In a septic-tank culture, it’s downright encouraging to see so much good music fighting to survive. Surrounded by gutter punk, rap, funk, acid rock and the rest of the garbage that passes itself off as music in an age of mohawks, body piercings, tattoos, anarchy, violence, anger and aggression, you almost feel you’ve died and gone to heaven when you hear the songs of Porter, Berlin and the Gershwins. At a dozen outdoor celebrations I’ve attended this summer, from the Berkshires to the Hamptons, I haven’t heard one fusion band, but I have reveled in the peaceful sounds of newly released CD’s by such old favorites as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and June Christy, and reissues of Polly Bergen’s songs from The Helen Morgan Story and the complete Judy Garland Carnegie Hall concert.
Some of this music is being released by indie labels on the rise, started by musicians, sound engineers and music lovers who begin by licking envelopes in their apartments and then market their passion for good music through mail orders and on the Internet. Compilation CD’s featuring everything from Bach to Brubeck are replacing chocolates on hotel room pillows. In a time of rage, confusion and stress, sane people want music that soothes. The result is a rich smorgasbord of listening treasures worth sharing to get you through the humidity ahead.
On top of the recommended list is Ann Hampton Callaway’s gorgeous new CD Easy Living (After 9/Sin-drome), which finds the multitalented star of Broadway’s retro hit Swing! in a relaxed, after-hours-jam-session kind of mood. What a pleasure it is to hear a genuine artist at the top of her form, and this lady leaves no mood unexplored, from the hot licks of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” to the navy blue cool of jazz classics like “Round Midnight” and “Skylark.” Hers is a happening kind of voice with an awesome range, swooping and whirling in tempo on the swinging numbers, then curdling with sadness within the arc of a ballad, always in perfect pitch and full of surprises. Jazz greats Wynton Marsalis, Benny Green, Kenny Barron and Bill Charlap are just a few of the guest artists, and the 13 cuts on Easy Living capture them on the first take, without the editing or dubbing techniques often used to correct mistakes and perfect flaws. The result is, amazingly, perfection without technology, and one of the best CD’s of the year.
Eric Comstock, the engaging centerpiece of the popular off-Broadway musical Our Sinatra , celebrates the ageless wit and soigné wisdom of Lorenz Hart on All Hart (After 9/Sin-drome), bringing boyish enthusiasm and heartbreaking sweetness to 16 of the lyricist’s best songs, including a few that are new even to me. Knowing what we do today of this innovational genius, it’s interesting to see how much of Hart’s personal feelings shine through his lyrics. “I Like to Recognize the Tune” becomes a lament for the grim direction in which music was heading even in the 1940’s, while “This Funny World” becomes a soul-searching primer for survival in a cruel and heartless society.
Hart was diminutive, lonely, manic-depressive before psychoanalysts coined the phrase, and openly gay at a time when it wasn’t prudent to admit it. He and his writing partner Richard Rodgers gave the world some of its most rollickingly clever “happy” songs, and Mr. Comstock even unveils some rarely heard lyrics to “Mountain Greenery.” But it’s in the rueful in-your-cups 4 a.m. last-call ballads that the bitter heart of a man rejected by love truly emerges. Most people think of the boring “My Funny Valentine” as the definitive Larry Hart lyric, but Mr. Comstock has resurrected a rarely performed stunner called “What’s the Use?” that may reduce you to tears.
For traditionalists, the familiar tunes are assembled here in bright array: “It Never Entered My Mind,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “Falling in Love with Love” and “With a Song in My Heart” are not only dusted off, but vocally refurbished with a brand new sensibility in this superb recital. The heart and voice of Mr. Comstock, a rising star who combines the innocence of a choirboy with the suavity of a saloon veteran, is beautifully showcased in the songs of a lyricist who seems to reflect his own taste and sensitivity. The combination reminds me of a musical Archie Andrews on steroids, but immensely likable.
From San Francisco, Bobbe Norris, a polished sophisticate from the 1960’s who grew disenchanted with the music scene during the rock revolution and stopped recording in 1970, blossoms again, triumphantly, on her new “comeback” CD Out of Nowhere (Four Directions Records). Teaming up with her husband, the accomplished jazz pianist Larry Dunlap, Ms. Norris uses her smoky voice with its dulcimer tones to deliver an eclectic set of 14 tunes that are thrilling to hear. She has always been a class act with a first-rate taste in music, and on unhackneyed songs by Jule Styne, Ivan Lins, Harold Arlen, Matt Dennis and Irving Berlin, she proves she can still spread it around. “Love Turns Winter to Spring,” a golden oldie from the Four Freshmen days, and the haunting “This Life We’ve Led,” by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, who penned “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” are highlights, and the dazzling jazz vocalist Mark Murphy drops in for an inventive duet on the great movie theme, “Invitation.” Bobbe Norris has been away from the recording mikes too long; it’s reassuring to welcome her back in better voice than ever.
In If You Could See Me Now , her recent act at the Algonquin, and on her new CD of the same title (After 9), Julie Budd proves she’s no longer the little girl with the big voice from Erasmus High who used to dress like Glinda the Good Witch on her way to a prom night in Oz. Ditching the tiaras and the 40 yards of net for the glamour of black silk, she’s matured into a grown woman who can sing pop, swing and Broadway evergreens with a firm focus and a style very much her own. For the first time, she doesn’t remind me of another Brooklyn diva with whom she has often been rudely compared. No longer a talented teenager, Ms. Budd has budded. Nice to hear Johnny Mercer’s plaintive lyrics on “When October Goes,” with music added posthumously by Barry Manilow, as well as the electrifying Sondheim anthem “Being Alive.” But it is on the Rodgers and Hammerstein aria “This Nearly Was Mine” that she really hits her stride. Her dream, she says, is to record an entire CD of Oscar Hammerstein songs, and the way she’s singing these days, I’d say the time is now.
Mathis on Broadway (Columbia) is the first album in years by Johnny Mathis, the crooner with the voice of melted fudge. The schmaltz on creepy songs from Jekyll & Hyde and The Lion King sticks to the craw like peanut butter, and guest appearances by Betty Buckley and Nell Carter are fingernails on a blackboard, but the still-boyish Mathis does manage a peppy “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” worth listening to twice. The rest of this syrupy debacle is too retro even for a fossil like me.
More to my taste is a series of collectibles on Audiophile, an indie label based in New Orleans, featuring such monumental artists as Mabel Mercer, Anita Ellis, Irene Kral, Mark Murphy, Chris Connor and Margaret Whiting. The newest Audiophile release, So Many Stars , features the incandescence of the great Jackie Cain, one of my all-time-favorite song stylists, singing 21 unforgettable songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jimmy Van Heusen, Tommy Wolf and Alec Wilder with the rarefied phrasing and perfect pitch of an angel. She usually performs as a duo with her husband Roy Kral, but this is a once-only chance to catch her soaring voice in solo flight. Grab it quick before it melts.
Movie nuts will rejoice in two new double-set collections from Rhino Records. Hollywood Swing & Jazz is a hot compilation of big band, vocal and combo numbers from MGM, Warner Brothers and RKO films, many of which have never been released before. Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Doris Day, Mel Tormé, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie and the King Sisters all clock in on this phenomenal collector’s item. For the first time anywhere, you can hear Dorothy Dandridge’s knockout vocal on “Taking a Chance on Love,” performed in a Van Johnson–June Allyson movie in the days when black entertainers were sandwiched between dialogue scenes in nightclub sequences inserted to pick up the pace and distract the viewer from the general malaise inherent in formulaic plots. Mixing cocktails, brightening up party background or working at the computer-any occasion works when you put this two-disc collection on and sing or hum yourself silly.
Another Rhino collection no movie lover should be without is The Lion’s Roar: Classic MGM Film Scores-1935-1965 , released in the spring of 1999. This invaluable treasury of soundtrack themes from 37 movies from the golden era includes first-time releases of the lush themes for The Women , The Good Earth , Random Harvest , I’ll Cry Tomorrow , The Prisoner of Zenda , The Clock and The Yearling , as well as digitally remastered stereo versions of the themes to Raintree County , The Bad and the Beautiful , Mutiny on the Bounty , Doctor Zhivago and Ben-Hur . It’s exciting to hear, for example, Andre Previn’s score for the Spencer Tracy classic Bad Day at Black Rock , which was once available only on a now-out-of-print Capitol album called Tone Poems of Color , conducted (but not sung) by Frank Sinatra! This crashing theme, with its overlapping brass rhythms signifying the speeding train that brought Tracy into the violent town of Black Rock, was used to denote the color red on the symphonic Sinatra release. Now it can be heard the way it was originally intended.
The two CD’s in this historic collection catapult you back to the years when movie themes were taken seriously and MGM employed geniuses such as Andre Previn, David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Bronislau Kaper, Miklós Rózsa, Johnny Green and Elmer Bernstein to write them into celluloid history. In careless times like these, this is the music that can get you through the danger zones without a helmet. It is certainly the mint that is getting me through the summer without a julep.