Musical question: Where are the next torchbearers for jazz, cabaret and theater classics from the Great American Songbook coming from? Easy to ask, difficult to answer. I look around and wince when I see or hear overpraised, overbooked and overexposed frauds like Michael Buble, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., Stacey Kent, Maude Maggart and the dreadful Rufus Wainwright raking in money and publicity that should, by the pure gauge of real talent, go to more deserving singers like Sue Raney, Kurt Reichenbach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Claire Martin and Carol Sloane. (I’m still on the fence about Jane Monheit, who plays with her hair and performs more with her cleavage than her voice.) I bring all of this up merely as a prelude to my enthusiasm for a hip, dreamy, mellow, musically versatile and impossibly camera-ready young star on the rise named Jack Donahue.
A Small Blue Thing, his third CD—new, self-produced on his own Two Maples Music label and flying off the shelves since its release a few weeks ago—is a sharp mix of standards by the legends (Cole Porter, Alec Wilder, Johnny Mandel, Matt Dennis) and new pop-oriented tunes by contemporary songwriters with better-than-average sensibilities. They vary in quality, and there are a few songs among the 13 cuts on this collection that signify a waste of time for an extraordinary talent at the top of his game like Mr. Donahue. But regardless of my personal tastes and/or the musical sophistication of the material, the singer is fresh and captivating, and his lyrical interpretations and phrasing are astoundingly imaginative. I have played this CD about 20 times in a row and I am haunted by what I’m hearing.
I doubt if I will find another song as rapturously melodic and heart-stoppingly thrilling as “Minds of Their Own” for a long time to come. I shouldn’t wonder. The composer is the Brazilian genius Ivan Lins. But the complex melody and shimmering lines of subtle bossa nova, enhanced by the intelligent English-language lyrics of Peter Eldridge and the throbbing piano chords of ace jazz wizard Fred Hersch, make this the most stunning discovery since I heard Billy Strayhorn’s “Bittersweet” on Nancy Marano’s last CD. The only other recording I know of is by Nancy Wilson, but Mr. Donahue wears it like a birthmark. Buy the CD and skip to track four if you want to cut to the chase of why Jack Donahue is worthy of so much serious attention.
One minute he exudes the sunny simplicity of boyish sweetness, like a Yale Whiffenpoof. In the next breath, he shifts with ease to the dark, shadowy detours of improvised jazz meters. At all times, he has the chops and the emotional sensitivity to move, when you least expect him to, from doomed preppy to sexy, testosterone-infused lounge lizard. Unlike a lot of his overwrought peers, he exhibits no smoldering protectiveness toward ballads. On the best arrangement of Alec Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around” since the iconic recording by Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, the burnished bruise in his lower notes is underscored with the slightest hint of a trembling vibrato, and he’s certainly the first man I’ve ever heard with the balls to tackle the torture Peggy Lee made famous on one of her signature songs, “Black Coffee.” Purists who crave the definitive lyrical interpretation of “The Night We Called It a Day” by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair (who also wrote “Angel Eyes”) will have to return to June Christy’s historic Something Cool album. This mistakenly up-tempo version is too scattered for my taste, and I’m not mad about Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town” in a swing-era frame of mind. But the pure, out-of-this-world depth of Mr. Donahue’s singing on the gorgeous Johnny Mandel classic “A Time for Love” has a rangy smoothness Mel Tormé would envy. An almost embarrassing through-the-keyhole intimacy prevails throughout. Avoided at all times is the superficial posturing reserved for singers who always perform everything the same way. There is nothing routine about anything Mr. Donahue does, and the talented band and eclectic arrangements by Randy Ingram serve his mood swings well. Following expert (albeit expensive) advice, he has paid for this collection out of his own pocket. It might therefore be a music lover’s challenge to find, but you can purchase it digitally from iTunes, CDBaby.com and on the singer’s own Web site, www.jackdonahue.com. Trust me. The extra effort pays musical dividends you won’t soon forget.
Some critics have labeled Jack Donahue a tenor, but on ballads his passion for restraint is reflected in a husky, appealing baritone. On his own introspective composition, “Busy Being Blue,” he demonstrates a solid writing talent too. One caveat: The least effective song on A Small Blue Thing, which is also both the title tune and the first thing you hear on the collection, is a slow-drip IV of an “art” song by Suzanne Vega that sets the wrong tone for what’s to come, with curious lyrics that make no sense at all. Ideally, the opening song on any singer’s CD should lure the listener into both the voice and music with instant ecstasy. On this CD, you have to wade through three disappointing experiments bordering on beatnik poetry and New Wave narcissism before you surrender completely to the lush Lins song on track four, but this much I promise: Hang in there and listen carefully, and you will feel his heart. Jack Donahue reminds me of a nice, moisturized all-American college grad who studied philosophy and literature, but prefers absinthe and opium dens.