Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Standard Fare:
Recent recordings of standard songs
Reviews by Rob Lester

With the vast number of songs around for singers to interpret, there are "the usual suspects" from decades past that keep showing up, proven pieces that continue to resonate. Standing the test of time, they seem timeless, often demonstrating their flexibility as they thrive with new approaches and explorations. Known as the "standards" of the Great American Songbook, they retain their luster, popularity, and resonating impact. Below are some current exhibits of the tradition.


Ghostlight Records
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A cultural exchange that becomes a musical blood transfusion is largely a successful operation with the unassuming title of My Standards. Embracing and celebrating the styles of her Latin heritage (her parents came from Cuba), theatre performer Janet Dacal and team reinvigorate a group of well-known, oft-recorded classics. Full of festive fun, many of the 11 tracks have upbeat, highly rhythmic arrangements that evoke a joyful party where high-spirited dancing and smiling are the default reactions.

Much here makes for blithely entertaining listening and foot-tapping. Some singing in Spanish is sprinkled in. In bursts of her most exultant and exuberant singing, Janet Dacal's voice might strike some ears as strident or shrieky. There's more heat than warmth; lyrics that have the potential of real reflection don't always get their full mature measure of thoughtfulness.

An oddly overly cheery "Tenderly," alas, misses the very much needed tenderness and suffers from the lack of a prescription for a chill pill. The brisker-than-typical tempo taken with "Moondance," Van Morrison's self-penned pop hit that's now 50 years old, works against retaining its usual sultriness. Still, there's some simpatico company on this cut with vocals shared with fellow In the Heights alum Javier Muñoz. The other duet performance is more suitable to zippy cheer and delivers it—for an aunt and niece pairing, as bubbly Olivia C. Dacal (recording her part in Australia) matches Janet's pep for "Orange Colored Sky."

The repertoire includes three numbers that first glowed in the Broadway spotlight in the decade of the 1930s, written by major figures who supplied us with many standards. "Begin the Beguine," Cole Porter's tale of the memories and emotions that can be evoked when an orchestra plays a certain dance rhythm gets the temperature to torrid territory quickly and the singer's fervor bursts forth. Rodgers & Hart's "My Funny Valentine," one of the most voluminously recorded items in the Great American Songbook, takes a while before the intense percolating starts; it's sung the first time through at a more traditional medium tempo (though hardly languid or wistful). Then the beat and the enthused reading kick in. The Gershwin brothers' "I Got Rhythm" breaks out with the most celebratory force, adding some embellishments to the lyric. It builds well and could have sustained its energy even more (its exit almost feels disappointingly early).

While it's the most dynamic re-imaginings with rollicking treatments of English-language oldies that deservedly grab immediate attention on My Standards, the most mellow song—the sole piece with authentic Spanish language origins—is the one that sticks with me. Born in 1959, it is "Sabor a Mi" and gets two sublime treatments, one in Spanish and one with English lyric, called "Be True to Me." The rewardingly restrained, lovely sounds of Janet Dacal's indulging her roots have been previously heard in last year's Nosotros, a collection, including this bolero, that revisits the Spanish recordings of Eydie Gorme, with the singing led by the late vocalist's son, David Lawrence. (Janet Dacal's lullaby EP called Luna Cuna: Cuba likewise foreshadowed her sweet and cozy sensibilities.)

This first full-length solo collection by Janet Dacal more than hints at the versatility of the performer, whose lead roles include being Alice in Wonderland and the recently interrupted tour of The Band's Visit, and her ability to make something called My Standards feel like anything but a standard treatment.


Brontosaurus Records
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To be gentle and understated appears to be the stated mission of singer Lauren Henderson's way with a song. And the quiet, laser-beam-focused approach works with the well-chosen standards that make up The Songbook Session. The caring, knowing tip-toeing through "Tenderly" and the hushed sultriness lavished upon "Sabor a Mi" bring welcome tastes of sweetness that feel genuine. This is her sixth release (including an EP) on her own label, Brontosaurus Records, serving as her own producer and co-arranger (with her splendid usual pianist, Sullivan Fortner). And it's often hypnotic.

The low-embers singing style that decidedly favors musical minimalism over muscularity gains in intimacy what it sacrifices in oomph. Her timbre is so pretty and her pitch so secure that these classic melodies seem to be respectfully caressed in this jazz excursion. The keyboardist, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Allan Mednard are far more than a mere supportive background; their playing has just enough verve and forcefulness to offset any chance that the restrained vocalizing will make the tracks too low in energy. It creates a sage sonic balance that never threatens to upstage the singer. The instrumental work is engaging and creative so that the choice to give these men more than typical playing time before and/or after vocal passages doesn't feel like a stage wait, but rather a non-redundant enhancement of moods.

Five of the eight selections come from that rich decade for the record premieres of romantic songs that have lasted so sturdily: the 1940s. Among them are the lilting "While We're Young" and the Mexican import "Bésame Mucho." The one show tune choice on the collection is also from that period: Rodgers & Hammerstein's "People Will Say We're in Love." It moves along rather briskly, the percussion driving much of this Oklahoma! standby. Lauren Henderson's approach to the lyric is rather casual, not belying the affection, coyness, or concerns the song has in context for the characters we know in the musical. Contrasting a trio treatment and a piano/voice pairing, there are two fine versions of "Day by Day," that description of increasing happiness in love by Axel Stordahl, Paul Weston and Sammy Cahn.

The CD packaging egregiously gives no songwriter credits except to indicate that the Spanish lyric for "Tenderly"—which precede Jack Lawrence's original words for the Walter Gross melody—are a Henderson contribution.

The Songbook Session becomes a trilingual triumph with a bossa nova favorite from the Jobim songbook: a meditation on the song known in English as "Meditation" in its Portuguese guise. Like everything else on this atmospheric delicate delicacy, it sits and sways very much in a comfort zone well worth the visit.


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Fasten your seatbelts! Nine well-established old standards are hardly the same old/same old in New Sounds from the Jazz Age, a collection that earns the declaration of its title. Within even the shorter tracks, there are frequent surprises, sudden gear shifts, twists and turns of tempo and tone to trigger astonishment and admiration for the facility and fertile output of singer Lizzie Thomas, fabulously forceful veteran pianist/arranger/musical director John Colianni, and band. Shining instrumental contributions include guitarists (Russell Malone or Matt Chertkoff) and atmosphere-enhancing clarinet on two cuts (Felix Peikli). With complex charts, busy instrumental work, and juicy singing that confidently swings, swoops and pounces, recorded with all parties live in the same room (rather than in isolation booths, and not allowing overdubs or tweaks), this is a medal-worthy Olympics of jazz performances.

The vocalist comes off as a strong musical master of all she surveys, grabbing and owning the material with a determined fierceness that also allows some playfulness and occasional vulnerability. She can wail with abandon, sail through wordless vocalizing, or—with precision—hone in on every short, precise note in a series. The formidable Mr. Colianni can be a whirlwind of dizzying deftness. Arrangements are packed with ideas and initially established moods that change unexpectedly on a dime, yanking us somewhere else, making for the happiest of hijacking. We're off to the races when lithe Lizzie Thomas jumps on the super-fast-moving train of "One Note Samba," in which she dazzlingly goes through the whole English lyric three times within a little more than two minutes, which still allows room for an instrumental break. Whew!

This is the fourth release (including a Christmas EP) from the Pittsburgh-born/ now New York City-based singer, and it includes new treatments of three numbers that also appeared on her album named for one of its three included Cole Porter songs: Easy to Love. Two different Porter choices pop up here: "In the Still of the Night" and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." The latter starts jauntily with a bit of "It's Nice to Go Trav'ling " (Van Heusen/ Cahn) which also mentions returning home. Similarly, Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" has an insert of "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Neither interpolation is indicated on the set list which also omits all songwriter names.

The songs are treated like the most elastic of raw material clay that can be molded and pulled and re-shaped, even (in two cases) reassigning lines that were originally their endings to be re-cast as introductory statements. And so, the body of the piece becomes the backstory. Everything old is new again and New Sounds sounds like a winner.


Enchanted Meadow Records
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Looking with 20/20 hindsight in 2020, we can claim to be unsurprised that certain pre-1960 hit songs have had proven "staying power," continuing to be adopted by later generations of singers. Like many before her, Laura Noejovich has populated her recording with evergreens, including "Someone to Watch Over Me," "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Misty," "Summertime," and "Over the Rainbow" (voted as music fans' all-time favorite in a survey, and certainly a frequent go-to choice by many). But which latter-day gems can build a case to be considered as nominees "here for the long haul" to join their league? Well, Laura Has New Standards, as she calls her debut collection that honors plenty of worthy picks written in later decades, too, including several from major musicals.

So who is Laura Noejovich, besides a pretty-voiced soprano with eclectic (if well-known) choices for repertoire? Although the physical packaging gives us four photos of the singer, and a few lines of her special thanks, what's missing (besides the names of several lyricists on the song list that sometimes only credits the composers) is any background on who she is. A quick computer search reveals that she trained in classical music, jazz and pop, and has worked as a tutor, in speech pathology and neuroscience, is a 2018 Skidmore grad, and appeared onstage at the Duplex in Greenwich Village last year.

There's a lovely sense of yearning and wistfulness on some of the selections, like Wicked's "I'm Not That Girl," and "On My Own" from Les Misérables. In some cases, performances—which are all accompanied solely by a pianist, Takeshi Asai—feel too much like a formal recital, and the potential "ownership" of material seems somewhat tentative. When she dives into songs more and the accompaniment is looser, the vocalist's work is more satisfying. A refreshing choice for inclusion is "Dreamer's Ball," from the repertoire of the group Queen, and feels delightfully retro and fun. The vexation in "Why Don't You Do Right" is just right: wonderfully slinky and sly. A page from the Beatles songbook, "The Fool on the Hill," succeeds in being the most intriguing work of Mr. Asai as arranger and player, as he and the vocalist imbue the portrait with ominous, dark colors.

In her best turns, Laura Noejovich shows encouraging potential and range, from the dollop of sauciness of Chicago's fun "Funny Honey" to the romantic infatuation evoked in "Misty." Handled with loving care, songs like "Misty" and other sensitive things will make listeners feel misty and mellow for many years to come.


CD | mp3 | iTunes

"Misty," "Tenderly," "Sabor a Mi," double-dipping into the Gershwins' songbook ... In their collection of Standards and Sweet Things the group known as Fleur Seule makes some of the same choices made by others we've been listening to in our survey of recent collections featuring enduring classics. It's just more proof that certain pop items pop up more often than others—and thrive. (And this reviewer hasn't tired of any of them, listening to the discs several times each over a few days.)

Cute but unpretentious, this throwback-intentional congregation doesn't have modernizing or manipulating material on its agenda. Unabashedly retro, they call themselves a "young group of old souls." They sure do appear to be exactly that! Beguilingly, Fleur Seule could be musical Rip Van Winkles waking from a decades-long sleep performing music in an innocent, fun way that is absent any real evidence of being in the 21st century.

Creamy-voiced lead singer Allyson Briggs (also the and album producer) can glide over melodies with a cooing, calming vibe or settle into breezy scat singing interpolating phrases from other assorted tunes. There's some variation on instrumentation from track to track, and a trio of women provide back-up vocals in three cases. Fleur Seule has its own very gentle, understated, charming sound and style. Banishing drama and tension, the relaxed, cheerily unruffled manner, enlivened by arranger/music director Andy Warren's zippy trumpet playing, makes them the sorbet of music.

Show tunes here include smiley romps through Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love" (which must be a personal fave, as it appears on one of their other recordings) and "Taking a Chance on Love" from Cabin in the Sky. The Gershwin brothers' Broadway successes are well treated with a bright, brisk, scat-infused "'S Wonderful" and a radiantly relaxed "Embraceable You" that allows pianist Jason Yeager to glow in slow-mo luxury.

Although its enchanting melody came from the Brazilian movie Black Orpheus, "Samba de Orfeo" is heard with its English lyric, "Sweet Happy Life"—and it certainly adds to the "sweet" in Standards and Sweet Things. But the collection is by no means an all-English affair, with numbers in Spanish and French prominent, such as "Sabor a Mi" and "La vie en rose," respectively. After all, the group's name is French, meaning "single flower." And Fleur Seule's latest release is a bouquet of beauties that smells like a hit.

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