Joni Mitchell Does a Killer Billie Holliday

The hills are alive with the sounds of … new CD’s! Broadway is dead, and except for the newly mastered, digitally enhanced, spanking fresh re-release print of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window , the movies that are opening now should never have opened at all. Music is the only thing that is getting me through the dog days of winter, and some of it is pretty sensational. Here’s a rundown of the exciting new CD’s hitting stores in the next few weeks.

Nothing you have ever heard will even begin to prepare you for Joni Mitchell’s exquisite new collection, Both Sides Now (Reprise). I have never been a particularly avid fan of the singer or the song. In fact, it took the legendary Mabel Mercer in her famous Town Hall concert recording on Atlantic to teach me the nuances of the lyrics on “Both Sides Now.” But the title of this collection refers not only to the Joni Mitchell song (performed differently from how she has ever sung it before) but to the secret side of the singer herself.

Obviously a writer and performer of great taste and poetic sensibility, she’s never been a minor talent in the recording industry. But who knew she harbored a passionate love for the great standards by Harold Arlen, Vincent Youmans, Harry Warren and Rodgers & Hart? Who suspected she secretly longed to sing like Billie Holiday? And even after listening to this fabulous new CD, her 20th and greatest recording, I’m still not sure I can believe what I’ve just heard. All I know is the rapture I feel is the sound of my heart.

Reinventing herself through pop-jazz classics made famous by Lady Day, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy and Lena Horne, Joni Mitchell conquers new horizons, discloses an astonishing talent for jazz phrasing and reveals a romantic and vulnerable side of herself never heard before. On lush and sweeping arrangements played by 70 members of the London Symphony Orchestra, the voice is darker and more mature than ever and, on “You’ve Changed,” you will close your eyes and swear you are listening to Billie Holiday at the end of her life, battered and bruised and singing with the brokenhearted tenderness that made her Lady in Satin album a collector’s item. Cascading oboes rise and fall with dramatic impact on “You’re My Thrill,” while the voice trembles like a bird beating its tiny wings against a lighted window in the middle of an ice storm on the word “thrill.”

Anyone who ever wrote her off as an “ice-water singer” from some Beat Generation coffeehouse, hooked on folk songs, will swoon when this “new” Joni Mitchell wraps her smoky chops around “Don’t Go to Strangers” and swings the witty Lorenz Hart lyrics to “I Wish I Were in Love Again” with a guest performance by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. From the nostalgic World War II big-band ballad “At Last” to a wrenching “Stormy Weather,” she traces the arc of emotions inherent in any turbulent contemporary relationship, using her own trademark song, “Both Sides Now,” to sum up a repeating of the cycles. From the girlish naïveté of her early recordings to the deeply introspective maturity of the 12 cuts on this incredibly lavish new CD, Joni Mitchell has indeed looked at life from both sides now. She’s grown up in the process, and it’s a pleasure to share what she’s learned in an album of rich and lasting beauty and value. Although the release date is scheduled for March, a limited numbered edition in a specially designed box containing four of her lithographs is now available, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Fresh from the turgid and disappointing Marie Christine , the glorious voice of the justly acclaimed Audra McDonald soars again on How Glory Goes (Nonesuch), a thrilling compilation of 14 musical treasures that investigates several centuries of dramatic show-stopping styles-from Show Boat to Floyd Collins . Classically trained and powerfully innovative, the youngest person to win three Tonys, and one of contemporary American musical theater’s most cherished divas, this superb actress-singer has devoted entirely too much time promoting the dissonant, atonal work of young composers of her own generation for my taste, ignoring the passionate melodies and timeless lyrics of the past.

Happily, she makes up for all oversights on this marvelous occasion that features a variety of styles, from classic standards by Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and Johnny Mercer to fresh works by the uniquely gifted Adam Guettel. At the same time, she fearlessly explores new and exciting ways to interpret famous songs associated with icons that came before her: Judy Garland (“The Man That Got Away”), Helen Morgan (“Bill”) and Barbra Streisand (“Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home”), to name a few. The killer highlight: “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow,” two piercing odes to purity and idealism, from House of Flowers by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote. A smashing triumph to listen to, the gorgeous voice of Audra McDonald almost makes me feel guilty, like a wallow in hot fudge sauce.

Blossom’s Planet (Daffodil Records), the latest collection by the inimitable Blossom Dearie, lends a samba beat to gorgeous Brazilian songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and the brilliant Ivan Lins, but also includes one of the most rueful arrangements of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” I’ve ever heard. Critics enslaved by Blossom’s keen sense of time, indelibly precise phrasing and impeccable taste in material often use words like “bubbly,” “feathery” and “soufflé-light” to describe her singing, but sometimes forget what a consummate, polished and demanding jazz musician she is.

Accompanied by the imaginative Argentinian percussionist Luis Peralta, bassist Ray Kilday and versatile guitarist Jay Berliner, Blossom surpasses all expectations on this excursion with her sound, swinging piano chords on “Bluesette” and ladles up some startling portions of high drama with Francesca Blumenthal’s “Lies of Handsome Men” and new songs by Johnny Mandel, Michel Legrand and Sting.

Julie Wilson invades the eclectic world of the great Cy Coleman on her new release, aptly titled The Cy Coleman Songbook (DRG), and comes up with 18 gems ranging from such established Broadway blockbusters as “Big Spender” and “Hey, Look Me Over” to overlooked rarities like “I Want to Be Yours” (from the Broadway revival of Little Me ) and tender ballads such as “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All.” With her throaty charm and world-weary sophistication, this talisman of the saloon circuit seems to have swallowed the calorie-conscious key to the Fountain of Youth.

Mark Murphy, arguably America’s most technically astounding living male jazz stylist, is in a quieter and more graciously laid-back mood than usual on Dim the Lights (Millennium Records), accompanied by the solo piano of keyboard giant Benny Green. He takes risks, plays dangerous games with tempos and phrasing, and always lands on his feet, and you can always depend on him for a fascinating repertoire. This is one of the finest examples of his improvisational vocal calisthenics, and includes a luxurious rendition of “Two Lonely People” by the jazz genius Bill Evans with lyrics by Carol Hall, as well as a breathtaking song by (are you ready?) Walter and Jean Kerr called “I Never Know When to Say When” and a beautifully modulated “I’m in Love Again,” an obscure ballad by Cy Coleman and Peggy Lee.

Sara Zahn, a familiar voice on commercial jingles and one of cabaret’s least appreciated but most talented divas, celebrates the brilliance and wit of the late lyricist Carolyn Leigh on Witchcraft (Harbinger Records). One of the most seriously gifted wordsmiths of modern American musical theater, Ms. Leigh is most famous for the Broadway scores she wrote with Cy Coleman, but this eye-opening concert includes nine songs never before released, such as the colossal “Sooner or Later” with music by Lee Pockriss from a never-produced musical version of The Great Gatsby .

Hearing “When Jeremiah Can Be With Me,” “Ellenville,” “Smart People Stay Single” and other distillations of the human condition provides one revelation after another into the insight and sensitivity of a songwriter who is now more highly regarded in the musical field than she was in her own day. Ms. Zahn has the range and musical savvy to do full justice to these poignant, flavorful and eclectic songs. Even the familiar Carolyn Leigh staples like “Young at Heart,” “Witchcraft” and “You Fascinate Me So” take on new subtlety and panache in her capable hands. In a world of drab pastel singers, she’s all 15 shades of red in a box of 96 Crayolas.