Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Very varied vocalists...
... but everybody's got a Cole Porter song
Reviews by Rob Lester

It's time again for a batch of albums by some singers with very different approaches, from the old-school presentational brashness and sentimentality of Al Jolson to modern-day female vocalists–swinging hard with a big band sound, choosing small-group accompaniment, or featuring African instruments. After my last column's double-dipping into recordings of Anything Goes I still had Cole Porter songs in my brain, so I chose some releases that each have a Porter perennial. Other commonalities: Two of the women chose "Willow Weep for Me" and two of them chose "On Green Dolphin Street" and two of them have their husbands aboard and supplying arrangements. But we'll start with a male from Porter's generation: Al Jolson.

Garret Mountain Music
CD | Digital

Whenever another collection of Al Jolson performances turns up, the corners of my mouth turn up in a big grin. His savvy way of "selling" a song and the showman's desire to entertain still come through, and I'm ready to follow him anywhere. Let's imagine going along on his musical trips to go "On the Banks of the Wabash," out west to the "Golden Gate," then "Down Among the Sheltering Palms," to "Miami." The title From Broadway to Hollywood promises that there will be numbers from Broadway shows and movies that jolly Jolson starred in–and we get those, among treats. For example, we get his spin on famous numbers from shows of the 1930s that he was not in: "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess and "At Long Last Love" by Cole Porter (a highlight) from You Never Know, which delivers "this feeling of joy" mentioned in its lyric.

You get a lot of bang for your buck with 35 tracks that include some of his signature songs that he recorded and performed on radio many times throughout his career (such as "Swanee," "April Showers," and "California, Here I Come"), but, as in previous sets on Garret Mountain Records, these aren't the more famous versions that have commonly turned up on other labels' collections. And the sound quality is quite good, thanks to engineer Scott Gordon, who manages to take ancient shellac records and remove clicks and cloudiness and add clarity.

Commentary is courtesy of curating collector Chip Deffaa, both in liner notes and briefly, between songs, on the recording itself. As on his past compilations of Jolson and Fanny Brice and the many albums of today's singers reviving early Irving Berlin material, From Broadway to Hollywood is a mix of the better-known, the barely known, and the pretty darn obscure. My only complaint is that most of the songwriters are not credited in the notes, but newer potential members of the Al Jolson fan club will learn some other interesting things.

There's some schmaltz and some sincerity. And it's always fun to hear Jolson joking around with or just joining forces with other stars. This time, he shares the spotlight with The Andrews Sisters for a jaunty "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" and playing "Sonny Boy" for laughs. (Another track finds him taking it seriously as a solo.) Kindred spirit in pep, Eddie Cantor is his duet partner singing the praises of "Dinah." And my usual grinning turns to laughter with the three tracks presenting Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante playing off each other with songs and quips.

Some Jolson stylings have aged better than others, but being a contented cornball is more satisfying that being a curmudgeon. If you agree, I think you'll find From Broadway to Hollywood pleasing from start to finish.

Groove Note Records
CD | Digital

There are two different slow-burning versions of the Cole Porter favorite "I've Got You Under My Skin" to let us dig into its depths and dig the talents of mesmerizing singer Douyé (pronounced "Doe-Yay") on her new release. She strikes gold with The Golden Sèkèrè, titled for an African instrument (a shaker) you'll hear played as part of the intriguing soundscape for this project which she states "was created to honor and celebrate my heritage" (she grew up in Nigeria). Re-branding a set of items mostly from the Great American Songbook, a "less is more" path is generally taken on ballads as the lady makes them especially intimate and confessional with her low voice. Therefore, unsurprisingly, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "Speak Low" are particularly perfect fits. Eschewing the uptempo route for material that can work at least equally well as a sincere ballad, there are also successes with "Fly Me to the Moon" and "On Green Dolphin Street."

Douyé switched from singing in an R&B style to jazz with an earlier release, Daddy Said So, which included material composed by Duke Ellington and she continues paging through his songbook here with the lilting "Azure" and a chance to cut loose and perk things up with with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." There are also two picks with music and lyrics by Ray Noble: "Cherokee" and "The Very Thought of You." There's a calm and serene quality with a laser beam intensity to her delivery that makes the vocal passages magnetic while the accompaniment is drenched in mood-enhancing atmosphere, busy or sparse; in the latter category, Lionel Loueke's guitar playing is exquisite.

A booklet that comes with the CD devotes a full page to each of the 14 tracks, adorned by photos of the vocalist in an array of glamorous, colorful outfits she designed herself, along with the names of the many musicians and instruments heard, and other credits. (Douyé herself is involved in producing and arranging and adds some percussion.) There are a couple of corrections needed in the songwriter information, however: "Afro Blue" indicates only composer Mongo Santamaría, omitting lyricist Oscar Brown, Jr.; the 1940s song called "Key Largo," which is on the recording, is the work of Benny Carter, Karl Suessdorf, and Leah Worth, but the page credits those who wrote a same-named pop item from the 1980s.

The Golden Sèkèrè envelops the listener in a world of attention-commanding sound and feeling, vocally and instrumentally. Highly recommended!

Early Autumn Productions
CD | Digital

A quarter of a century ago, singer Angela DeNiro and bandleader/arranger Ron Aprea came out with an album called Swingin' with Legends. Well, 25 years later, they're still in there swingin' and thus we have the exciting, high-energy Swingin' with Legends 2, with her big voice and him conducting his arrangements for a big band that soars. They are husband and wife and are also apparently wedded to the plan to embrace good old songs in a zingy old-school style. There's never a dull moment here with this pair and the ensemble plus three guest players. (The CD cover gives them prominent billing and shows them in a photo montage, but let's not minimize the powerful band's formidable presence and pow–its 16 members with real jazz "chops" ain't chopped liver!

Accompanied by photos, comments on the songs, the story of the creation of the album, and past history are included in several pages of liner notes. Therein, some of the songwriters' names are mentioned in passing, but in a couple of cases, only the composer is credited.

Full of good spirits and good performances, the endeavor is solid entertainment. To borrow the name of the included Cole Porter number, it's all "Easy to Love." That track prominently features guest clarinetist Ken Peplowski in his sole appearance; he starts things off with an engaging solo before the band jumps in and it becomes a quick-tempoed, punchy affair with a joyful vocal romp through the lyric, followed by some supple scat-singing. A similar musical set-up happens for "Hello Young Lovers" from the score of The King and I with another one-track guest, trumpeter Randy Brecker; he gets the main spotlight for the first full minute with an atmospheric set-up and then–on your mark, get set, go!–the mood and tempo shift into high gear. I was surprised that making what's usually treated as a pensive piece could work with a gallop and grins. It takes the lyric's line, "All of my memories are happy tonight," to the cheeriest point imaginable. And tears and troubles are taboo, for even the expected mournful melody of "Willow Weep for Me" is assertively stared down, hijacked, and transformed into a fleet and frisky demand.

The swingers do slow down as they ease into several selections, but don't assume they'll be coasting in the slow lane for long. "It Might As Well Be Spring" starts off with guest Lew Tabackin's relaxed sax solo. Angela DeNiro enters in unrushed, wistful mode as she melts into a dreamy mood, but after this calm coffee break, the musical caffeine kicks in and the tune is revved up to be, as the songs says, "as jumpy as a baby on a swing" (but swingin' with legends).

Listening to this collection is like walking down the freshly repaved Memory Lane of music, whether it's about a romantic stroll to "travel through the years, collecting precious memories" (a lush "Two for the Road" led by pied piper Lew Tabackin's flute) or a case of strutting "On Green Dolphin Street." The 14 tracks make for a very satisfying listen.

OA2 Records (Origin Records)
CD | Digital

There are indeed several moods on Love's Got Me in a Lazy Mood, from the appropriately languid but composed feel projected in the treatment of the title song (a Johnny Mercer lyric to a melody by Eddie Miller) to the optimism of feeling "all aglow" when "Taking a Chance on Love" to the lamenting "Willow Weep for Me." However, adept singer Darden Purcell is usually reserved and restrained, choosing understatement over overstatement, so when proclaiming that "It's a Most Unusual Day," she skips merrily rather than jumping for joy and she isn't drowning in a flood of tears on the sad stuff. The often "cool" temperature doesn't become chilly, thanks to the appealingly warm timbre of her voice. A subdued, tasteful route works for her, even if sometimes feels a bit "studied." However, the sorrowful "A Cottage for Sale" strikes me as uncalculated and unguarded, fully emotionally invested in the sadness, with phrasing that movingly lingers on the images and bleak outlook.

Much that's heard on this set is notable more for a thoughtfully creative approach to melodies; some tracks allow about half the playing time to be given over to the excellent jazz musicians, and the singer sometimes uses her voice as an instrument. Shawn Purcell is Darden Purcell's arranger, guitarist, co-producer–and, yes, husband–and she's set a flurry of words to his thinking-outside-the-box percolating melody called "Chatterbox" that is longest among the 11 inclusions, at well over seven minutes. The shortest is the only one clocking in at under five minutes (by just a few seconds). The spare, insistent percussion work of Todd Harrison on that one makes for a very aptly concentrated focus, as it's the Cole Porter classic "I Concentrate on You." Todd Simon is the recording's pianist and Jeff Reed is the bassist. Joe Locke plays vibes on six selections, adding much to the glow and class.

If you're only used to "Come Back to Me" as a higher-energy plea laced with urgency and frustration, born of its context in the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, you may be taken aback by the Purcells' breezy M.O. But you might come back to it and enjoy the briskness of the breeze. Love's Got Me in a Lazy Mood is the kind of album that, when revisited, may grow on you, as it did for me, so don't be in a lazy mood when exploring its explorations.

Rhombus Records
CD | Digital

Recorded during a California nightclub engagement at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Jazz Grill, singer Sylvia Brooks demonstrates that she can be torchy or tender, determined and driving or delicate. Her splendid sextet is led by pianist Christian Jacob. Two numbers with his music set to her sensitive lyrics are included, as is a vibrant instrumental he composed, "The Red Pig Flew Up the Hill." The program is otherwise mostly standards, with Harold Arlen melodies accounting for three of the nine vocals: "When the Sun Comes Out" (Ted Koehler's lyric); and two with Johnny Mercer's words, "Blues in the Night" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." A welcome lighthearted moment comes with the 1955 hit for Frank Sinatra by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, "(Love Is) The Tender Trap."

There is minimal patter on this recording, except for thanking the audience, and her introductions of the instrumental and the wonderfully evocative Brooks/Jacob "The Flea Markets of Paris." Their other original is the more plainly worded and despondent "Holding Back Tears." While some of the covers can be game, showy "showpieces" evidencing vocal chops and dazzle, at times recalling elements of interpretations by other performers, it's the two originals that are the most emotionally potent. Although depending on using some words that almost rhyme, the lyrics are poignant and Christian Jacob's graceful melodies bring them out.

Sylvia Brooks has been making albums since 2009, but those who are now belatedly discovering her work via this release might well be intrigued enough to look into her four earlier studio sets. Ironically, those who already have all or almost all of those could be the least motivated to pick up this one–because not only do all the songs she sings on Live appear on those prior releases, but they're done very much with the same distinctive details in the imprint of arrangements, and phrasing, and attitude in the singing. Doing a side-by-side listening comparison, as I did, you'll hear the consistency. These versions might be a bit longer and the musicians aren't the same on all albums, but you can't say the treatments are as different as night and day on "Night and Day," her rollicking Cole Porter choice, or any of the others. That being said, Live stands on its own and does not feel like an automatic-pilot retread. I'll be interested to see what comes next for this performer.