October 2004

Following the third anniversary of 9/11, I wondered how I could contribute something to America in my line of work. Then it hit me, I couldn’t think of a better way than to celebrate some of the greatest American songs by highlighting a half dozen brand new CD’s by some remarkable recording artists. There are new recording artists such as 14 year-old Renee Olstead and 21 year-old Peter Cincotti. Jazz vocalist Jane Monheit has a new CD of standards that will knock you off your feet. Other artists highlighted in this column are new CD’s by veterans Dolly Parton and the late, great Ray Charles. On a side note, since I was infusing such great new young talent such as Olstead and Cincotti, I decided to include 17 year-old British soul singer Joss Stone, whose sophomore album Mind, Body & Soul was just released this week. She may not be American, but she’s taking America by storm.

Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company
Concord Records
Release Date: August 31, 2004

Recorded just two months prior to Charles’ death, this is a nice compilation enhanced by the wonderful co-stars that Mr. Charles teams up with. While the selection of pairings is exciting, I must say that it’s more exciting than the final product. I really wanted to love this CD, and I did at times. I’ve always loved Ray Charles, and his choice of partners for this disc is top notch. The CD is good, but I felt it could have been better. The problem I had with this set is that a lot of the duets sound disconnected. I’m not sure how many songs were actually sung together and how many apart, but for much of it, it seemed disingenuous. I’m not saying that the entire disc is a washout, there are some fine selections. The standouts are “Here We Go Again” with the amazingly talented Norah Jones, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” with Elton John revisiting his 1976 classic, “Fever” features Natalie Cole who has a knack for making the disconnected sound wonderful. That was clearly evident from the magic she had with her late father over a decade ago. “Hey Girl” with the blue-eyed soul of Michael McDonald worked nicely, “Heaven Help Us All” is a winner with the glorious Gladys Knight, and “Crazy Love,” a live take with Van Morrison is a knockout, and also a very smart closer to the album. The biggest surprises that didn’t work were “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with Johnny Mathis. This duet sounds as if it were cut and pasted together by an amateur high school computer geek, and the most disturbing number is the Willie Nelson collaboration of the Frank Sinatra classic “It Was A Very Good Year.” The orchestration was lush and beautiful, but there was absolutely no correlation between these two legends. Not to end on a bad note, other pleasant collaborations included Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, James Taylor, and B.B. King. But “pleasant” doesn’t cut it when you are dealing with five star musicians and a genius. If you’re looking for a great collection that is worthy of Ray Charles, check out his Anthology set from a decade ago. Also, watch for the new film Ray to premier at a theater near you this fall. It’s already generating Oscar buzz for its star Jamie Foxx. The film will deliver a CD that is sure to be the soundtrack of Ray Charles’ life. Now that’s “Genius!”

Renee Olstead: Renee Olstead
143 Records/Reprise
Release Date: May 25, 2004

Although this CD arrived on my desk before the summer. It wasn’t until I caught Renee Olstead’s performance on The Late Show with David Letterman a couple of weeks ago. I was completely blown away by this young girl with the grown-up voice. Just goes to show you, I really should listen to everything I get, but if I did, when would I have time to write my columns? Well, back to Olstead, she is a 14 year-old who’s been acting since the tender age of five. She’s appeared alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights including Russell Crowe and Ahnold, and is currently seen in the CBS television sitcom Still Standing, but singing has always been her passion. When I listened Olstead’s debut CD, I was also intrigued by the selections, such as “Summertime,” “Taking A Chance On Love,” “Sunday Kind Of Love,” “Someone To Watch Over Me,” a great duet with Peter Cincotti on the Neil Sedaka classic, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” and seven other selections that rival any of the tracks of some of the finest vocalists repertoires. It’s was very brave of her to take on these masterpieces, but Olstead carries it off with such confidence, you’d swear she’s been listening to Billie, Judy, Barbra and Celine’s records all her life. Then again, so have I. But that’s another story! Produced by the legendary David Foster and Humberto Gatica (Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé) Olstead was in very competent hands. These producers succeeded in taking the best of this girl and making the most out of her wonderful talent. If you’re a fan of this musical genre, you will be delighted by Renee Olstead’s CD. Her music and passion soar to the highest heights. In other words, this disc is a winner!

Jane Monheit: Taking A Chance On Love
Sony Classical Records
Release Date: September 7, 2004

Jane Monheit takes a standard and makes it all her own. That’s the first thing I thought of while listening to her new wonderful CD, Taking A Chance On Love. It seems that this music is timeless, just take a look at Rod Stewart’s career again since he began recording the great American songbooks. Monheit has teamed with Linda Ronstadt’s longtime collaborator and producer Peter Asher to create an album of standards equally as amazing as her jazz-driven vocals. The highlights include “In The Still Of The Night,” “Do I Love You?” “Embraceable You,” a duet with Michael Bublé “I Won’t Dance,” and a great take on “Over The Rainbow.” I’m guessing that this has to be one of the most covered songs, but for good reason, it most always resonates with the listener, in this case, she does the classic justice. As a matter of fact, Monheit’s version of “Over The Rainbow” is so good, it can also be heard in the new Gwyneth Paltrow/Jude Law/Angelina Jolie film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It’s also featured on the soundtrack as well. Yes, Monheit’s vocals have always been great, but the mix of songs and her vocals this time around make this chance on love a sure bet. By the way, this CD just debuted at Number One on Billboard's Traditional Jazz chart.

Peter Cincotti: On The Moon
Concord Records
Release Date: September 14, 2004

On The Moon is where Peter Cincotti should be. And that’s meant in a most positive way. The 21 year-old is beaming with musical prowess in this follow-up to his 2003 self-titled debut. Cincotti is another singer to embrace the great American songbook, He takes on songs as “St. Louis Blues,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “You Don’t Know Me” and “Up On The Roof” just to name four of the twelve cuts and he takes your mind on a beautiful voyage. I became a fan last year, and this new set hardly disappoints as many follow-up albums have so often done. Produced by Phil Ramone, this album shines and highlights this bright and rising young singer, and sets the stage for a long and successful road ahead of him. You’ll still be hearing his new releases years from now, and judging from his taste in music, he’ll never be out of style. Cincotti said, “I hope people enjoy this record and are taken on a journey when they listen to it. That’s what it’s all about. But my goals have already been achieved in a lot of ways, by having a record that truly represents exactly what I’m feeling and hearing at this point in my life.” We hear you Peter. Congratulations!

Dolly Parton: Live & Well
Sugar Hill Records
Release Date: September 14, 2004

The two-worded title to this CD and DVD is very apropos. This “Live” set finds Dolly performing very “Well” indeed. As a matter of fact, Dolly’s like a fine wine, she just keeps getting better and better with age. What sets this apart from all of her other sets and live recordings is that for the first time, Dolly takes her entire career, all genres including Country, Bluegrass, Rock and Pop and combines all of her best work into one fabulous package. The CD has two discs that include “Train, Train,” “Coat Of Many Colors,” “Marry Me,” “If,” “9 To 5,” “Jolene,” and an A Capella Medley of “Islands In The Stream/Here You Come Again/Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That/Two Doors Down,” and a stunning closer of the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway To Heaven” and her jewel in the crown, “I Will Always Love You.” If you think I was happy with the audio portion of this opus, I was ecstatic with the DVD. As you know, Dolly is something to see, and she shines so bright in front of an audience. If you’re a Dolly fan, you’ll love this set. Even for non-Dolly-ers, this set shows us why Parton, who’s now in her fifth decade of performing, still mesmerizes audiences. Absolutely stunning!

Joss Stone: Mind, Body & Soul
S-Curve Records
Release Date: September 28, 2004

Have you seen VH-1 this past year? Did you hear the song “Fell In Love With A Boy?” Did you happen to hear of this girl named Joss Stone last year when her debut CD The Soul Sessions was released? Maybe you caught her performances on The Tonight Show, Motown 45, or just heard her vocals being lent to such shows as The West Wing, ER, and Third Watch? No? Then I suggest you pick yourself up and march right over to your local record store and pick up her brand new CD Mind, Body & Soul. This 17 year-old has packed so much soul into her Caucasian body and mind, you’d swear you were listening to Aretha Franklin’s daughter. And I’m not exaggerating. She is outstanding. If she weren’t, why would legends such as Nile Rodgers, Angie Stone and director of the album’s first video, “You Had Me,” Chris Robinson, whose credits include hits for Usher, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lenny Kravitz offer themselves to work with this girl? That’s how good she is. The entire set is brilliant, but my personal favorites are the aforementioned “You Had Me,” “Spoiled,” “Right To Be Wrong,” “Torn and Tattered” and “Sleep Like A Child.” And that was just after the first few listens. This CD will stay in my player for a long time and is destined to be a contender at the 2005 Grammy Awards. Remember when you see her collecting an award or two or more next February that “I told you so.”

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.