Monday, October 23, 2006

Duets: An American Classic

When he recorded his two discs of duets, Frank Sinatra literally phoned his performances in and didn’t share the studio with the artists who were featured on the songs (hey, he was the Chairman of the Board and he could do that if he wanted to.) For his Duets album (a celebration of his 80th birthday), Tony Bennett insisted on sharing the studio with those who were coming to celebrate his music and the respect and playful camaraderie is apparent throughout the resulting disc.

The songs are from the breadth of Bennett’s amazing career with backing by Bennett’s quartet and (on some cuts) a tasteful big band. Bennett is in fine voice (it’s not as supple as it once was but it is still a wonder to hear) and his duet partners slip into the saloon singer vibe without sacrificing their own unique voices. (Well most of them do anyway, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion…on “Smile” and “If I Ruled the World”…both had a hard time damping down their diva-like flourishes.)

The Dixie Chicks are fun and loose on the opening “Lullaby of Broadway”, Stevie Wonder adds a nice harmonica solo along with his soulful vocals on “For Once in my Life”, Bono is wonderful on “I Wanna Be Around”, and Juanes is a fine match on a bi-lingual version of “The Shadow of Your Smile”.

Big names step up to share the mike with the old pro and do him and themselves proud: James Taylor (a sprightly “Put on a Happy Face”), Michael Buble (“Just in Time”), John Legend (a swinging “Sing You, Sinners”), Elton John (a marvelously loose and affectionate “Rags to Riches”), Paul McCartney (a bit mannered but still heartfelt “The Very Thought of You”), Elvis Costello (“Are We Havin’ Any Fun”), Sting (“The Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), and Tim McGraw (“Cold, Cold Heart”).

Especially noteworthy are songs done with Diana Krall (a frisky take on “The Best is Yet to Come”) and one of his favorite duet partners, K.D. Lang (a lovely “Because of You”.)

Tony takes a grand solo vocal (accompanied only by piano) on his legendary signature tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” before closing out the disc with a lovely and appropriate “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”, a duet with George Michael (who reminds us that, beneath the tabloid punch line he’s allowed himself to become, here is still an evocative singer.)

Duets: An American Classic is a fine tribute to (and showcase for) one of the best singers of our time…and a gift for fans of classic and classy vocalists everywhere.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Random Pop Culture List

In their new book, authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter have ranked The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, a listing of fictional characters they think have had the greatest impact on our lives here in the real world.

Their Top 10 includes:

1) The Marlboro Man (see above)
2) Big Brother

3) King Arthur

4) Santa Claus

5) Hamlet
6) Dr. Frankenstein's Monster
7) Siegfried
8) Sherlock Holmes
9) Romeo & Juliet
10) Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Among the other influential fictional characters on the list are: Jim Crow (#13), Don Quixote (#17), Rosie the Riveter (#28), Archie Bunker (#32), Prometheus (#46), Captain Kirk & Mister Spock (#50), Uncle Sam (#61), Superman (#64), King Kong (#74), Madame Butterfly (#89), Betty Boop (#96), and Paul Bunyan (#101).

I probably would have had Santa at the top of my list...and neither Charlie Brown nor Snoopy make the list at all (what's up with that???)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chuck Berry

Happy 80th Birthday to one of the undisputed kings of Rock & Roll!

I'm gonna write a little letter,
gonna mail it to my local DJ.
It's a rockin' rhythm record
I want my jockey to play.
Roll Over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today.

You know, my temperature's risin'
and the jukebox blows a fuse.
My heart's beatin' rhythm
and my soul keeps on singin' the blues.
Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

I got the rockin' pneumonia,
I need a shot of rhythm and blues.
I think I'm rollin' arthiritis
sittin' down by the rhythm review.
Roll Over Beethoven rockin' in two by two.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Half the Perfect World/Blue Alert

Once you get past the Billie Holiday thing you’ll be fine. Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds…in timbre and delivery…a lot like Lady Day’s. It is not, I think, an affectation…it is, rather, just the way her sweet, husky, beguiling voice sounds and I’m more than cool with that.

As always her choice of material is eclectic and excellent and the arrangements she couches the songs in are soothing, rapturous, and mighty fine. Here she takes Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (a hit for Harry Nilsson) on a slow, loping stroll and she sails through a languid version of Johnny Mercer’s “The Summer Wind” with an aplomb that would have brought an appreciative nod from Frank Sinatra.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” is given shimmering new life in a lovely duet with K.D. Lang (featuring some amazing piano work by Sam Yahel) and the collection also includes fine versions of Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”.

The original songs, all co-written by Peyroux, more than hold their own with the covers…especially the impish “I’m All Right” (co-written with producer Larry Klein and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker), the delicate and wistful “Once in a While”, and the percolating “A Little Bit”.

Two of the songs on this collection…the lilting, melancholy title track and the softly soulful “Blue Alert”…were written by Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas for an album released earlier in the year (see below). Half the Perfect World is a lovely, jazzy, utterly engaging CD.

Anjani’s Blue Alert is a luminous collaboration with master songwriter Leonard Cohen (who produced the record.) Anjani was given access to some unfinished Cohen poems, journals, and lyrics and she completed them with the consent and aid of the master (Anjani, a singer-songwriter in her own right, has recorded and toured with Cohen…her ethereal and moving vocals were featured on his classic “Hallelujah”.)

You can’t help but hear Cohen’s distinctive voice in the phrasing and the moody poetic imagery of these songs but Anjani’s rich, buttery, soulfully torchy vocals still manage to take the forefront with grace and muted (but still powerful) passion. Where Peyroux is supported by a talented ensemble on her record, most of the tracks on Anjani’s disc are supported mostly by her own evocative piano (with a hint of baritone sax here and a bit of clarinet, steel guitar, and drums there and some delicately layered vocals here and there.)

In a better world, magical songs like the enchanting "Thanks for the Dance" would be in regular rotation on the radio...but it's not a better world (and more's the pity for that.)

Of the two songs shared by both discs: Anjani’s sweetly-earnest version of “Half the Perfect World” gets a slight edge over Peyroux’s version while Madeleine’s rhythmic “Blue Alert” get the slight edge on Anjani’s…but it’s all apples and oranges…you’re in wonderful musical company either way with either version...and, for that matter, with either of these lovely collections.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Ugly Betty

Ugly Betty (Thursdays at 8 PM on ABC) is a lovely little show. The charming America Ferrera’s Betty Suarez is smart, earnest, driven, forgiving, insecure, strong, vulnerable, and utterly engaging…and she is not, except by the shallow, myopic standards of the fashion industry she’s working in (and the equally myopic standards of the television world in which she exists), “ugly” at all (the gaudy grill of her braces…and her questionable fashion sense…notwithstanding J ).

Betty, an energetic and sunny girl from Queens, is willingly thrown into the shallow pool of haughty, self-absorbed fashionistas working at a high fashion magazine when the owner of the magazine forces his philandering son Daniel, the new editor, to take her as his assistant (Daniel has a habit of indulging trysts with his assistants…Dad figured he would keep his hands off the “unattractive” Betty.) Daniel is, at first, horrified to have Betty sitting outside his office representing him but he is quickly coming to realize that her wits and her bright personality are valuable assets (she has saved him from his own ineptitude more than once already.)

Ugly Betty is a lighthearted show and a lot of the characters are drawn in broad (almost cartoonish) strokes (Vanessa Williams, for example, seems to be channeling Cruella DeVil in her portrayal of the magazine’s creative director and alpha diva/bitch, Wilhelmina, who is fuming at having been passed over for the editor-in-chief job, and she’s deliciously over-the-top as she does do) but it is a note that, for the most part, works here. We know that, in the end, Betty’s innate goodness and intelligence will win out over the small, mean-spirited people looking down on her but it’s still almost impossible not to root for her…not to feel sad with her when she’s down…and not to smile and be warmed by her guileless, effortless humanity.

I’ve never seen Yo Soy Betty La Fea, the wildly-popular Columbian telenovela that is this show’s source material, but, judging by this delightful little show, I can see why the original would be so appealing and successful. I hope that Ugly Betty reaches towards those same heights here because it…along with Heroes…is one of the brightest and most entertaining new offerings of the 2006-07 network television season. (The most current episode is available for viewing online at the link in the first sentence above.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Still the Same...Great Rock Classics of Our Time

Let me start by saying that there’s nothing particularly egregious here…Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time is pleasant enough and goodness knows it’s all certainly more than familiar (I know I was singing along the first time I heard the CD)…but, that said, it’s all rather predictable and more than a little bland.

(We shall skip past the notion that the term “rock classic” is broad enough to include treacle such as Bread’s “Everything I Own” or John Waite’s “Missing You” without further comment.)

Stewart sounds more comfortable covering these rock era songs than he did croaking his way through the “Great American Songbook” on his last four discs but, that said, he really doesn’t bring anything new to the songs. If you’re going to cover songs as familiar as Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”, The Eagles’ “Best of my Love”, or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”, you should strive to bring something new to the table or don’t bother doing them at all (the originals, of course, being readily available to be enjoyed.)

Stewart has been an able interpreter of songs written by others, of course…Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”, Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, etc….and he could bring out unique nuances in his versions. Be here he just sings them in karaoke versions that are so much like (or, worse, so inferior to) the originals that they become instantly pointless to anyone other than a truly diehard Rod Stewart fan.

To be fair, Stewart’s take on Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” is rather poignant and there’s some emotional weight to his cover of “Love Hurts” but for the most part the record just sort of comes and goes without making much of an impression (other than, perhaps, to remind us of how amazing “I’ll Stand by You” sounds when sung by Chrissie Hynde or what a grand a pop song “Day After Day” is when done by Badfinger.)

Still the Same indeed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Givin' it Up

The veteran “smooth jazz” masters join forces on this entertaining little disc (which features some help from some of their friends along the way.) Jarreau is in fine voice throughout and Benson’s nimble, tasteful guitar provides a tuneful foundation for every cut.

Givin' it Up opens with Jarreau adding lyrics to a jaunty version of Benson’s “Breezin’” and Benson returning the favor with a tasty mostly instrumental version (“mostly instrumental” because Jarreau adds some restrained but effective vocalese to the proceedings on this cut) of Jarreau’s hit “Mornin’”.

The duo stretches out with vocal versions of a couple of tunes taken from the Miles Davis songbook: “Tutu” featuring some sweet fretwork by Benson, some fairly nimble scatting by Jarreau, and some lovely piano by Herbie Hancock and “Four”, which adds Benson’s vocals to the mix to fine effect.

Benson steps up to the mike for a nice duet with the always-amazing Jill Scott on Billie Holiday’s immortal “God Bless the Child” and then he joins Jarreau with harmony vocals on a soulful version of the Seals & Crofts chestnut “Summer Breeze”. The two trade leads on the funky strut of “Givin’ it Up for Love” and an effective cover of Daryl Hall’s “Every Time You Go Away” (which was a hit in the 80’s for Paul Young.) Benson takes the solo vocal on the sweet love song “All I Am”.

A mostly instrumental take (Jarreau chants/sings the chorus) of John Legend’s “Ordinary People” is soothing and fine and will probably spend a lot of time in the rotation of your friendly neighborhood “smooth jazz” station.

“Let it Rain”, a slow burning new tune co-written by Jarreau, features Chris Botti adding some very nice trumpet fills and accents and Jarreau sharing the mike with the great Patti Austin. “Don’t Start No Stuff” locks into a funky, propulsive groove…kept moving by Benson’s soulful guitar work and Jarreau’s infectious vocalizing…and doesn’t let go.

Paul McCartney (who happened to be recording in the next studio when Benson and Jarreau were working on this disc)…in very fine R&B voice…brings the collection to a joyfully ragged, gospel-tinged conclusion by taking the lead on an energetic version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me”.

Very nice indeed.