Ready or not, the Christmas season is upon you, and the tacky tradition of maxing out your Visa card to make someone happy is right behind. O.K., so you can’t afford a Lexus. Judith Lieber, Hermès and Gucci all wear out in time. Practical gifts are boring, and subtle incentives to improve the body of the one you love that come from the Sharper Image and can’t be assembled without the aid of an M.I.T. graduate student sort of defeat the purpose. Dictionaries and diet books are insulting, technology is cold and impersonal, cashmere is nice but the sizes rarely fit, and nobody-I said nobody -wants another fruitcake. In a year of global terror and economic calamity, one thing that is easy on the pocketbook and never fails to please is music. It makes you feel good and lasts forever. Here is a current list of suggestions to keep you warm and humming long after the tree has been carted away by the sanitation department.
Patti Austin’s sensational For Ella (Concord) is the vocal event of the year. It’s amazing how many generations of girl singers have been influenced by the perfect purity, timing, lyricism and phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald, and the durable and constantly surprising Ms. Austin is the newest to record an entire CD devoted to the legendary “First Lady of Song.” This expensive-sounding big-band valentine with over 40 musicians was recorded in Germany to keep the overhead down; in an American recording studio under union rules a band the size of the one you get on this CD would be cost-prohibitive. The result is a rich, swinging, fractious affair that will knock you right out of your platform heels. Eleven cuts showcase a versatile and vocally supersonic singer’s own unique spin on songs associated with Ella’s career, and the 12th is a smashing new composition called “Hearing Ella Sing” with words by Arthur Hamilton, who wrote “Cry Me a River” and “Rain Sometimes,” and music by one of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers, the great Patrick Williams, who also conducted the sessions and provided all of the solid charts. From jewels such as “Mr. Paganini” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” to a soulful gospel rendition of “Miss Otis Regrets” unlike anything Cole Porter ever heard in his lifetime, to lush ballads like “But Not for Me” and “The Man I Love” cradled in a hammock of cellos, violas and strings, Ms. Austin explores every dimension of her colossal talent, yet never loses track of Ella’s commitment to purity. On “How High the Moon” she defies credulity by re-creating Ella’s original vocal tracks, note for note, scat for scat, in what sounds like a masterpiece of jazz improvisation, but in reality is a challenge that can only be accomplished by a supremely gifted musical prodigy. Patti Austin has been around so long, digressing in recent years from her jazz roots to so much pop-rock and rhythm and blues, that I had forgotten all about her. It’s great to see her crown restored. For Ella is a glittering homage to an invincible artist of yesterday by a great contemporary stylist at the top of her form that honors them both. Ella would love it, and so will you.
Rosemary Clooney: The Last Concert (Concord) says it all. This is the final legacy of one of the most beloved singers in history, recorded “live” with the Honolulu Symphony shortly after the life-altering events of 9/11. As cherished as many of her albums have been, this is the one that best captures the special mixture of “in person” warmth, humor, spirit and heart you could only experience when you saw Rosie on a stage, surrounded by ace musicians and loving fans. Any stage, large or small, it didn’t matter. The chemistry between her singing and the legions of people who came to hear her was a rare feeling few performers know. It’s all here-the salty Irish charm, the sincere phrasing, the intimacy of the patter, the perfection of the musical timing. “You Go to My Head” is mesmerizing, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” swings like never before, and “The Singer,” her special tribute to Sinatra, has a strangely moving effect, as though Ol’ Blue Eyes actually had a tender side hidden beneath his swagger and fame. The highlight is the rousing finale. It’s Rosie’s first-ever recording of Irving Berlin’s deeply patriotic “God Bless America” that brings her audience to their feet, singing along with the 80-piece orchestra with a passion that is anything but sentimental. It was added at the last minute to honor the victims, heroes and survivors of 9/11, but in an overwhelming way it salutes the memory of Rosie herself. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, God put some terrific people on this earth, and one of them was Rosemary Clooney. The Last Concert is the best goodbye imaginable. Buy this one and weep, for all the right reasons.
As an eternal Sarah Vaughan fanatic, the gift I’d most like to receive this year is The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions (Mosaic), an extravagant boxed set of eight CD’s containing the complete collection of every album recorded by the Divine Sass on the now-defunct Roulette label from 1960 to 1963. In this productive phase of her career as a monolithic jazz star (she died in 1990) she turned out 13 albums with Count Basie, Benny Carter, Billy May, Don Costa, Quincy Jones, Mundell Lowe, Lalo Schifrin, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Joe Williams and many others of legendary stature. Every single recording (184 songs!) is included in this collection, along with photographs, personnel and discography information, and gossipy liner notes about each session. No serious music lover should pass this one by, but remember, it’s a limited edition of 5,000 boxes, so don’t wait until next year to buy. By then, it will be history. Possibly the most exciting retrospective release of the year, and a collector’s dream.
Rain Sometimes by Pinky Winters (Cellar Door Records). Though not widely known to record buyers, Pinky Winters is a West Coast jazz icon whose dusky voice, exquisite taste, elegant phrasing and slavish dedication to songs that are off the beaten track make her worthy of more ardent investigation. Sensitively accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett, she has a mastery of subtle understatement reminiscent of those 4 a.m. sessions with Jeri Southern and Irene Kral that have become classics. The needlepoint she stitches from musical patterns by Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Dave Frishberg, Johnny Mandel, Leiber and Stoller, and Rodgers and Hart, should be savored with candlelight and 40-year-old brandy, but I promise you she’s just as magical with a flashlight and Snapple. Highlights include wistful readings of Anthony Newley’s “There’s No Such Thing as Love” and Moose Charlap’s “Here I Am in Love Again.” A soft, reflective collection by an underrated “singer’s singer” whose reputation is more than justified.
A Wonderful World by Tony Bennett and k.d. lang (Columbia). Tony seems stuck in a groove, sharing his mike with others. Last year’s Playin’ with My Friends found him woefully mismatched with a few “friends” who could scarcely carry a tune. (His duet with Sheryl Crow still gives me a migraine.) This Christmas his new playmate is k.d. lang, whose haunting timbre and easy syncopation are a perfect counterpart to Mr. B’s traditionally laid-back swing. With Lee Musiker’s piano, dreamy sax interludes by guest star Scott Hamilton, and the last creamy string arrangements ever penned by the late, great Peter Matz, this is something of a treasured event. The growth of k.d. lang from pop singer to sophisticated jazz stylist has been one of the more joyous benefits the music scene has provided in recent years. Tony Bennett brings out the best in her. Thrilling to her bouncy, lyrical and uncannily hip phrasing on “You Can Depend on Me,” or those two Louis Armstrong staples, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “What a Wonderful World,” I’m convinced she would have, in a gentler age, made a sublime band singer for Tommy Dorsey or Harry James.
Several younger members of cabaret royalty are offering their own stocking stuffers. In addition to his delightful pre-Christmas show at the Regency, Michael Feinstein has two new CD’s on the market. One of the very few performers in show business who owns his own label, he has an inaugural release on Feinery called The Livingston and Evans Songbook . Known in the trade as Ray and Jay, this team’s prolific output includes movie songs for Bob Hope and Betty Hutton as well as slow-burn ballads like “Never Let Me Go.” Michael has an obvious affection for them all and tackles 23 of them here, from cornball fluff (“Tammy,” “Buttons and Bows” and the themes from Bonanza and Mr. Ed -I kid you not!) to a really smoldering ballad called “The Late Scene” that needs to be rescued from obscurity and added to every discerning singer’s nightclub act. By contrast, Michael Feinstein with the Israel Philharmonic (Concord) is a buttery symphonic collection of 12 romantic ballads literally swooning with strings. The lush arrangements by pianist-conductor Alan Broadbent are uncharacteristically vanilla, and no man should ever sing “Stormy Weather,” but Michael’s lustrous delivery of Jerry Herman’s “I Won’t Send Roses” is as good as it gets.
In the Sun (N-Coded Music) finds Jane Monheit, the wannabe jazz vocalist with Mae West cleavage and 20 pounds of hair, still bogged down in the learning process. The repertoire is a mixed bag, and the girl can’t swing, but the creamsicle arrangement of “Haunted Heart” is a stunner.
James Naughton’s It’s About Time (DRG) turns the center spot on the hunky actor-director with the matinee-idol looks. His crooning baritone is sometimes so mannered he sounds like Rudy Vallee with a megaphone, but on comedy songs with tempo, like “Makin’ Whoopee” and the tongue-twisting “Stress,” his musical prowess and undeniable acting skills meld dynamically. A terrific seven-man band led by Rosie Clooney’s longtime pianist John Oddo punches everything up a notch with vocal choruses and instrumental solos. What’s missing is the humorous body language. Despite the colorful liner notes by Paul Newman, I still think Mr. Naughton is better onstage, in clubs like the Café Carlyle.
This Christmas by Ann Hampton Callaway (After 9). I’m not partial to Christmas songs, but when this vibrant, versatile jazz diva sings of the holiday season, you can expect something wonderful and just a little bit different. It wouldn’t be festive without the standards, but Ann’s renditions of “Jingle Bells,” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” add extra egg to the nog and three gorgeous new originals penned by the singer herself -“Manhattan in December,” “God Bless My Family” and the title tune (dreamily arranged by the great pianist Alan Broadbent)-make this a special treat second only to a snowy Christmas Eve by the fire with the love of your life.
Two more: A Christmas Gift of Love by Barry Manilow (Columbia) is chock full of stunning arrangements by Ray Ellis, Jorge Calandrelli and the same Patrick Williams who blasted Patti Austin to unsurpassed glory on the For Ella CD I raved about earlier. Such an amalgamation of talent pays off for Mr. Manilow as well. He’s never sounded warmer, more relaxed or cloudless than on the sumptuously mounted “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The big surprise is a rousing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” inspired by the original Bing Crosby recording with the Andrews Sisters, that must be heard to be believed. Visions of sugarplums abound throughout, but there’s unexpected spice along with the requisite sugar.
Johnny Mathis’ The Christmas Album (Columbia) is, by contrast, a bit corny for my taste. In his first holiday album in many years, his crooning vibrato melts icicles on Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s romantic “A Christmas Love Song,” but honestly, can you stand another “Frosty the Snowman”?