Swinging 1961 session reissued in 2017 with bonuses
From “Splish Splash” to “Mack the Knife” to “Simple Song of Freedom,” Bobby Darin showed off a restless artistic soul. In 1961 Darin teamed with songwriter (and Capitol Records co-founder) Johnny Mercer for a swinging set of Tin Pan Alley standards, arranged and executed with brassy sizzle by Billy May. The album’s joie de vivre is undeniable, sparked both by the principals’ chemistry and the band’s relentless push. Darin and Mercer seem to be unreeling these classics extemporaneously, with each inserting playful ad libs as the other sings. Imagine if Martin and Lewis, or Hope and Crosby, had both been vocalists first, rather than vocalist-comedian pairs, and you’ll get a sense of this duo’s playful power. Their 27-year age difference evaporates as they express their shared love of these songs, including a few of Mercer’s own titles.
Superb vocalist backed by sizzling Billy May charts
With Frank Sinatra having decamped to start his Reprise label, his former label, Capitol, signed the next best thing, Vic Damone. The Brooklyn-born Damone had the same working class roots as Sinatra, and after getting his first break on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show in the late ‘40s, he signed with Mercury. Damone had several hits with Mercury, as well as subsequently with Columbia, but in 1961 he began a five-year run on Capitol. This third long-player for Capitol, released in 1962, was also Damone’s second to pair him with arranger Billy May. The latter had worked with Sinatra in the late ‘50s on the seminal Come Fly with Me and Grammy-winning Come Dance with Me, and paired again with Sinatra for two more titles in 1961.
Entering the studio in 1962, Damone was an established star, and May was coming off a string of superb swing albums with one of Damone’s vocal role models. The result has the hallmarks of Sinatra’s great sessions – sizzling horn charts, swing surfaces, jazz underpinnings and thoughtful interpretations of material that leans heavily on standards. Winningly, however, this doesn’t sound like someone imitating Sinatra, as Damone asserted the beautiful tone of his voice on both ballads and up-tempo numbers. There’s none of Sinatra’s ring-a-ding-ding bravado here, and Damone sings with a friend’s smile rather than a pack leader’s wink.
Having established himself as one of Australia’s premier singer-songwriters, Paul Kelly’s also established himself as one of the continent’s most creative musical artists. His recent releases include an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to song, a live collaboration and album with Neil Finn, and an A-Z tour and accompanying eight-CD anthology of his entire song catalog. His latest, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Charlie Owen, collects songs the two musicians had been asked to perform at funerals. It’s a remarkable playlist of songs selected by the deceased and as salve for the souls of those left behind.
What’s most fascinating are the new layers of meaning these songs gain in a funereal frame, and the philosophical continuities exposed by their juxtaposition. Stephen Foster’s nineteenth century parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More” moves from a plea to the fortunate to a consideration of everyone’s equality at life’s end, and Cole Porter’s western-themed “Don’t Fence Me In” points to freedoms that eventually accrue to all good souls. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” essays earthly bonds that may be released in the hereafter, and Townes Van Zandt’s soaring “To Live is to Fly” provides a hopefully ironic twist.
Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.
By 1978, Sarah Vaughan was standing at the confluence of nearly a decade of renewal. Her rebirth began with a shift to the West Coast in 1970, and included new recording contracts, first with Mainstream and later with Pablo, the 1972 introduction of “Send in the Clowns” to her repertoire, orchestral performances of the Gershwin catalog that netted her both an Emmy and a Grammy, and a 1978 documentary, Listen to the Sun. That same year, NPR’s Jazz Alive! caught Vaughan in this New Orleans showcase with her stellar rhythm trio of pianist Carl Schroeder, drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Walter Booker.
At 54, Vaughan was at a peak of artistic vision, vocal quality and technical control, and is nearly telepathic is communicating with her well-seasoned band. Her extraordinary vocal range was completely intact, and age had only added new shadings to a voice that was born rich with character. The set list was stocked primarily with the standards that had long been her metier, but her improvisational skills made every rendition fresh and seem extemporaneous. The original multitrack masters of her show at Rosy’s Jazz Club, including previously unbroadcast performances, remained in the collection of the show’s original procuer, Tim Owens, until this first-ever commercial release.
Vaughan is heard here to be uncommonly at ease on stage, joking with the audience and even riffing on Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket” in response to a wayward request. But when she sings, she’s all business, whether revving up the ballad “I’ll Remember April” into a scat-singing showcase, or stretching out with the band on the side one closer, “Sarah’s Blues.” The dazzling energy of her fast numbers is often paired with ballads whose tempos provide opportunity for exquisitely manicured notes. The control she exerts over pitch and tone is incredible as she annotates the smooth, beautiful core of her voice with vibrato.
There’s never any doubt who’s starring on stage (despite Vaughan’s habit of jokingly introducing herself as Carmen McCrae), but she was generous with her band, offering them spotlights and weaving their musical ideas into her vocals. The trio setting provides a flexible and surprisingly rich setting for Vaughan, allowing her to improvise and have the band follow, instead of weaving herself into a larger ensemble’s charted arrangement. Her voice provides both a lead a a fourth instrument, and pairs beautifully with Booker’s bass for a duet of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).”
The set list reaches back to Vaughan’s earliest days for Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” stretching into high notes that soar with operatic splendor. Disc one peaks with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” stripped of Paul Griffin’s 1974 pop arrangement, and expanded into a tour de force ballad. The song would eventually cap Vaughan’s live sets, but by 1978 it was already a deeply emotional moment for both the singer and her audience. The only thing missing from this recording is the ovation that must have followed. Disc one closes with the instrument jam “Sarah’s Blues,” showing off how high this band could fly.
Disc two includes two pieces from Vaughan’s Gershwin songbook, the signature “The Man I Love” and a take on “Fascinating Rhythm” that somehow manages to break into a minuet. A pair of Rodgers & Hart songs showcase two very different sides of the group: “I Could Write a Book” swings as the band vamps behind Vaughan’s improvised lyrics, while “My Funny Valentine” searches for new layers and shadings in a familiar melody. Continual renewal was key to Vaughan’s stage greatness, and it made her chestnuts tower ever higher, year after year.
The one then-new piece in the set was “If You Went Away,” from Vaughan’s album I Love Brazil!, and while it’s a nice addition, it’s almost as if Vaughan needed to sing it for a decade or two before she’d really start to plumb its depths. Vaughan picked material that stood up to reappraisal and reinterpretation, and it’s fascinating to hear how her own approach to songs changed over decades of exploration. But unlike the Groundhog Day chase of a single perfect day, Vaughan’s perfection was ephemeral and of-the-moment, and captured in uniquely colored performances like this.
Kinky Friedman returns to the studio, but not to songwriting
For rock music fans of the 1970s, Kinky Friedman was the oddest of guilty pleasures. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had drawn many to roots music with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and then burrowed into the stonersphere with “Seeds and Stems (Again).” This led many listeners to country and folk, and with Friedman’s 1973 debut, Sold American, humor, satire and pathos, often at the same time. Even the names – “Kinky” and “Texas Jewboys” – implied a level of irreverence that didn’t prepare listeners for Friedman’s perceptiveness. His broad, comic approach often obscured the deeper layers on first pass, but his resolutions always turned out to be parable rather than punch line.
Following a trio of 1970s albums, Friedman released a 1983 solo effort, Under the Double Ego, and then turned to novel writing (with sides of politics and distilling) as his main occupation. He still performed, released a fewlivesets, and dropped in on his own tribute album, but it’s been 32 years since his last full studio collection. Other than the previously unrecorded title track (co-written with Tim Hoover, and dedicated to Tompall Glaser), the song list is all covers, selecting songs with special resonance from the catalogs of Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Lerner & Loewe. The latter, “Wand’rin Star,” was originally written for the stage musical Paint Your Wagon, and turned into a surprise UK hit single by film actor Lee Marvin!
At 70, Friedman’s voice sounds more aged than the decade-older Nelson’s as they duet on the opening “Bloody Mary Morning.” But that same weathering conveys a lifetime of wisdom gathered between Friedman’s 1970s originals of “Lady Yesterday” and “Wild Man From Borneo” and today’s covers. Friedman cannily interprets “A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” more as a hushed confession than Tom Waits’ Satchmo-inflected original, and he returns Zevon’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up” from its mortal ending to the lyrics’ original lamentation of aging. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adds a mournful sound to several tracks, including a properly haggard rendition of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”
Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. There’s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.
Drummer Dave Raven nails the era’s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening “Dig Two Graves,” Deanie Richardson’s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCue’s six string swing, and Jim Hoke’s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The song’s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime” and the old-timey “Cowgirl Blues.” She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for “Long Tall Story,” and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping “Save a Life.”
Willie and Family stroll through the Great American Songbook
Willie Nelson sang from the Great American Songbook as early as 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind, and with 1978’s Stardust he demonstrated a unique affinity for pop standards. He continued to draw on this material for decades to come, including 1981’s Over the Rainbow, 1983’s Without a Song and 1988’s What a Wonderful World. His latest collection of pop and country standards is a low-key affair without backing vocals or orchestrations, leaving Nelson’s voice isolated out front of his Family band. His idiosyncratic phrasing continues to serve this type of material wonderfully, but unlike the statement of Stardust, this set is more of a Saturday night jam than a staged performance. With his sister Bobbie and longtime compadres Mickey Raphael and Paul English on board, the sessions feel as if Nelson’s calling out favorites for the group to pick up. The players slide easily into familiar songs, and though the solos can be tentative, the warmth these musicians share, Nelson’s deep feeling for the material and his inimitable singing are all worth hearing.
Following his 1968 break with fellow Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, Bill Medley kicked off a solo career with this pair of releases for MGM. Both albums grazed the bottom of the Billboard 200, and three singles (“I Can’t Make it Alone” and “Brown Eyed Woman” from the first album, “Peace Brother Peace” from the second) charted short of the Top 40. It would be Medley’s last solo chart action for more than a decade, as he’d reteam with Hatfield in 1974 and forgo solo releases for several years afterwards. By the time he re-engaged his solo career in 1981, the music world and his place in it had changed, leaving this pair of albums the best evidence of the solo sound grown from his first run with the Righteous Brothers.
Following the Righteous Brothers’ falling out with Phil Spector (who had produced three Philles albums and four hit singles for them), Medley assumed the producer’s seat for the duo’s last #1, “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.” In conjuring a convincing imitation of Spector’s Wall of Sound, Medley showed himself to have ambition and talent that was larger than the role of featured vocalist. As he took the producer’s chair for his solo records he leaned heavily on big band arrangements of blues, soul and stage standards that suggested he’d been listening to Ray Charles and other blues and soul singers. He creates a Spectorian crescendo for “The Impossible Dream,” shouts his way through “That’s Life,” sings at the ragged edge of his husky voice on “Run to My Loving Arms,” and chews the scenery with the Neil Diamond-meets-Blood, Sweat & Tears gospel-soul of “Peace Brother Peace.”
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