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Male vocals (with some partners)
Review by Rob Lester

Here are two male singers with strong personalities and new albums. They sing with partners and both are singing eclectic material.

CHEYENNE JACKSON
RENAISSANCE

P.S. Classics

Well, the little booklet with the Cheyenne Jackson album doesn't tell us if the CD title Renaissance refers to him bringing back numerous songs from the 1960s and other eras or if it is positing him as a renaissance man, but either way it works. The 12 titles (why only 12?) that we get make the case for styles. The varied tracks are impressive, individually and collectively. They showcase his voice and its range as well as his comfort level and mastery of several different pop styles ... with the theatrical flair not at all absent.

Using various arrangers and some guest singers, there are tracks that feel like homages to iconic records by some iconic singers; the more cynical among us might find them to be more in the category of copycatting, but I think the close replications feel affectionately like tips of the hat to the past. Some phrasing and accompaniment figures seem intended to bring nostalgic tugs for those who will recall such hits as the father-daughter duet of "Somethin' Stupid" sung famously by Frank and Nancy Sinatra—a kind of goofy guilty pleasure back in the day. It's a cute and cozy partnering with Jane Krakowski closely modeled on the original. Those looking for a throwback to back-in-the-day AM radio hit fodder categorized as "easy listening" might smile with recognition. Older repertoire goes back to "Angel Eyes" wherein the singer is joined by a terrific male vocal trio: Michael Winther, Paul Castree, and Jason Pintar. It's wonderful harmonizing. Jonathan Bartz is vocal arranger. They recall any number of 1950s quartets, like The Four Freshmen, the Four Aces, and the Four Lads. But no worries—no cheese factor here.

The Sam Cooke signature "A Change Is Gonna Come" is soulfulness to the max and shows another convincing side. In the melodramatic category, there's "I (Who Have Nothing)" recorded by Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, non-subtle singers for sure. We enter the 1970s by the end with Elton John's first hit "Your Song" co-written with his usual partner Bernie Taupin and nods to the past go on. Another talent is revealed with a song Jackson co-wrote, "Red Wine Is Good for My Heart," which sounds more like it would be for a novelty song or a corny country thing, but it's serious. His co-writer is the man he shared a nightclub act and prior album with—the estimable Michael Feinstein. It is a sincere and straightforward number and refreshingly unpretentious. I like the way the arrangement just ends with no grand crescendo or instrumental statement.

The album's pianist is the never disappointing /always creative and stretching Tedd Firth. On two tracks he is featured as accompanist and they are major highlights allowing Mr. Jackson to relax the tempo and be the actor, with backphrasing and a more individual style that doesn't make the beat become the engine. They are Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" and the aforementioned original song. Stepping outside the box of American-focused pop, we get "Americano" and the evergreen "Besame Mucho." These add a sultry tone and vibrancy. They percolate.

Cheyenne Jackson may be more of a chameleon than we thought. In Renaissance, we still hear some traces of the Elvis influence that got under his skin in his breakout Broadway role All Shook Up which used Presley hits and a Presley type character. We do have one song here that owes its birth to Broadway: "Feeling Good" from the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse score The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd but it's not a la cast album; it's very very much in the mold of the Michael Buble recording which started quite a renaissance of its own for this number. It's one which so many singers have been adding to their set list in nightclubs and some singing contests. You can see why—it's an exciting number that builds and seeds and celebrates and allows the singer to create drama and let our man strut his vocal stuff and sizzle. In fact, the whole CD is a sizzler—hot stuff.

MARCUS SIMEONE (AND GUESTS)
TOGETHER

Miranda Music

Together are singer Marcus Simeone and other members of the family of artists on the Miranda Music label, a recording company focused on New York City-based cabaret artists, and a Godsend to them and their fans. This album is a collection of duets that serves as a virtual family reunion for this group of performers, many of whom have been crossing paths in the smallish world of the same Manhattan nightclubs for years. Stylish stylist Simeone has been simplifying his approach to music for the good, cutting out some distracting habits and putting the spotlight more and more on the story of the song. Thus he has joined the ranks of communicators rather than making so much of the performance about self and voice. Embellishments and ornamentation are more judiciously employed. His always remarkable range and vocal sheen sound better than ever here.

Ironically, the album's high bar-setting opener finds him as the sole singer (and one can also say "soul singer" in several of the cases of tracks on the disc) with the "duet" partner concept being a match-up with guitarist extraordinaire Sean Harkness on "Caught Up in the Rapture." His match-ups with the various vocalists don't always find the other person at her best (the established chanteuses making for a bevy of women, except for a brief a capella male duet with Marcus and his husband, Greg Kay Jones (aka Gregory Kennell) at the very end, with sixty seconds of gentle affirmation of their love, "Just Remember." The women are all fine singers, but not always shown at their very best here; I have heard all but Emilie Surtees in person and on disc to better advantage. That is not say this is a case of duds or even near-misses—it's just that the arrangements and song choices don't always suit them and their voices are not always in their primo comfort zone. Nevertheless, the album is definitely worth a listen for its many intriguing and satisfying moments. Marcus seems to be in the driver's seat and comes off quite well indeed on most cuts, seemingly more at home with the material, and certainly on home ground with his usual musical director/arranger/pianist, multiple award-winning Tracy Stark.

The aforementioned Emilie Surtees sounds exciting and well suited to a more R&B style that Marcus Simeone often gravitates to with their "I Am Free," where some stretching of notes and silky sounds are suitable and just right. It's from the recorded oeuvre of, and a co-writing credit for, Mariah Carey. Polished grandness and unleashed emotional highs and lows carry the day. For my tastes, it's one of several tracks where I find Marcus and his colleagues far more interesting and compelling than the pop material itself. To some extent, despite the elephant-in-the-room frustration of not liking the material all that much, I can listen past that and appreciate the performances and efforts and enjoy the voices. (I picked up this skill many years ago when some vocalists I loved tried their hands and throats at disco and other this-too-shall-pass passing trends in music.)

There's some schmaltz here, too, or perhaps the fluff of cotton candy. Still, I am glad to hear Maria Ottavia, who did a show of Richard Rodgers material with Marcus, even if they are saddled with the less interesting "No Plans for the Future" and a Lisa Stansfield hand-me-down "All Around the World," not quite a downer with Stacy Sullivan's vocal blend. Their tightly entwined close harmony is intriguing to the ear even if the song is not so engaging lyrically or musically. They may come off best as a matched pair, complementing each other nicely. Bobbie Horowitz's parody of the standard "Autumn in New York" is more of a teaser that ends suddenly with a good joke, but one may want to see where else it will go. The loveable Kathleen France is his co-star for this cameo, but she can do so much more than this 100 seconds of comic cuteness. Sue Matsuki sounds swell and sweetly unaffected when she gets to sing a swath of "Them There Eyes," but it is positioned as part of a lame attempt at humor in a mashup wasting Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" as a joke about non-attraction with tiresome spoken asides from both. A West Side Story medley pairing the guy with the endearing Marissa Mulder owes more than a little to the Barbra Streisand/Johnny Mathis record. They don't seem to be quite on the same page—she sounding innocent and he dynamic and forceful, more "mature." Yet another combo platter features Miranda Music's other most prolific recording artist, Karen Oberlin, with the standards "With a Song in My Heart" and "Without a Song" chosen, one assumes, for the similarity/contrast of their titles. But it feels overcooked and forced, even labored, despite being pretty. Lina Koutrakos and Hillary Kole are always welcome presences, but not close to their shining hours here.

Again, there are golden moments and admirably game work even though the order of tracks is not best for flow—it feels like a grab bag that is not quite the sum of its parts. But parts of the parts are more than partly satisfactory. That may be an odd review for an "odd duck" of a CD that is nevertheless something that works to quite a surprising extent and I suspect this just-released item will grow on me.


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