storytelling and crystallizing moods, but many are a show tune lover's delight.  Rather than pick the usual suspects, refreshing choices include her joyful opener "Beautiful, Beautiful World" from The Apple Tree and her encore, from Kander & Ebb's 70, Girls, 70, "Go Visit Your Grandmother"  (it's a zesty plea, though she wisely doesn't milk the potential sentimentality of the announced fact that she is indeed a grandmother now).  Other welcome choices are "Air" from Hair and Cole Porter's witty lament of unrequited love for "The Physician," wherein Cynthia finds infinite variety in tempo and temperament so it does not become just a list song of witty rhymes. She also has fun with her neurosis that ought to be curbed in second-guessing a lover in Stephen Sondheim's "Buddy's Blues," taking it at a less frantic and more cutely perplexed pace than it is done in Follies.

Though comedy and the character song are specialties of the house, Cynthia can be an effective and strong heart-tugger with a honed and shaded straight or sad number.  In a five-song segment of moon songs, mostly serious, she brings us something odd but winning called "Moon Goddess" written by Clark Gesner, who wrote the original score for  You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  "My Old Flame" is a touching and unsettling look back at romantic days of the long-ago past.  And she uses the show's title song ("The Time Has Come" by Mickey Leonard and Marshall Barer) to advocate that the time has indeed come for ending the war, recognizing gay marriage, saving the planet, legalizing marijuana and forgiving the French. Most of these topics are also addressed in song (not gay marriage, but maybe she hasn't found—or had written—the right song; I bet it's on her to-do list).

With the expert musicians, pianist Paul Greenwood and bassist Boots Maleson, with her on the many and sundried twists and turns of the way, this is a delightful and very entertaining live album.  With included succinct patter that captures Cynthia's joie de vivre, political posits and endearingly loopy side, this recording from the Metropolitan Room brings cabaret into your living room—or wherever your iPod might take you.  There is a wisdom of many years of living that comes through on the sad and the sardonic numbers—I can honestly say that Cynthia Crane is one of the few cabaret singers I go to see to learn something and feel the communicated "live life to the fullest" encouragement. For those who want to save the date to experience this all in person, mark your calendars for November 30 and December 6, 8, 9 for a new show at Don't Tell Mama.

THE BEST OF ANDREA MARCOVICCI
AndreaSong Records

In selecting tracks for a compilation, cabaret diva Andrea Marcovicci takes a wise tack for those who are more recent collectors of her albums. The choices come mostly from the out-of-print CDs in her impressive body of work, embracing a good swath of the Great American Songbook. Those who prefer to scoff might also point out that these are earlier recordings before some much-discussed vocal struggles with a less consistently reliable instrument and a wider vibrato and register shifts. Whatever the case, the ability to connect with and communicate lyrics is something that is consistent.

Added to the judiciously chosen recycled material are two brand new recordings. Francesca Blumenthal's devastating splash of cold water of reality, about believing the "Lies of Handsome Men," gets a pensive, clear-eyed and honest reading. It's such an excellent song; no wonder so many cabaret singers are attracted to its story of attraction. And the oldie "Young at Heart" is all the more effective sung from a later-in-life perspective, with the phrasing coming off as life-affirming and embracing optimism implied by thinking in a young and unjaded way. But there's also a touch of whimsy and devil-may-care that adds to the flavor and reality.

The 15 samples from the past trace her albums saluting the Broadway/film songs of the giants Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern and his various lyricists. It feels like a fuller bounty due to one track from her Loesser album and two tracks from her Just Kern CD being medleys of two songs, and the Berlin choice encompassing four of his songs, topping over seven minutes in playing time. Though there isn't a Cole Porter album, two fine versions of Porter songs are nonetheless present. Beyond the standards that have been recorded by so many singers, there are some less covered, such as two with lyrics by the man probably best known to theatre fans for the frothy songs in Once Upon a Mattress, Marshall Barer. The two numbers here show his romantic side and are gems ("On Such a Night As This" and "Beyond Compare"). Theatre fans are also rewarded with Andrea's striking, vulnerable rendition of William Finn's "What More Can I Say?" from Falsettos.

This is primarily a romance-rich songfest alternating between the rhapsodic falling-in-devoted love and laments of love lost. But there are a few changes of pace, like Maury Yeston's affectionate address to a beloved, learning child, "New Words," and a sprightly trip through Cole Porter's "Looking at You." The hard-to-avoid patchwork quality of jumping from the younger-voiced to more recent tracks and from live recordings with slightly jarring bursts of applause is not much of a bother. The love for the material and writers comes through in the singer's own looking-back liner notes. Through it all, the commitment to the songs and their intents and traditional contexts is very much intact, and that's what rises to the surface of this compilation that only scratches the surface of the singer's oeuvre.

TIME TO SWING
DAKOTA STATON

DRG Records

Five extra tracks have been added as bonuses to a reissue of a fifty-year-old album by singer Dakota Staton, Time to Swing. Well, she's swinging lightly. Sid Feller is the arranger/conductor and there's no riffing, extended solos or overly gimmicky or especially creative stuff going on—just easy-to-take and digest musicality, professionally if perfunctory at times. This is an easygoing outing, bright and breezy, with the songs brisk and short in playing time.

Relaxed and unpretentious, Dakota Staton usually just sang, with not much taken as a do-or-die kind of thing. But when called upon (or choosing?) to do so, she could get into a serious/sad lyric, as in a moving "You Don't Know What Love Is" from the original album or "You've Changed," one of the bonus tracks. And on the rare occasion that she scats or takes some liberties with a song, then we really are swinging and one wishes there were far more such opportunities and excursions.

The jazzy/bluesy singer with an unpretentious manner was born in 1930 (the year of one of the well-executed included songs, the Gershwins' "But Not for Me" from their Girl Crazy hit) and she died just two years ago. Other show tunes are a cheery romp through "The Best Thing for You" (Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam) and "The Song Is You" (Kern and Hammerstein (Music in the Air). A couple of lightweight pop confections are rather dispensable, but not egregiously tacky. One distraction I have with some of the tracks is what strikes my ear as a studied kind of diction with the final consonant "t" and other spots that make things flow less naturally.

The bonus tracks are not necessarily throw-away, bottom-of-the-barrel things. Will Friedwald's helpful liner notes indicate that a couple might have been for a shelved project before she switched labels from Capitol where she recorded 11 albums. "Detour Ahead" is dynamic and commanding, only marred by the sudden appearance from out of the blue of a chorus at the very end. (Why?) Another bonus item, "Once There Lived a Fool," strikes me as reeking of soap opera, but it's well sung.

Perhaps the somewhat derivative-styled Dakota Staton has been a bit lost in the shuffle among the brighter careers of her more individualistic jazz/blues-leaning contemporaries. This revisit made me sit up and take notice of her more understated but very pleasing sound and approach. And with good jazz tunes like "Avalon" (a solid highlight) and the ageless and graceful ballad "Willow Weep for Me," it's an agreeable but hardly earthshaking outing. Surprisingly timeless.

And now the time has come ... to swing back to whatever music is the soundtrack of your day til we meet again by the piles of discs old and new.


- Rob Lester


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