In a musical world of declining values, where even jazz and cabaret singers are disposable, songs are contrived and so-called “stylists” grow more dispensable every day, I’m glad there is Sue Raney. This sophisticated, supernaturally gifted California-based singer and vocal coach has developed a cult following that spans several decades of studio recordings and appearances in clubs and concert halls. But like most great singers, she gets harder to find all the time, both on CD and in person. That’s why a new Sue Raney recording (I still call them “albums”) is such a cause for rejoicing. Heart’s Desire (Fresh Sound), her first CD in nine years, is a 14-track tribute to Sue’s idol, the legendary Doris Day. It’s a genuine masterpiece no serious fan of the Great American Songbook can afford to miss.
One great singer’s homage to another is not a new idea, but few have conceived a project this ambitious with so much imagination and originality. The concept was to honor a cross section of the familiar songs that made Doris one of the most popular and enduring movie stars of all time without a single acting lesson. But what makes Heart’s Desire unique is Sue Raney’s ability to transform each tune into a work that sounds brand new. The material runs the gamut from creamy ballads like “My Dream is Yours” and “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” to novelty songs like “Shanghai” and “Put ’Em in a Box, Tie ’Em with a Ribbon,” but without exception they feel and sound like things you might hear between “takes” on other singers’ albums—not the canned, antiseptic perfection of contemporary arrangements. The rapturous beauty of Ms. Raney’s voice, laced with humor, is sheer magic, but she also reaches across spaces to find fresh subtexts, and touches you emotionally on her journey. The result is a collection of familiar songs associated with Doris Day that do not sound cobbled from anyone else’s golden oldies. Example: “Que Sera, Sera,” a throwaway tune I never wanted to hear again, raised an eyebrow when I saw it listed as the first cut on the CD. But when I heard jazz pianist-arranger-conductor Alan Broadbent’s lush string arrangement for the first time, I was so devastated I had to play it five times in a row. Taking this tired old workhorse at a breathy, wistful pace worthy of Shirley Horn, Sue convinces you that you are hearing it for the very first time. Similar truths and revelations await on Broadbent’s gorgeous charts for “It’s Magic,” “With a Song in My Heart” and yes, even the awful “Everybody Loves a Lover,” which shimmers with a hip, humorous salsa beat. In every song, Sue’s velvety voice finds new inflections, new emotions and new tempos to rescue the repertoire from the encroachment of nostalgia. The title tune, by Broadbent and Dave Frishberg, has nothing to do with Doris Day, but personifies the unifying themes and dreams behind the entire project. It’s worth noting the special patina of inescapable irony rubbed across the musical landscape of this exquisite accomplishment: It was recorded in the same Capitol Records studio that was once home to Sinatra, Kenton, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, June Christy and others; it’s where Sue made her first recordings with Nelson Riddle and Billy May 50 years ago, when she was 17. Passing seasons have kissed her forehead. At a time when most girl singers under 30 sound exactly alike, her voice is stronger, better, more luxurious and exhilarating than ever. She’s collected enough rave reviews through the years to paper an airplane hangar, and she’s no stranger to the standing ovations and obsessive adulation of her own admirers, but in the songs of Doris Day she has found true inspiration. That glorious voice, rising and falling in crescendos of perfectly modulated harmonic patterns, clear and elegant as baccarat, never wears thin or weary around the edges. She’s the vocal equivalent of a pointillist painting, hitting vowels and consonants in the center of the notes, making thrilling little points until all the dots come together in a total melodic canvas. Doris Day songs bring out a Cinderella quality in her singing that blends innocence and girlish wonder with the timbre and resonance of a seasoned artist. Broadbent’s lavish symphonic arrangements provide new places in which her abundant voice may nestle. No plan. No pyrotechnics. No lousy rock and roll. No (God love her) Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’s in a class by herself, and if the people who book New York nightclubs weren’t so stupid and myopic, we could enjoy her special brand of alchemy in person instead of endless exposure to toneless hacks like Stacey Kent and Maude Maggart.
Meanwhile, be grateful for crumbs. The world is so cacophonous and overwhelming that it’s a challenge to persuade people to sit down and listen to eloquence. But if you’re a student of the old school of sublime singers like Sue Raney and your brain needs musical oxygen, or if you’re unlucky to be under 20 and don’t know who Doris Day is, then buy Heart’s Desire and die in ecstasy.