When it comes to gift giving, is there anything better than music? Not much. So for anyone looking around for music to delight potential giftees, here are four new CDs that would make any stocking proud:
Barbara Carroll Plays at Birdland – Barbara Carroll with Jay Leonhart (Birdland): At 93, the classiest femme musician in New York City has been playing local and other keyboards since 1947. If you can’t do the math, that’s coming up on 70 years. The incredible aspect of the astonishing fact is that she gets better and better. Hard to believe? Just listen to this new live recording with now longtime collaborator bassist Leonhart (no, not 70 years, too). Part of what makes Carroll so skilled at jazz is her early classical training. She swings but with that extra-special grounding. The popular composers she shows off here include Harold Arlen, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington (in a 10-minute-plus medley), Jerome Kern, Michel Legrand, George Gershwin and John Green (that’s Johnny Green to you, although the formal version indicates his “Body and Soul” authorship). (No lyricists mentioned here, because, though Carroll sings like a pert angel, she doesn’t go vocal anywhere on this outing.) If you want the measure of her supernal artistry, pay attention to how she explores the chromatics of Hampton’s “Midnight Sun.” She works the familiar descending sections of the melody for over nine minutes and, as she returns to them over and again, never plays the inspired chords the same way twice. Pure, unadulterated beauty.
Stairway to the Stars – Gabrielle Stravelli Michael Kanan (garbiellestravelli.com, michaelkanan.com): Has Gabrielle Stravelli turned herself from audacious rock belter, which is how she started, into just about our finest jazz interpreter? Probably not, when the likes of Jane Monheit, Joyce Breach and Stacey Kent are around. But Stravelli is firmly ensconced in the echelon. Is Michael Kanan the suavest accompanist on hand today? Not really when ivory-ticklers like Bill Charlap, Tedd Firth, Billy Stritch and John McDaniel (see below) are working. But Kanan is right alongside them. All of which goes a way to explaining why the Stravelli-Kanen collaboration is absolutely impeccable. They do work a formula for most of the 10 Great American Songbook inclusions. She sings one time through with him supporting, he takes the musical break, and she returns for a full repeat or a bridge to finish repeat. Formulas can become tiresome, of course, but not when this duo sticks to theirs. And, oh brother, the surprising touches along the way. When, for example, Stravelli pays lovely attention to the Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington romantic prayer, “The Nearness of You,” her different versions of the repeated “oh, no” lyric are irresistible. The musicality she lends to the “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me” title phrase is ravishing. In a departure from their formula, Kanan begins the album’s title song with something that sounds like a classical prelude retooling. With tracks like that and every one of the others, any lucky auditor can only be grateful.
Renaissance – Cheyenne Jackson (PS Classics): The sometime Broadway leading man, who shows up in movies and on television and looks and sings like a contemporary version of John Raitt, demonstrates his recording prowess with a eclectic group of songs. Only one–the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse “Feelin’ Good”–was first heard on the musical stage. The other 11 come from the pop arena over the last 70 years or so. “Besame Mucho” was hot in the ’40s, as was “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” The sultry Matt Dennis-Earl Brent “Angel Eyes” came to prominence in the ’50s, whereas Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is strong ’60s stuff and the Elton John-Bernie Taupin “Your Song” and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” are ’70s products. One of the choicest inclusions is “Red Wine is Good for My Heart, which Jackson wrote with Michael Feinstein. It makes a listener wonder what other dapper ditties the team may have up their sleeves. Jackson delivers Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with such pained beauty (Tedd Firth is on piano, sparely) that it may demand repeated listens before moving on. A hallmark of the enterprise is the number of arrangers employed–Scott Whitfield, Sam Shoup, Jonathan Bartz, Fred Barton, Tim Beens, John Baxindine and Firth. The seven of them, their output conducted by Kevin Stites, account in great measure for Jackson’s unmitigated success here.
Come Together: Barb Jungr & John McDaniel Perform the Beatles – Barb Jungr John McDaniel (Kristalyn): Full disclosure–This reviewer wrote the liner notes for the release from the new and powerful Jungr-McDaniel team. Needless to say, that’s all the more reason for this scribe to encourage those not already in possession of the masterwork to repair the lapse. At the moment no one working the cabaret circuit and related venues is better at it than Jungr. She’s valuable because she makes a point of exploring works of songwriters she admires–Jacques Brel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, among them–and finding meaning and depth the creators may have no idea is there. Partnering with musical director-arranger John McDaniel, who’s as nonpareil as they come, she now gives Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison the once-, twice- and thrice-over on 20 instantly recognized songs. For much of the time the pair renavigates the Beatles, they are brilliantly pensive, proving the one-time moptops weren’t merely a teen phenomenon. One piece of evidence is “Eleanor Rigby,” and another the heart-breaking “For No One.” Jungr and McDaniel begin with “Got to Get You Into My Life” and end with “In My Life.” Between, they get rowdy on “Back in the USSR” and “Come Together,” and Jungr seizes a few opportunities to wail on her harmonica. As McDaniel sings in “Mother Nature’s Son,” you should “listen to the sound of pretty music”–except this music isn’t merely pretty, it’s gorgeous.
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