Cole Porter: Through Thick and Thin

Of all the great writers of American popular song, no one suits our sexually promiscuous but emotionally challenged age more than Cole Porter. Porter was the master of what Alec Wilder called “theatrical elegance.” His songs are witty, sometimes even passionate, but not romantic–sexually frank without a hint of sensuality. No one ever lost it to “Let’s Misbehave” or “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).”

Even in Porter’s serious ballads, love is rarely consummated. The object of desire is often distant, just beyond the subject’s reach, veiled by dreams (“All Through the Night”) or distance (“I Concentrate on You”). Perhaps the emotional reserve of Porter’s music grew from his inability, given the times, to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, or perhaps it was simply a mannerism of his aristocratic New York circle, a cultivated, urbane world-weariness.

Either way, the reticence in Porter’s work requires supremely robust performances to supply the emotional core. His songs don’t benefit from sweet or timid interpretations. Yet that is frequently what we get.

Many of his interpreters seem to think that in order to “do Porter right,” it’s necessary to capture the gaiety and whimsy of Porter’s social milieu. In fact, it’s the hard-nosed interpretations of Porter that really work.

Which brings us to the Indiana Historical Society’s You’re Sensational: Cole Porter in the ’20’s, ’40’s, & ’50’s , a three-CD follow up to Ridin’ High: Cole Porter in the 1930’s . Although this collection certainly has its moments, it unfortunately accentuates the effete Porter over the more emotionally piercing Porter.

The collection includes songs written during the years surrounding Porter’s most prolific and successful decade, the 1930’s. There’s a lot to choose from, both in terms of material and performances: everything from a 1919 recording of “Old-Fashioned Garden” by Olive Kline to a 1988 recording of “The Tale of the Oyster” by the singer Joan Morris and her Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-husband, William Bolcom.

Over half of the tunes are bona fide standards. There’s a lot of material from Porter’s most sustained musical score, Kiss Me Kate , including two regal Alfred Drake numbers, “Were Thine That Special Face” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”

But there’s also a lot of effete cocktail jazz, and You’re Sensational fizzles when it moves in this direction. “I’m in Love Again,” by pianist and singer Daryl Sherman, and “Looking at You,” by the duo Jackie and Roy, both suffer from a lack of moxie. There are worse: A version of “I Love You, Samantha” by a six-person a cappella group, the King’s Singers, is unbearable. Not far behind is the 1949

version of “I Love You” turned in by Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.

How a song like “Now You Has Jazz,” which pairs Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, made it into the collection is a mystery. Even as a piece of kitsch it fails. Porter, who knew nothing about jazz and was under instructions to compose a song about jazz, conducted research by attending concerts and talking with Fred Astaire. You can tell just how unsuccessful Porter’s research was when you hear Crosby’s introduction to the number: “Dear gentle folk of Newport, or maybe I should say, hats and cats …” Ugh.

One consequence of the collection’s editorial bent is that Mabel Mercer, the black English singer with the lavish and stately voice who is one of the première interpreters of Porter’s work, gets stuck with only one song, “Ace in the Hole.” It’s from her luminous album, Mabel Mercer Sings Cole Porter (WEA/Atlantic/Rhino), which anyone with even a passing interest in Porter or American popular song should have. Meanwhile, Crosby–not the bold Bing of the 1920’s but the hammy Buh-Buh-Bing of the 1950’s–and Fred Astaire get four songs apiece.

Still, there are a number of winners. One of them comes from Porter himself as he tackles “Two Little Babes in the Wood,” piano accompaniment and all. Be warned: You’ve never heard anyone sing quite like Cole Porter. And after hearing it, you may never want to again. It’s an acquired taste, but it works. Porter’s fancy voice and dainty piano playing underscore the creepiness of a song that, after all, is about a bearded old man who picks up two young girls in the forest, takes them to New York and gets them drunk.

There’s also a sexy 1928 version of “Don’t Look at Me that Way” by the Corsican cabaret singer Irene Bordoni. The pianist and singer Leslie Hutchinson, a friend of Porter’s and a precursor to Bobby Short (more on him later), does a highly stylized version of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” It’s successful principally because Hutchinson takes his “sophisticated” rendition all the way, cultivating world-weariness by not bothering to enunciate the do it ‘s of the song’s chorus.

Other high points include versions of “Let’s Misbehave” by Banjo Buddy; “Let’s Be Buddies” performed by Ethel Merman and Judy Garland in 1963, 23 years after they first premiered it in Panama Hattie ; and a delirious “Let’s Not Talk About Love” by Danny Kaye. Elaine Stritch draws all the longing out of “Why Don’t We Try Staying Home?” Lee Wiley captures the desperation of “Hot House Rose.” Mae Burns sounds like she might jump out of the speaker and slap you silly during a rambunctious version of “The Laziest Gal in Town.” These are the best moments, when the emotional remove inherent to Porter’s work is offset by gritty performances.

A lot of listeners will be satisfied simply hearing Porter’s gorgeous melodies sung by anyone who can carry a tune. But even the sublime melodic line of a track like “Dream Dancing” can’t overcome the lameness of the lyric “dream dancing, to paradise prancing” in the final verse. Then there’s Bobby Short, the Upper East Side cocktail-jazz impresario, tinkling a Fender Rhodes and backed by a 27-piece string section on a jazz samba rendition of “I Am in Love.”

I’ve actually heard people speak glowingly of Mr. Short as the exponent of an elevated form of cocktail jazz, but this does little to convince me of his talents (or perhaps more to the point, his taste). Porter wrote urbane, educated and witty songs for an urbane, educated and witty crowd. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that his songs would find their poets among the pianists and singers of cocktail society. It’s too bad, though. Porter always fared better on the other side of the tracks.

–William Berlind

Schneider: Duking It Out

Maria Schneider, a petite strawberry blonde from the Minnesota prairie, blew into New York in the mid-80’s with a master’s degree from the Eastman School and no jazz track record to speak of. In short order, she was serving as aide de camp for one of her musical idols, the arranger-composer Gil Evans. By the late 80’s, she had assembled her own big band from the crackerjack sidemen who are endemic to this city and, even more remarkably, she has been able to hold it together.

For a five-year stretch in the 90’s, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra was playing every Monday night at the now-defunct Visiones club. But things change. As Ms. Schneider’s profile has continued to rise with prestigious commissions and European concerts, she’s become a rarer commodity around town. Her upcoming gig at the Jazz Standard (Oct. 3-8) and her new album, Allégresse (Enja), only the third of her career, provide an opportunity to answer a question first posed by Rogers and Hammerstein: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

Well, not a problem exactly. But it is fair to say that Ms. Schneider is coming out of a symphonic jazz tradition that, outside of a fairly nerdy circle of jazz educators and European radio orchestra directors, doesn’t get all that much respect. Beginning with the hugely successful band leader and violinist Paul Whiteman, conventionally well-trained white musicians have been trying to make a lady out of jazz since the 20’s. As the simplified genealogy goes, the Whiteman Orchestra begat the Claude Thornhill band of the 40’s, which begat one renegade genius, Gil Evans, who would rescue the musical family name by teaming up with Miles Davis. Three exquisitely lyrical Evans-Davis collaborations from the late 50’s– Miles Ahead , Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain –helped transmute prissy symphonic jazz into “cool jazz,” and today they’re still the standard for jazz composers who choose to emphasize orchestral color and detail over sledgehammer sectional riffing.

Amazingly, Ms. Schneider’s 1992 debut effort, Evanescence (Enja), came close to meeting that standard. The debt to Evans was honorably discharged in the title composition dedicated to her late mentor, who died in 1988. The band’s sophomore disc three years later, Coming About (Enja), was a dodgier affair, despite the distinctive voices of tenor saxophonist Rich Perry and guitarist Ben Monder.

The first two cuts from the new album, Allégresse , did not make me feel any more optimistic. “Hang Gliding” is a measured outing that becomes less interesting the longer it stays aloft, and the band’s fine pianist, Frank Kimbrough, can’t purge the Chopin-derived “Nocturne” of its sacheted scent.

But enough with the negatives. Two Schneider pieces that form the album’s ample middle, “Allégresse” and “Dissolution,” are wonderful examples of inventive through-composition. “Dissolution,” nearly 21 minutes long and anchored by a long solo on that reliable treacle-dispenser, the soprano sax, didn’t seem especially promising on paper. But saxophonist Tim Ries assumes a fierce snake-charmer persona, undulating through a souk’s worth of elaborately arranged musical settings. On the album’s title track, we get the aural spectacle of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s intense post-bop solo framed by great elephantine wheezes from the reed section.

At her best, Ms. Schneider sheds that Eastman A-student persona completely, entering into an unpredictable jazz impressionism that suggests the noble lineage of Ellington and Strayhorn.

–Joseph Hooper

Osborne: Is Boring

Back when Joan Osborne was still riding the surprise success of “One of Us” from her 1995 album, Relish , she promised that her next record would be far better realized. Ms. Osborne, the only worthwhile exponent of the largely useless early 90’s blues-jam rock scene that produced the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler, has finally released that follow-up album, Righteous Love (Interscope)–and though she has kept her promise, the result is too safe by half.

The album’s producer, Mitchell Froom, who has twiddled knobs in the past for his ex-wife Suzanne Vega, as well as Elvis Costello and Cibo Matto, sounds like he’s spinning his wheels here . Relish ‘s tracks tend to be dressed in either tasteful but anemic roots-pop or Beatles-esque effects: a Leslie-speaker-fed guitar wash here, some Indian-music ambiance there.

Although this last technique bespeaks a lack of imagination on Mr. Froom’s part, it suits Ms. Osborne. Her one stylistic leap, evident on “If I Was Your Man” and “Running Out of Time,” is that she favors a Qawwali inflection in her singing. Imagine a huskier-voiced Eartha Kitt after an apprenticeship with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, with whom Ms. Osborne studied before his demise.

Elsewhere, she takes on cynical Staple Singers-style secular gospel (“Safety in Numbers,” “Angel Face”) and widescreen Phil Spector pop (the title cut). Throughout, she brings to mind the time-honored acknowledgment that has been uttered by a thousand crusty musicians: “That bitch can sing!”

But ultimately, that’s not enough. You proceed through Righteous Love taking note of the unimaginative song titles: “Baby Love,” “Grand Illusion” and every song I’ve mentioned to this point. You scratch your head over Ms. Osborne’s decision to record two songs–Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” and Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”–that have been covered ad nauseam. And, most of all, you keep waiting for something on the album to transport you.

Then, just when you least expect it, something does. “Poison Apples (Hallelujah)” should have been the final cut of Righteous Love instead of the penultimate one. It’s far more luminous than anything else on the album.

On it, Ms. Osborne sings like Karen Carpenter reborn, but with far more soul. Her cries of “Hallelujah!” are spellbinding, and she follows them up with the one truly affecting couplet of the record: “If I die before you do / Believe me, I’ll be haunting you.”

Righteous Love could have used a few more tracks as tremendous as “Poison Apples.” Without them, Ms. Osborne is going to have to take a back seat to this year’s adult-pop darling, Shelby Lynne, whose album I Am Shelby Lynne is the adult-pop record to top this year. And that’s too bad; I was rooting for Joan.

–Rob Kemp