CD REVIEWS – Vocalists

Jane Monheit: Surrender
Concord Records
Release Date: April 24, 2007

For those of you familiar with the vocal and jazz interpretations of Jane Monheit’s first six albums, there’s no reason to sell you on her fabulous vocal readings of some of the greatest classic songs from the American songbook. On Monheit’s seventh release in seven years, she delivers an album that’s as lush as the flowers are in springtime, and that’s in large part due to her producer Jorge Callandrelli, who is responsible for some of the best work from the crème of the crop that includes Tony Bennett, Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand.

With Callandrelli’s guidance, Monheit delivers an album that is filled with romantic music, focusing on ballads and bossa nova style interpretations. A touch of Sergio Mendes’ piano and his composition “So Many Stars” is one of the album’s highlights. The purity of Monheit’s vocals is as stunning as the composition itself, which has the gorgeous melody carried by romantic lyrics that Alan & Marilyn Bergman are so famous for.

“Overjoyed” is exactly what I am with Jane’s brilliant cover of the Stevie Wonder track. She handles this sentimental favorite with a bossa nova flavor, and is one of the most sensational selections on the album. When you’re covering a legend such as Stevie Wonder, you’d best be bringing something fresh to the table and that’s exactly what Monheit did with this truly unique interpretation.

There are three Spanish tracks that reek of romanticism, such as “Rio de Maio,” a samba styled jewel performed with Ivan Lins, “Só Tinha de ser Com Vocé,” a succulent and stylish vocal that’s reminiscent of a cross between Astrud Gilberto and Sadé, and a stunning track titled “Caminhos Cruzados,” performed beautifully with Toots Thielemans.

The title track is a great vocal workout, as Monheit’s upper and lower register are put to the test, and she passes through this luxuriant sonata with the greatest of ease.

One very special track that holds a place in my heart is the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer classic “Moon River.” Monheit sings it with such distinctive glory, it’s almost as if I was enjoying this track for the first time – not just because even this timeless track that was written forty-six years ago still registers chills for nostalgic reasons, but mostly because of the unique production and crystalline vocal accomplishment.

The final track is always meticulously chosen because it’s the one that will leave that everlasting effect on you, as does “A Time For Love.” Its simplistic beauty sums up the entire album’s sensibilities.

I guarantee that when you have this disc playing, people will be asking “who is this?” for all the right reasons. If you don’t own a recording of Jane Monheit’s (and even if you do) it’s time to surrender to this Grammy-nominated woman who possesses one of the most stunning voices of the present day.

Barbra Streisand: Live In Concert 2006
Columbia Records
Release Date: May 8, 2007

For those who attended one of Barbra Streisand’s twenty concerts last fall, there’s no reason to explain this release. For those of you who missed it, this is a chance to hear what all the fuss was about – and trust me, the fuss was worth it.

Live In Concert 2006 is a two-CD collection capturing the finest performances from her record-breaking tour. This audio event is absolutely breathtaking, and is honestly the warmest and most excited Barbra has ever come off in a live performance. You can sense that she really enjoyed this tour. The two CD’s contain 32 tracks, which include 22 songs culled from performances recorded in New York, Washington D.C. and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The album includes Streisand staples that have been heard on several of her greatest hits collections and five previous live albums. But to be fair, there would’ve been a backlash against Barbra from longtime fans had she omitted these songs.

Disc One is a treat to hear, with Streisand recreating her 60’s heyday when she was the toast of Broadway, television, films and nightclubs with songs she hasn’t sung since they were performed all those years ago. The album kicks off with a recreation of the original overture from the Broadway musical Funny Girl that was supremely orchestrated under the supervision of musical conductor Bill Ross. Enter Streisand, and she opens the disc with a spine-tingling divalicious rendition of “Starting Here, Starting Now,” a song she first sang and recorded in 1966. It’s almost as if Barbra needed to open the show and prove that she can still wow the audience forty-six years into her career. It worked. This woman can still deliver the goods. After her “opening remarks” about how she felt the need to raise money for issues that needed to be addressed in today’s climate, she launched into a spectacular rendition of “Down With Love.” After the crowd-pleasing “The Way We Were,” Barbra’s vocals glide effortlessly over the Harold Arlen classic “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” Another track on the disc includes the first song Barbra ever composed, entitled “Ma Premiere Chanson,” lifted from her 1966 masterpiece Je m’appelle Barbra. Other never-before-performed live songs include a set that weighs heavy on Funny Girl, which includes a moving and haunting version of the title song, plus a sample of “The Music That Makes Me Dance” (the song that was featured in the Broadway production) and a rousing and emotional delivery of “My Man,” as well as her signature song “People,” which is complete with the original introduction.

Disc Two wisely manages to keep the show fresh by reinventing some of her staples with her special guests, Il Divo, with new interpretations of “Somewhere,” “Music of the Night” and “Evergreen,” which was sung partially in English and partially in Italian. The highlight is when she ventures into uncharted territory with songs she has never recorded or performed before, including a gorgeous rendition of “Unusual Way” from the Broadway musical Nine, “The Time of Your Life” (a reading from writer William Saroyan), which was the perfect segue for the next track, a vocal tour de force of “A Cockeyed Optimist.” The other never-before-performed standard is a stunning interpretation of “My Shining Hour.” She closes the show with a reprise of “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” lifted from the Broadway production of Funny Girl, and a simple yet stunning interpretation of “Smile.”

Footnote: Barnes & Noble is offering this collection with the bonus track “When The Sun Comes Out,” which she only performed a half dozen times during the twenty-city tour. The bonus is a triumph, as is this entire package.

The Puppini Sisters
Verve Records
Available NOW

When I wandered into my local record store a couple of weeks ago, the music playing was “Mr. Sandman” and I just assumed it was The Andrews Sisters. I wasn’t aware that the trio sang that song, but I was just sure it must be them because of their signature sound. The next selection to come on was “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and it put my reservations about the group to rest. Of course, it was The Andrew Sisters! They put this wartime romp on the map 60-plus years ago. A few more songs had played and I hummed pleasantly along as I rummaged through the CD’s until I heard Kate Bush’s pièce de résistance, “Wuthering Heights,” and wondered what dimension I had entered. Funny enough, I still didn’t find myself looking for a store clerk to ask what was playing because “Jeepers Creepers” came on, and even though “Wuthering Heights” had baffled me, I went about my business.

Then it happened, the song that defined the 70’s disco movement, “I Will Survive,” came on, still in three-part harmony, and my head started to spin faster than a record on a turntable. It was as if I was in the twilight zone. I know The Andrew Sisters were talented, but they weren’t great enough to be singing songs thirty-five years into the future. I walked up to the counter and asked the sales clerk, “Okay, what’s going on with this music?” He laughed and said, “I can’t believe there’s a store full of customers and you’re the only one to have picked up on this.” I answered, “How could I not, and what’s wrong with everybody else?” I then asked, “What is this, and whatever it is, I have to have a copy.” He informed me that it was The Puppini Sisters, and he gave me a brief rundown: They are a trio out of the U.K. who had recently made a lot of noise with this CD overseas, and they were recently invading U.S. territory. I had to have it. I bought the copy, but not before hearing other 40’s standards, and then the Blondie signature song “Heart of Glass.” If I thought I was hooked before, the take on the Debbie Harry song convinced me that this was one of the most unique musical experiences I’ve had in a very long time

Of course, since I bought the CD that day, I have seen The Puppini Sisters on numerous talk shows performing everything from the 40’s standards to the mix of pop, disco and rock, but always in three-part harmony. It turns out that they’re not sisters at all, but the lead (Marcella) is actually from Italy and her two cohorts, Kate and Stephanie, are British and hail from the U.K.

Before it was all over, the disc thankfully ended on the wartime era hit “In The Mood,” and brought back a bit of sanity that I had lost during the disco covers.

Here’s my advice: If you’re looking for something that’s completely unique and filled with timeless treasures sung with incredible harmonies, The Puppini Sisters are it. Betcha Bottom Dollar is the perfect title, because the enjoyment you’ll receive from this disc is far from a gamble.

We All Love Ella: Celebrating The First Lady Of Song
Verve Records
Available NOW

The all-star homage to Ella Fitzgerald is one of the best tribute albums I have ever heard. It’s obvious that each and every artist on this collection shared a deep affection for this “first lady of song.” The only flaw with this album is that Fitzgerald’s musical catalogue was vast and this tribute album is only fourteen tracks, but the fourteen tracks chosen are stellar, as are the artists’ interpretations of them. The album not only covers the songs that Ella made famous, it also covers the songs that were already famous but that Fitzgerald made her own.

The kick-off track is one that Ella put on the musical map, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” performed exquisitely by Natalie Cole. It’s been sixteen years since Cole delivered the wonderful seven-time Grammy-winning “Unforgettable…With Love,” but her jazz instincts are very much intact, and after hearing this version, it’s almost hard to hear anyone else interpreting the song with so much love and devotion…besides Ella herself, of course.

If you were wondering where the supremely gifted Chaka Khan has been lately, look no more. She shows up on this all-star tribute twice. The first time in a smashing solo rendition of “Lullaby Of Birdland,” and later joins Natalie Cole on a duet of “(If You Can’t Sing To It) You’ll Have To Swing To It (a.k.a. Mr. Paganini).” Wow! One of the many feelings I was left with is that these two songstresses need to get into a studio and record a full album together. Their voices are extraordinarily suited for each other.

Queen Latifah makes a splash with the swinging Fitzgerald signature “The Lady Is A Tramp.” Latifah delivers this song as intended, with a wallop, and she securely reminds us that she’s a multi-talented and versatile artist that can handle everything from hip-hop to pop to jazz.

One of my favorite songs is Mama Cass’ “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” and Fitzgerald put her own indelible mark on this song when she recorded it thirty-plus years ago. Diana Krall puts her own spin on this and it’s truly divine.

The sensational Dianne Reeves is on hand for “Oh, Lady Be Good.” If there was ever an artist to follow in Ella’s footsteps, Reeves is the closest I’ve heard. Her emotive delivery is sensational and is truly one of the highlights on this album.

“Miss Otis Regrets” is performed by the luminous Linda Ronstadt. This song is sung on the downbeat, and the realization of the painful, tormented feelings of this woman scorned is brilliant.

Gladys Knight never ceases to amaze me. Her vocals are unmistakable, and her version of Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” is masterful, as is Etta James on the scorcher “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.”

Closing out the set is a trio of songs that are illuminating. “Angel Eyes” is performed exquisitely by k.d. lang, and Michael Bublé does a splendid version of “Too Close For Comfort.” But the best is saved for last, with a live 1977 duet between Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder performing an impromptu version of Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” that makes its recording debut on this album.

Trust me, there’s not a bad track on this album. If you’re a fan of this musical genre, this disc is a can’t-miss. Kudos go out to the legendary Phil Ramone who produced this tribute. His deep affection for Ella Fitzgerald and her musical legacy are quite apparent.

A Most Fitting Tribute
k.d. lang, Prince, Annie Lennox & More Pay Tribute To Joni Mitchell!

Joni Mitchell, the singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist, was born Roberta Joan Anderson, raised in Canada and transplanted to New York in the mid-60’s. Joni was signed to a record company almost as fast as she was making a name for herself appearing nightly in Greenwich Village coffee houses.

The Reprise label released Joni Mitchell in the spring of 1968 to rave reviews. Although it only peaked at a modest #189 on the Billboard Best Selling Albums chart, it produced a pack of analytical songs that made the country and the industry take notice. By the time of her second album release, Clouds, one year later, Joni’s catalogue of songs included such works of art as “Both Sides Now,” “Chelsea Morning” and “I Don’t Know Where I Stand.” Her work was also being recorded by Folk singers such as Judy Collins, and Pop superstars like Barbra Streisand and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young. Clouds peaked at a very respectable #31 and Mitchell was now faced with becoming a pop/folk hero by the age of 25. With each album release, all a year apart for nearly a decade and a half, her songs received great recognition and her Village cult following had grown into a nationwide love affair. Her third and fourth albums (Ladies of the Canyon and Blue, respectively) are considered by her fans and her peers as two of the finest albums ever written and recorded. They included songs that are some of the classics that define Joni’s early work, such as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” The Circle Game,” “California,” “A Case Of You,” “Carey,” “Blue” and the phenomenally revered “River.”

By 1970, Mitchell had once again relocated, this time to southern California where she would stay for more than thirty years. This was the time of the singer/songwriter movement, and she was at the forefront. Others were becoming household names such as Carole King, Carly Simon and James Taylor, while the southern California rock movement provided us with the sounds of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and, of course, Joni Mitchell.

In 1972, the California verse was dominating the music scene and Asylum Records knew that Mitchell was the vocal poet they were looking for. Joni Mitchell recorded and released the masterpiece For the Roses, which included such classics as “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” and the title track. Fourteen months later, Joni Mitchell delivered her most commercially successful album, Court and Spark, which peaked at #2, remained on the charts for well over a year and spawned three wildly successful radio hits; “Free Man In Paris,” “Raised On Robbery” and her biggest hit single, “Help Me,” which was a Top Ten hit in the spring of 1974. Other tracks from that album that are considered classics include “Twisted,” “Trouble Child” and “People’s Parties.” Her next two albums would prove to be triumphs as well – her live concert entitled Miles of Aisles and the extraordinary 1975 studio album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Mitchell closed out the last half of the seventies with Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus.

Throughout the 80’s, Joni’s work became less commercial but hardly less valid. She continued to work, but after releasing nine albums in the 70’s, she released just four in the 80’s; 1980’s Shadows and Light, 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, 1985’s Dog Eat Dog and 1988’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm. While all of her works still stood as a testament to her genius, she was taking more time to devote to her new husband, Larry Klein, her producer and bassist, whom she married in 1982 until the marriage dissolved a dozen years later. She also took this time to devote to her other passion, painting. For those who are familiar with Mitchell’s album covers, all are painted by the songbird herself, mostly self-portraits.

After her divorce, Joni turned out one of her most intriguing works, Turbulent Indigo, and then slowed down the pace of her recordings while she retreated more and more into her painting. At this time, it was also revealed that she had connected with a child she had given up for adoption when Joni was a 20-year old struggling art student. Mitchell and her daughter had a tearful reunion in 1997 when her daughter, Kilauren, was 32 years old. To say that things remained rosy would be an overstatement. Instead of a closer bond between Kilauren and Joni, they became more estranged. It’s not clear what exactly has happened to that relationship, since Mitchell has always been enormously private.

In 2000, Mitchell released her last album to date, the hauntingly beautiful Both Sides Now, which contained ten standards including “At Last,” “Stormy Weather” and “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” and included two of Joni’s own compositions that she rerecorded; “A Case Of You” and “Both Sides Now.” The latter is extremely poignant after listening to both versions, one at 24 years old and the other at 57 years old. The other most notable change was Joni’s high soprano-like vocal to the dark gravely-voiced chanteuse she had become, from years as a chain-smoker.

Rumor has it that Joni Mitchell is working on her first studio album in seven years and is tentatively scheduled for release later this year. Until that time, sit back and enjoy the tribute album that twelve of her peers have lovingly prepared for her…and for us.

A Tribute To Joni Mitchell: Various Artists
Nonesuch Records
Release Date: April 24, 2007

Only the very best musicians have had tribute albums released by their peers in their lifetime. Frank Sinatra was treated to one exclusively by Tony Bennett; Carole King had an array of artists sing the songs of her most famous work Tapestry; Dolly Parton got the full treatment by country and pop artists alike; while groups such as The Beatles and songwriters such as Harold Arlen and The Gershwins, just to name a few, have had tributes commemorating their collective genius. Add Joni Mitchell to that distinguished crowd, and let it be known that she belongs rightfully alongside them.

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell is stellar. The album kicks off with one of her most commercial radio singles, “Free Man In Paris,” performed by folk artist Sufjan Stevens. He combines his soft vocal with whispery jabs. The song opens with an assault of trumpets that are interspersed throughout the track. It’s one of the most interesting and alternative interpretations on the disc.

Bjork’s vocals are as unique as the fabulous selection “The Boho Dance,” from Mitchell’s 1975 opus The Hissing of Summer Lawns. She gives the song a quiet, electronic feel that is surprisingly warm and inviting. This song springs right into Brazilian sensation Caetano Veloso’s interpretation lifted from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and it’s the perfect selection for the Bossa Nova shake and the sound of the snare drum that takes us on his journey into Mitchell’s “Dreamland.”

The only instrumental selection on the CD is pianist Brad Mehldau’s rendition of Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” which is another selection lifted from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. As lovely as this song is, and as skillfully as the piano is played, I missed hearing the original lyrics written by Mitchell. 88 keys still work just fine but it made me long for Joni’s vocal accompaniment.

The lovely Cassandra Wilson does magic with the title track to 1972’s For The Roses. This is a splendid song selection from Ms. Wilson, and the harmonica and softly strummed guitar were all her smoky vocal needed to do this poem the justice it deserves.

It’s no secret that Prince is a huge fan of Ms. Mitchell’s. He has stated so on several occasions and was thrilled to offer his unique take on one of his (and my) favorite Mitchell songs, “A Case of You.” Prince’s falsetto and emotional delivery is flawless.

Sarah McLachlan appears on this album interpreting “Blue,” the title track from one of Mitchell’s most cherished albums. McLachlan’s take is one of the most gorgeous on this album, due in large part to her interpretive style and her crystalline vocals.

Once you hear Annie Lennox’s vocal open up on the extraordinary title track from Mitchell’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon, it’s clear that she’s not only a fan, she’s made this composition all her own. Speaking of extraordinary vocals, does it get any better than Emmylou Harris following McLachlan and Lennox? The hat trick pays off as Harris’s incredible vocals interpret “The Magdalene Laundries” lifted from Turbulent Indigo. Like Sarah and Annie before her, Emmylou has made the perfect song choice as she makes this stunner all her own. I can only imagine Joni’s gratitude to these three astonishing women for treating her “children” as if they were their own.

Elvis Costello chose “Edith and the Kingpin,” which is the third selection from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. He treats this composition with kid gloves, and the result is a magnificent, quiet and haunting reading.

Before I even heard k.d. lang’s vocals on Mitchell’s most successful commercial hit single, “Help Me,” lifted from Court and Spark, I could already hear it in my head. Her voice never overpowers the infectious “head-over-heels-in-love-song,” but rather she treats it at first with subtle passion and then lets loose as her voice melts over the gorgeous melody and lyrics until the result is utterly breathtaking. This is just another reminder of why Ms. lang is so important to the musical landscape.

The expression is “save the best for last.” This could be true with many of Joni Mitchell’s songs, but James Taylor wisely chose the most covered Mitchell composition because it never fails to resonate with the listener. This song relates to so many people on so many levels that Taylor and his unmistakable vocal couldn’t miss. He’s as clear as he was when he was “Sweet Baby James,” and his interpretation of this most beloved Mitchell song is the reason why she is as important as she was, is, and always will be.

This tribute is just a taste of the Canadian-kid turned California-girl that writes songs of the human soul and spirit. Joni Mitchell is one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of the late 20th century. Her compositions are hailed by her peers as some of the finest of all time, and if it’s twelve reasons you need to hear why, this album is proof enough.

© 2007 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.