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The record business these days brings us a lot of superhyped overnight sensations singing for their suppers, but there remains a small, persistent cadre of veteran vocalists who sing to satisfy their soulsand ours. Because their music is unconcerned with transient trends and marketing niches, you’re unlikely to hear about them unless somebody tells you. So I’m telling you now.
For more than 30 years, singer-instrumentalist-songwriter Kenny Rankin has defied categorization. Prior to his 1967 debut as a recording artist, he composed jazz-inflected material performed by Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae. On his first album, Mind-Dusters, Mercury tried to position him as a neo-folkie with a repertoire of Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, and Gordon Lightfoot tunes. Family, his second LP, consisted of pop and soul covers of the Beatles, Carole King, Stephen Stills, Otis Redding, and Donovan. And that’s how it’s gone ever since: a series of recordings in different genresstandards, originals, Brazilian musicunified by Rankin’s mellifluous voice and nimble guitar work.
The Bottom Line Encore Collection is his first “live” record, taped at the Manhattan club in 1990. For 52 minutes, backed only by his own guitar or piano and twice singing a cappella, Rankin offers a career retrospective. The result is by far his finest work to date, a mind-dusting tour de force featuring five Beatles compositions, four originals, two Brazilian pieces, two vintage standards, and individual pop selections from the pens of, among others, Laura Nyro, Frankie Lymon, Stevie Wonder, and John Sebastian.
Some of the material”Sunshine of My Life,” “You Are So Beautiful”might remind you of ’70s motel lounge acts, but by the time Rankin has finished deconstructing and reforming these overdone tunes, they sound freshly minted. His knowledge of chord structures allows him to burrow into a composition’s core, vocally and instrumentally running the changes to refresh songs you hoped never to hear again. It’s difficult to single out individual tracks because Rankin’s performance is so consistently accomplished and satisfying. He’ll have to work very hard to surpass the music on this remarkable album, which, inexplicably, has been awaiting release for nearly a decade.
Few American singers are as lavishly gifted or as unfairly neglected as Anita Gravine. Only musicians and a few insiders have heard the three first-rate albums she’s released on obscure labels since 1982, all of which are collaborations with arranger-pianist Michael Abene. Perhaps her latest, Lights! Camera! Passion!: Jazz and the Italian Cinema, will correct this injustice.
A vocalist who also makes documentary films, Gravine combined her interests in music and movies in her previous release, Welcome to My Dream, a collection of songs drawn from the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road pictures. She now turns to the Italian cinema, performing themes from La Strada, Cinema Paradiso, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and La Dolce Vita along with selections from Summertime and The Godfather I and II, English-language movies shot in Italy. Painstakingly researched and assembled, Gravine’s project, a labor of love, makes a valuable contribution to the stagnant jazz-vocal repertoire.
Her lush voice, a bouquet of warm colors, embraces plangent melodies by Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Manuel De Sica, and other Italian composers. Abene deftly employs nine jazz instrumentalists, in various combinations, to craft graceful settings for her interpretations. The album opens starkly, with Greg Gisbert’s solo trumpet introducing Rota’s “Gelsomina’s Song” from La Strada, as a prelude to Gravine’s soulful presentation of its English version, “Traveling Down a Lonely Road.” Each of the remaining 12 tracks, including several medleys, contains passages of uncommon beauty. My favorite selections are the least adorned: the voice-and-guitar treatment of the Cinema Paradiso theme and the swooningly romantic “Summertime in Venice,” backed by Abene’s solo piano.
Throughout, Gravine maintains pinpoint intonation, artful phrasing, and immaculate controlwhich could offer a tutorial for aspiring vocalists. The CD’s sole shortcoming is the rather generic English lyrics, which detract from the superlative themes and musicianship, despite the singer’s efforts to imbue them with meaning. Such consummate melodies and performances deserve to be mated with equally poetic languagea job that admittedly would tax the powers of even the most eloquent lyric writer.
Audrey Morris is to Chicago what Bobby Short is to Manhattan and Shirley Horn is to D.C.: the city’s premier singer-pianist. Although stylistically she has little in common with either, Morris shares Short’s encyclopedic knowledge of forgotten popular songs and Horn’s penchant for slow, heartfelt ballads.
A fixture in Second City nightspotsshe headed the famous London House’s intermission trio for five yearsMorris has been unusually reticent about forging a national career. In the late ’50s, she turned down a Warner Bros. movie and record contract, preferring to remain a saloon performer in her hometown. About the same time, she cut two albums, Bistro Ballads and The Voice of Audrey Morris, and then chose not to record again until establishing her own Fancy Faire label in 1985. Her ventures away from Chicago have been infrequent: She gave a moody concert of film noir songs here at the Hirshhorn in 1990, made appearances at Manhattan’s annual Cabaret Convention, and, most recently, completed a tour of Italy.
Apart from one track, “You’re Not So Easy to Forget,” on her new CD Round About, Morris abandons the keyboard to concentrate on singing. Accompanied by master jazz violinist John Frigo and Joe Vito, a sensitive pianist whose playing, like that of Bill Evans, is filled with subtle impressionist voicings, Morris interprets 11 ballads, all of them rueful except for the Irving Berlin standard “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Her amazingly youthful voice, seasoned with a few rough edges that suggest wisdom about matters of the heart, caresses familiar songs (“Street of Dreams,” “Once in a While”) as well as buried treasures (“April Played the Fiddle,” “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” “Just Imagine”).
Morris’ intimate, conversational delivery is deceptively simple. Like Peggy Lee, Jeri Southern, and Irene Kral, she doesn’t appear to be working hard and makes no attempt to knock the socks off inattentive listeners. But her minimalist style sneaks up on you, making a deeper impact than octave-leaping jazzettes-of-the-month. It’s illuminating to contrast Morris’ version of the CD’s subtle, musically exacting Vernon Duke-Ogden Nash title song with Dawn Upshaw’s interpretation on her recent Electra collection of Duke compositions. The classical soprano Upshaw performs the song correctly and beautifully with a vocal range and technique far surpassing Morris’ capabilities. But you won’t understand what Nash’s fatalistic poem about the orbicularity of passion really means until you’ve heard Morris sing it.
You’d never guess by listening to or looking at them, but Jackie Cain and Roy Kral have been making music together for over a half century, and they’ve been married nearly as long. I’m not sure which statistic deserves more applause, but combined, we’re probably talking a record for Guinness here. They established themselves as vocalists in the late ’40s with Charlie Ventura’s “Bop for the People” band, with Roy also holding down the piano chair. In 30 albums since the mid-’50s, they have introduced new material by emerging songwriters (including the now-classic “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”) and explored genres as diverse as bossa nova and electric pop, along with works by Broadway and Hollywood songwriters Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman, and Alan Jay Lerner.
As its title indicates, their latest effort, The Beautiful Sea, focuses on songs with maritime themes. The Krals bookend their program with the 1914 chestnut “By the Beautiful Sea” resurrected in a sparkling samba setting. In between, they interweave standards (“Moon Over Miami,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Sand in My Shoes”) with more recent material by Herbie Hancock, Dave Frishberg, John Simon, and Mark Murphy. “Boats,” a delicate, soothing calypso composed by Tommy Wolf in memory of the Kral’s daughter Niki, who died in a 1973 automobile accident, is perhaps the album’s highlight, unlike anything else the pair has recorded to date.
If you closely compare Cain’s singing on The Beautiful Sea with recordings she made four or five decades ago, you may detect a whisper of wear in her vibrant voice, a minor diminution for which she more than compensates with greater sophistication in her melodic embellishments and more expressive delivery of lyrics. The same comparison may reveal that Roy’s singing is stronger and more confident than in his salad days, and his piano playing and arranging have evolved far beyond the harmonic vocabulary of bebop. As he observes in the liner notes, “If you really love music you tackle the best of everything….They don’t know how to label usjazz, cabaret, singing classical counterpoint with a symphony, we do it all.”
If calendars are the sole measures of age, I suppose Cain and Kral must be regarded as old-timers. But if energy, creativity, and an unwavering dedication to art also serve as indexes, they make most of us seem like geezers. Isn’t it time the bureaucrats charged with making such designations proclaim them national treasures?CP
Round About is not available locally, but it can be obtained by faxing Fancy Faire
at 773-763-3238 or e-mailing