A Fine Quartet
Recent CD releases showcase the talents of Jessica Molaskey, Darius de Haas, Peter Davenport, and Courtenay Day.
New York theater actress Jessica Molaskey, who has Broadway, Off-Broadway, and many lauded cabaret performances under her belt, makes her solo album debut with Pentimento, a tribute to the people who lived through the Great Depression. Molaskey has chosen 17 songs from that period, many of which went on to become standards ("What'll I Do", "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows") and all of which evoke a time when music kept up the people's collective spirit through optimism ("Look for the Silver Lining"), ironic humor ("We're in the Money"), and the extolling of romance in hard times ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love").
The entire recording is a very classy affair, thanks in large part to the swingin' accompaniment of Johnny Frigo (violin), Ken Peplowski (clarinet), Larry Goldings and Ray Kennedy (piano); Molaskey's husband John Pizzarelli and father-in-law Bucky Pizzarelli, jazz guitar legends both, fill out the band. Pizzarelli the younger also brings to the project his smooth tenor (on "We're in the Money") and his songwriting talents: he and Molaskey wrote two of the numbers included here.
In addition to her distinctive takes on some very well known songs, frequently bittersweet but always offering a glimmer of hope, Molaskey gives a sexy spin to such lighthearted ditties as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Red, Red Robin." She has a way of making entirely her own these songs that her mother grew up with (as she explains in the liner notes). But even as the subtlety of the music, arranged by Goldings and Pizzarelli, allows Molaskey's beautiful voice to be the star, she seems determined to make this album not a tribute to her vocal talents so much as to the composers and lyricists who kept a generation singing through such a difficult time. Pentimento is a striking debut, the sort of tour-de-force that takes you by surprise.
Another familiar face on the New York theater scene, Darius de Haas has had roles on Broadway in Marie Christine, Carousel, and Rent, along with frequent cabaret and concert performances. In his new solo recording from ps classics, de Haas focuses on the career of Billy Strayhorn. Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn covers the work of this often unsung musician, a prolific songwriter from the 1920s through the '50s.
Strayhorn is best known as a close friend and associate of Duke Ellington, and de Haas includes many of their collaborations ("Satin Doll", "Love Came," and others). The recording begins with an Ellington/Strayhorn concert piece called Such Sweet Thunder, which sets verses by Shakespeare to music; de Haas delivers the sullen jazz ballad "My Love is a Fever" with such skill that it makes one think of the Bard as the Johnny Mercer of his time. This is followed by a terrific rendering of Ellington's upbeat signature tune "Take the 'A' Train," for which Strayhorn wrote both music and lyrics. And so goes the rest of Day Dream: Just when you're ready to surrender to de Haas's mellifluously voiced takes on beautiful Strayhorn songs like "Your Love Has Faded" and "Lush Life," he throws a jazzed-up curve ball like "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'" to show off the power of his pipes.
De Haas' voice and Strayhorn's melodies are a match made in heaven, especially when backed by Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations. This is reason enough to get your hands on Day Dream, but a few oddities may further entice connoisseurs: Two songs from the unproduced musical Rose-Colored Glasses and a Strayhorn tune with a new lyric by Elvis Costello called "My Flame Burns Blue" make their first recorded appearances here.
Peter Davenport's Clear Day, from LML, is a little more varied than the above-reviewed discs. It has a nice supply of Burton Lane, Harold Arlen, and Jimmy Van Heusen tunes, but also songs by some composers and lyricists who became popular during the second half of the 20th century, like Kander & Ebb and David Zippel.
The simple phrase "Take a trip with me" is the first thing to greet you when you look at the CD booklet, and Davenport indeed assumes the role of musical tour guide: He is a languid dreamer sharing songs on the themes of contentment and optimism. The disc starts with "On a Clear Day," followed by "Come Rain or Come Shine," followed by "First You Dream," and on until Davenport gets to some more unexpected fare, such as Bob Dorough's thoroughly danceable "I've Got Just About Everything." Particularly notable in that last song, but also evident in Christopher Marlowe's arrangements of some of the other tunes, is a Latin influence. Davenport pushes his luck somewhat in introducing his own material; the songs, "I Need You" and "Stop, Look and Listen", are okay, but they have an '80s synth-pop sound that belongs on another album.
These quarrels aside, the CD makes for a nice recording debut. Davenport has a lovely voice and he acts the songs effortlessly, giving life to the lyrics even as he focuses on the melodies.
In her second solo album, State of Bliss, Courtenay Day offers a generous helping of classics by Mercer, Arlen, Rodgers, Hart, Porter, Sondheim, and The Beatles.
Accompanied only by piano, bass, and barely noticeable cello and percussion, Day gives these songs a refreshingly unadorned treatment on this LML disc. Her bright and wholesome voice can be deceptive; close listening reveals several layers of emotion. Her takes on "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" and "I Didn't Know What Time it Was" are basically simple and sweet but textured by experience. Her rendition of the somber yet inspirational Sondheim power ballad "Take Me To the World" (combined here with "Anyone Can Whistle") sounds pleasant and mellow at first but builds to great heights. In "Something Cool" and "Dissertation on a State of Bliss," Day finally shows her cynical and sophisticated side, only to surprise us yet again by giving a song called "I'm Becoming My Mother," titled for laughs, a sincere reading.