Raising the Bar on CDs

One of the functions of this column is to cover CDs from cabaret and jazz artists. Like many reviewers, I would need reams to catch up on all the CDs that keep piling up daily. As a result of listening to so many new ones lately, I must once again caution artists going into the studio to do their homework and above all else—be ready.

I have singled out some lofty new releases by cabaret and jazz artists that are just that—ready. So ready, they seem overdue. And each colors the musical landscape with a rainbow bound to raise the bar on quality and simple good taste. Each of the artists mentioned here represents a hybrid of diversity and hard work from piano bars to Broadway to fancy venues. PS Classics has just released two albums that are good examples and have created an industry buzz.

Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn (PS Classics): At the risk of plagiarizing myself, when I reviewed Darius de Haas' show last year at Arci's Place (July 6, 2001) I said that since I first saw him at Eighty Eight's, he had "found his emotional voice and a more visceral core—that of a refined jazz singer with a fascinating, rangy style." Those remarks succinctly describe what has been perfectly captured on his newly released album. This was one of those outings that was meant to be preserved, recalling classic sounds from the school of contemporary jazz greats like Cleo Laine or Al Jarreau.

Based on his original program first performed at Lincoln Center with a quintet—but orchestrated here for 25 musicians by Bruce Coughlin, who also conducts—de Haas combines sophistication, intense theatricality, and a jazz-fused swing approach throughout. His resonant baritone merged with a pitch-perfect falsetto make him one of the most important new voices of jazz in the 21st century. I don't exaggerate. De Haas is an artist whose investment is confident and deep and whose knowledge is broad—all of which are passionately flaunted on this recording. It is particularly evident on a hypnotic medley of "Passion Flower" and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing." He weaves that same spell when he rhapsodizes Strayhorn's erudite, familiar, and lesser-known songs in perfectly structured arcs, spotlessly blending his voice with the instruments. Other highlights include a perfectly punctuated "Lush Life," a moody "Something to Live For," and a playfully swinging "Take All My Love" that includes an outstanding solo conversation with saxophonist Ray Nathanson. The musicians are top-notch, led by musical arranger-director Deidre Rodman. In de Haas, Strayhorn's musical poems find an interpreter of uncompromising integrity who brings imagination and supple style to every lilting phrase.

Pentimento (PS Classics): The other PS Classics release is a gem in the form of Jessica Molaskey's thrilling "Pentimento." You needn't be a fan of warm chestnuts to like this easy listen, must-play album. Molaskey is complemented by an all-star (rather familial) band featuring hubby John Pizzarelli with Bucky Pizzarelli on guitars and ukuleles, Martin Pizzarelli on bass, and Ray Kennedy and Larry Goldings sharing piano duties, as well as some of today's finest musicians, including the legendary (2002 Bistro winner) Johnny Frigo on violin and the renowned Ken Plepowski on clarinet.

Molaskey brings her jazzy twist and swinging sensuality to this collection of vintage classics from the '20s and '30s. Her interpretations are lighthearted and fresh, and prove she is a singer of considerable substance. Her clean, deceivingly understated approach to every lyric recalls the late Susannah McCorkle. And like McCorkle, she is able to transport the listener to a different time with a sense of innocence and heartbreak through her unadorned vocals. Molaskey conjoined with such musicians is a force to be reckoned with on this album, which is bound for greatness.

With her gentle alto, Molaskey is perfectly at ease with both melancholic yearnings like a bouncy "Ain't We Got Fun" (Whiting, Kahn & Egan) sung with the precocity of a coming-of-age flapper, and blissfully playful with "By the Beautiful Sea" (Carroll/McCarthy). She breathes new life into and reinvents the Berlin classic, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." For this listener, the album's highlight is a plaintive "Look for the Silver Lining." Like the song, Molaskey shows promise of many more good things to come.

Signature (N-Coded Music): One of today's most gifted artists is multi-award-winning singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway. Having glided successfully through several incarnations, including gigs in piano rooms and cabaret boites to venues like Lincoln Center, PBS specials, Broadway, and a Tony nomination, Ann is about as good as it gets. On her latest album, she has taken her riskiest career move to date. "Signature" is a tribute to several singing pop-jazz legends of the last century through their signature songs. In lesser hands, such an undertaking might prove risky. Here, it is overwhelming in its quality and respect for the memory of such luminous icons, while still placing Callaway's unique stamp on the mainstays of Ella and Frank as well as Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Anita O'Day, Mel Tormé, and Peggy Lee.

Vocally, Callaway's pristine alto is unparalleled in its languid phrasings. A consummate musician, on this disc she is accompanied by some of the most renowned musical royalty in the business, including Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, and guest vocalists Freddy Cole and the fresh-faced New York Voices vocal group. The latter are particularly effective backing Nat King Cole's lively "Route 66." A haunting "For All We Know," sung with Freddy Cole, is a warm highlight recalling the classic recording by Ray Charles and Betty Carter. Her version of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" is testament to her interpretive powers and the enduring majesty of all these old classics sung to perfection.

The Way It Goes (Miranda Music): Speaking of classics, Christopher Gines' second album establishes him as one of today's leading exponents of quality pop-jazz crooning from the old school. His confident, expressive baritone exudes warmth on an eclectic collection with memorable highlights from yesterday and today. While he hasn't navigated the local boites as frequently as some, Gines, who is perhaps best known as the co-creator and co-star of the original cast of "Our Sinatra," has carved out a territory on today's music scene with fans who like his unaffected, sweet delivery. With several cuts arranged by the brilliant Lee Musiker, Gines has created some very memorable moments on this highly recommended album by a rising singer who should be playing the major rooms. Highlights include: Bacharach/David's "Whoever You Are, I Love You," "There's No Such Thing as Love" (Newley/Frasier), the beautiful "Come a Little Closer" by John Wallowitch, and the Mancini/Bricusse beauty, "Two For the Road."