Everyone is rethinking Christmas. God knows, this is the year to do it. Instead of mauling the malls, a lot of people I know are donating to charities (the women and children of Afghanistan is a current favorite), practically nobody is sending greeting cards through the already traumatized postal system, and who needs another fruitcake? This year I’m giving nothing but music. When faith, fear and financial insecurity replace retail rampage, music is the only thing that eases pain, reduces tension, fits every budget and lasts forever. Here’s a Christmas list of some of the CD’s you might want to consider.
Christmas Memories (Columbia), Barbra Streisand’s first holiday collection in 34 years, is a staggering accomplishment. Too many strings in spots, and I could do without another adenoidal “Ave Maria,” but mostly a gorgeous collage of new and old, with some real surprises. Except for a beautifully rendered “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Babs eschews the corny dog-eared carols and concentrates on unexpected material from composers like Frank Loesser, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel, Don Costa, Ann Hampton Callaway and David Foster that is fresh, moving and just a little bit different. Stephen Sondheim wrote a brand-new verse for “I Remember” that gives the refrain more of a connection to the season, and I cannot recall Babs in better voice. She hangs looser on this CD, bending notes like a jazz singer, with flawless intonation and less tension than usual. This is the sound of a woman in love and at peace-with herself, if not the world.
The killer number: “One God” by the great Ervin (“Good Morning Heartache”) Drake. We can’t help but be touched by those moments when we become part of history ourselves, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, love and compassion for all-regardless of what we call the God we worship-is what “One God” reflects. Exquisitely recorded, breathtakingly arranged, this is a song for all ages, regardless of race or religion, and this is a CD to play again and again, for ages to come.
Playing with My Friends (Columbia) is Tony Bennett’s collection of blues duets with the likes of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, K.D. Lang, Billy Joel and others. The mixed-bag result is rather like Pavarotti at the Grand Ole Opry. Most of his co-stars are not up to Mr. B.’s level in quality, feeling or capability, and a few are downright dreadful. Another dreary, intonationally impaired vocal by the overrated Diana Krall on “Alright, Okay, You Win” is a big mistake, and Sheryl Crow, who can scarcely carry a tune at all, massacres “Good Morning Heartache.” It comes as no surprise that the best tracks are by the real blues experts like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and the indefatigable Kay Starr. The last cut is the title tune, featuring everybody in a free-for-all that finally finds some musical balance. Tony Bennett, of course, swings consistently throughout, but remains better doing it alone.
Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia is a serious collector’s dream-a 10-CD boxed set containing every recording made by the Queen of Jazz from 1933 to 1944, with accompaniment by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and just about every jazz legend you’ve ever heard of. Digitally remastered for perfect sound, these cuts represent not only her finest work, but American jazz and pop singing at its zenith.
Something Cool (Capitol) is a reissue of the historic 1953 June Christy album that changed my life in high school. It was such a sensation in its initial release that it was rerecorded in stereo and released all over again in 1960, when I dragged it off to college. By popular demand, this new CD contains, for the first time, both complete albums by Stan Kenton’s most popular vocalist from the “cool school.” The original collection that revolutionized sales for jazz vocals has been out of circulation for years, and it is still the best. The second time around, the lush, smoky voice of “The Misty Miss Christy” was less misty, more forced and frayed around the edges. It’s great to finally have both, digitally remastered for perfect sound in one smart package. The title tune is a masterpiece of phrasing, and Christy’s arrangement of “Midnight Sun” is still the definitive version.
Keep those reissues coming. Crystal-clear rereleases by George Shearing, Polly Bergen, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee and other musical Hall of Famers are flying off the shelves. Rhino Records has refurbished the dynamic Mel Tormé–Frances Faye–Duke Ellington Porgy and Bess . My all-time favorite Christmas CD by the Manhattan Transfer (Columbia) is back in circulation and more fabulous than ever. Verve has just released a batch of goodies for Christmas stocking stuffers, including the two-CD Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook -26 cuts, including alternate takes, brilliantly arranged and conducted by Billy May. Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green , out of print for four decades, is back in circulation, featuring the feathery voice and metronome piano timing of this national treasure on 10 songs by one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s most enduring songwriting teams. “I Like Myself,” co-written with Andre Previn and originally performed by Gene Kelly on roller skates, is taken at a lazy, languid tempo that is positively captivating.
Meanwhile, the Collectables label has juiced up three classics that have been gathering dust on most music lovers’ bookshelves in their old, scratchy LP jackets. Both of the legendary 1968 and 1969 Town Hall concerts by Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short have been combined on one two-CD set, while The Art of Mabel Mercer , the original album that influenced and shaped generations of singers through the years, is at last available on CD for the first time. Also on the Collectables label is Lovingly , the greatest album ever made by the equally legendary Sylvia Syms. In addition to heart-stopping renditions of “Lonely Woman,” “I’m the Girl” and Noël Coward’s “I’ll See You Again,” this is the one with “Pink Taffeta Sample Size,” rescued by Sylvia after it was deleted from Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ score for Sweet Charity , and turned into one of her signature songs. Requested by her fans until the day she died, this is her only recording of it. Any music collector who doesn’t own these three classics by Mabel, Bobby and Sylvia is seriously poor in life.
Younger royalty from the cabaret kingdom is offering a savory variety of holiday sugarplums from the American songbook. A Rare Find (LML Music) is a catchy debut CD by a hip piano-playing Chicago saloon singer named Justin Hayford that concentrates on forgotten gems by Roger Edens, Frank Loesser, Burke and Van Heusen, Bobby Troup, Steve Allen and others. Most of them are new to me, and a few of them are too second-rate for such a talented guy to waste his chops on. But the pathos, the whiskey edge and the warm vibrato he brings to an exquisitely phrased “When Bert’s Not Here” (one of the seldom-heard Joe Raposo songs from Sesame Street ) convinces me he should be heard more often, especially on ballads, and hopefully right here in New York, where this kind of singing counts.
Liza Minnelli: Ultimate Collection (Hip-O Records) gives the superstar’s cult 21 reasons to rejoice in a first-ever career overview that runs the gamut from early studio dates at age 18 right up to “New York, New York” and pop experiments with the Pet Shop Boys.
On the new Jerome label, cabaret prince Jeff Harnar’s buoyant baritone is fully charged on a celebration of Sammy Cahn songs that includes many hits and one sublime obscurity written for Doris Day’s early career, “Blame My Absent-Minded Heart,” that should become a regular staple in any serious cabaret singer’s repertoire.
It’s positively amazing how many enduring songs were written for Bob Hope. On Thanks for the Memory (Audiophile), the hot piano and soft crooning of Ronny Whyte revisits 15 tunes introduced by Ski Nose and penned by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael and others. Mixing old faithfuls like “Buttons and Bows” and “I Can’t Get Started” with lost jewels like “Love Me As I Am” (from the 1941 film Caught in the Draft ) and “How’dja Like to Love Me?” (from 1938′s happily forgotten College Swing with Martha Raye), Mr. Whyte plays swell chords, varies tempos and welcomes guest chirps like Joyce Breach, Barbara Lea, Marlene Ver Planck and Daryl Sherman. He’s been doing his homework. He plays better piano every time I hear him, and his voice is smooth as Jell-O.
Last but not least, there is Christopher Gines, a creamy new crooner from the timeless Mel Tormé–Jack Jones–Johnny Hartman–Dick Haymes school of class, sophistication and craftsmanship, whose gorgeous new CD, The Way It Goes (Miranda), is a revelation. A recent alumnus of the off-Broadway revue Our Sinatra , Mr. Gines flies solo with the most enviable ease on 15 of the most beautiful songs ever compiled for one collection. The focus is on unhackneyed compositions by writers who came along after the golden era of Kern, Porter, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart, but created the same brand of Tiffany-quality material. “Here I Go Again” by Cy Coleman and Tommy Wolf, “There’s No Such Thing as Love” by Anthony Newley and Ian Fraser, and “Sorry-Grateful” by Stephen Sondheim are prime examples of the sensitivity and intelligence at work here. Add a pinch of Jule Styne, a thimble of Kander and Ebb, and a soupçon of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Jerry Herman, David Shire and John Wallowtich, and the thrill will inspire you to play the whole thing over again. Mr. Gines is a Wunderkind , an endangered species. He’s too young to know all this stuff, but what a treat to add him to the top of the Favorite Male Singers list. Mr. Gines is to starved fans of this kind of in-the-groove singing what an electric blanket is to cold toes in winter.
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