Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Vocals by Nicole Henry, Joanie Pallatto, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, Vanisha Gould
Reviews by Rob Lester

Banister Records

With her elastic voice, involvement, control, and energy, singer Nicole Henry is always a definite pleasure to hear. She has issued eight collections, with most featuring well-established gems from various decades. This time, her Time to Love Again, presents more familiar fare—including some vintage Great American Songbook standards, but more heavily weighted toward hits from the pop world's singer-songwriters, dating from the '60s to the '80s. They may not always come across as startlingly reinvented or seem definitive, but there's plenty of original thinking in the arrangements and phrasing to make things feel fresh, fun or fiery. Numerous men, many of whom are in the sizable band, contribute interesting arrangements.

Arguably, for this lady who has demonstrated a wide range of voice and emotions in her recording career and live appearances, this set doesn't always find her going big with notes or dramatic and nuanced with lyrics. But usually the melody and the story and point of view all get adequate attention and care. The movie title song "Wild Is the Wind" gets one of the more connected and thoughtful interpretations, rewardingly languishing in lush, poetic ardor.

Tension and a sense of truly drinking in emotions and moments are in shorter supply in her rendition of "Feeling Good" from the 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, opting for an unusually brisk, percolating feel-good treatment, released as a single. This oft-covered selection is from the score by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who passed away recently, after this recording, and—minor complaint—whose surname is, unfortunately, spelled wrong in the credits). Another musical theatre classic is of older vintage: Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (1939), and it gets a sweet but non-flowery deep dive into romantic realizations.

When she gets to "Is It a Crime?" (no, not the comic rant from the musical Bells Are Ringing, but rather an emotionally conflicted confession from the oeuvre of Sade), things get deep, dense and dramatic. It's also sleek and satisfyingly unrushed in its honest unspooling of feelings being faced.

Nicole Henry shines with the sunny sprits and happy highs of James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face" and Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" and shows her sensitivity with Buffy Sainte-Marie's realistic assessment of the shelf life of a romantic relationship, "Until It's Time for You to Go." In that one, she puts emphasis on unexpected words, offering subtle tweaks to the lines. Through all of the above, her sound remains shimmering and slinky, as she seems to revel in the music, projecting confidence.

In recent times, Nicole Henry has continued to present her themed solo show that embraces the songbook of Whitney Houston (a good fit!) and has been involved in a musical theatre piece at the Colony Theatre in Florida. It is A Wonderful World, a musical biography of Louis Armstrong, using established songs, and she plays the third of his four wives. The production was stopped in its tracks in its final previews by pandemic-caused theatre shutdowns in March 2020, but is set to come back next month. (Her prior musical theatre role was as the sister of the female lead in the stage version of The Bodyguard, a movie starring the aforementioned Ms. Houston.) A talented artist who came to jazz and standards after a start in pop, R&B, and some songs she co-wrote, I'm eager to see what paths she'll explore in her career in the next few years, on theatre stages, concert stages, cabarets, and recordings. She's a formidable talent with a golden voice.

CD & Digital

With very personal reflections and memories, but largely avoiding the topic most frequently addressed in songs—romantic attachments—Joanie Pallatto's latest collection is notable. With its sometimes quirky, sometimes soul-bearing commentaries, My Original Plan, consisting of original songs, may be an acquired taste. The Chicago-based veteran vocalist's series of releases began back in 1986 (racking up more than a dozen now). While the voice may be on the modest size, the heart is big; she does not shy away from sharing and being open emotionally.

A down-to-earth sense of humor in several numbers, like the title song, gives relief and balance to some long, uber-earnest ones. In the latter category, there are items that may feel oh-so precious and fluffy ("Do Butterflies Cry?") or burdened with a heavy dose of intensity, as in the disquieting "The Confessional," a drama set in a church, with a priest played by actor Bill Nolte, employing words in Latin. It becomes harrowing with despair and desperation crystallized in the line "Where is the angel of forgiveness?"—but the lyric's very frequent repetition of that answerless question has diminishing returns in impact.

Indeed, there is too much of a pretty good thing (or pretty thing) elsewhere, too; lopping on other tracks of her own voice, to echo words can strike a listener as overly decorative studio embellishments. While some lyrics are thoughtful and concise, some rhymes are a bit forced and some sung lines with sounds rather than actual words (including one that fills in with repeated phrases of just "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" may not satisfy).

The highlight, for me, is called "About a Song" (and that's what it's about—the art and craft of creating music and lyrics and relishing the process). It stands out as the most unforced, uncluttered, and charming piece of all. Another engaging tale focuses in part on that process, too. It's called "Jon's Place," the character sketch of the titular collaborator/friend with distinctive character traits and habits, like insisting that visits to his home are off-limits.

Guitarist Fareed Haque is featured in the small band that also includes Joanie Pallatto's longtime music partner, pianist Bradley-Parker Sparrow (also her husband—their 39th wedding anniversary is this month). The couple co-wrote three of the songs, he composed the melody for the wordless interlude called "The Rest," and the rest are by the singer alone.

While not everything may fully satisfy, My Original Plan is certainly original.

Made in NY

Life and love—but mostly love, or the lack thereof, or some lust—from a woman's point of view are what's examined in the selections on In Her Words. It presents a dozen perspectives performed by skillful singers Lucy Yeghiazaryan and Vanisha Gould. Oops—the word "and" gives the wrong idea; make that "or" because, with one brief exception (lasting less than a minute, called "Interlude"), the tracks don't present them singing together as you might assume. With no liner notes about these two talented women many won't yet be familiar with, and no indication on the set list of which person sings which song, that isn't obvious at a glance. However, you'd be making a safe guess assuming that since Vanisha Gould is credited as the songwriter for five numbers that she is the one singing those. (She also wrote "Interlude.") While I wish there were more opportunities to hear them in tandem, each is quite effective and potent as a soloist, with seamless, serene vocals with a P.O.V. solidly established for the character in each piece.

A quartet of musicians provides the often intriguing accompaniment, but absent the usual suspects of pianist and drummer, it's all about instruments with strings: lovely sounds of a cello (Kate Victor) and violin (Ludovica Burtone), along with effective guitar (Eric Zolan) and bass (Dan Pappalardo). More understated than showy, the settings create an intimate ambiance where accompaniment does not upstage the singer, and the singers' work, while often rather compelling, does not upstage the song. That being said, the musicians do get some opportunities for full focus with some longish mid-song breaks.

Lucy Yeghiazaryan, who also arranged almost all her contributions, is originally from Armenia. She handles several standards and other things with aplomb. With the sadder ones, she avoids melodrama and drowning in the tears of self-pity by taking a calmer stance suggesting acceptance informed by time. One is Rodgers and Hart's "Nobody's Heart (Belongs to Me)" which expresses being minimally bothered by being unpartnered ("That's the least of my cares ... It's not bad at times"), but is at its heart a denial-fueled lonely lament. Another snub of romance-prioritizing in the reality-based world states its thesis with its title: "Love Isn't Everything," and the singer rests her case with clear-eyed decisiveness.

She is vulnerable making her admission about—and makes her peace with—the dysfunctional, unequal relationship described in the torch classic "My Man." She includes the most unsettling line, "He beats me, too" that many singers will drop these days. (Maurice Yvain is correctly listed as the composer of this classic, but the names of the men who wrote the original French lyrics and English version are not listed; instead the words are wrongly credited to Billie Holiday, one of the singers who memorably sang it, and whose approach this rendition most recalls.)

Another oldie that's deftly handled reflects on a lover who is, alas, "Gone Again." Happiness is not totally banished from Lucy's list of love-challenged experiences, although those playing the collection in track order have to wait until the end for bathing in joy, albeit limited and tempered by the knowledge that she's not the only love interest (like in "My Man"). But most of the moments in "Moments Like This" are colored with contentment in this lush love rush written by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, from a 1938 movie musical, College Swing. The sole Yeghiazaryan original here is "Hey Baby," shared with guest singer Richard Cortez in would-be-suave mode; in this vignette-like piece, they portray a woman walking down the street and a sweet-talkin' dude pursuing her to little effect. It includes a spoken addendum, an arguably unnecessary overstatement to the flirtation, positioning the scenario as autobiographical.

Handling the rest of the originals, Vanisha Gould makes her mark with colorful portraits ("Gypsy Feet," about an elusive woman who's felt her share of pain and has caused some for men), and two samples of attitudes about attraction (forwardly addressing a "Cute Boy" and a guy she hopes will "Look This Way"). Things get most serious and sorrowful with the post-breakup tale of being "Trapped in This Room." In all cases, the singing is smooth and moves her melodies along with unfussy efficiency. Like the singer she shares In Her Words with, she is now New York-based, although she hails from California.

My semi-minor quibbles are that a few of the originals aren't immediately accessible, or seem a bit less than fully fleshed-out, and a few tracks end anticlimactically or even abruptly. However, repeat plays more completely reveal the subtler charms and assets of the collection which, on the other hand, is nevertheless instantly impactful as far as the appeal of both performers' voices and the generally graceful and gallant instrumental work. I think you'll find much to admire with their songs on In Her Words.