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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Mel Tormé:
The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985
Rhino R2 71589 Vocals


 

The sound of Mel Tormé's voice is one of the most pleasant things imaginable. Certain voices are a matter of taste: June Christy (we like her), Dean Martin (that vibrato really bugs us), Ethel Merman (Blow, Gabriel Blow!). Other voices are universally pleasing (Ella, Frank and Nat come to mind). Mel Tormé has such a swell voice that he could have made a career just being a regular crooner, but what makes him such a great talent is that he continually has taken chances with melodies, rhythms and harmony. The fact that he has been so inventive is also probably why the general population doesn't consider him in the same league as Ella, Frank and Nat.

We don't fault Tony Bennett for his newfound celebrity among MTV viewers and nouveau lounge lizards. He can be very good but Tormé is exciting. A new generation rediscovering great music can have some trouble putting the whole story into perspective but this fancy box set will help put Mel on top where he belongs.

There are so many great tracks on this collection that it can be overwhelming. Disc One covers mostly his work with the Mel-Tones, a singing ensemble that included Exotica guru Les Baxter. Tormé earned his nickname "The Velvet Fog" during this period and it's clear why. The recordings and arrangements sound a bit dated now and 22 tracks seem like a lot but there's much to enjoy.

The performances on Disc Two in comparison with the ones preceding it are almost like the difference between black & white and color films. We start out with a live solo gig at Gene Normand's Crescendo nightclub where Mel swings and banters freely. Both All This and Heaven Too and Isn't It Romantic from his Lp It's a Blue, Blue World are gorgeous. In fact, this is our new favorite version of Isn't it Romantic. The disc continues with the great tracks from his Bethlehem records era. These works with the piano-less Marty Paich "Dek-Tette" are really what secured Tormé as one of the greats and the song selection here is intelligent and well thought out.

Disc Three continues with the same strong material from various labels and moods. There's a great novelty number in the English-language version of Ernesto Lecuona's Malagueña, with orchestration by Billy May. The only track from the really wild Mel Tormé Swings Schubert Alley is Too Close for Comfort, which seems like a slight considering how perfect and important this album was. Still, the highlights are too numerous to mention.

Disc Four poses some big problems. We like the beatnik version of 42nd Street but the Esquivel-inspired take on Vince Guaraldi's Cast Your Fate to the Wind is a mess. What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life is a definitive version but why even include the Tormé-penned A Day in the Life of Bonnie and Clyde? His vocal version of Comin' Home Baby with Ray Charles' Raelettes is cute but the follow-up Right Now sounds trite. True, the '70s and even the '80s proved troublesome eras for classic vocalists but these selections seem disjointed and at odds with his recorded output at the time. Almost anything from his strong 1977 release The London Sessions (Sandstone D2 33083-2) is better than his duet with Barry Manilow's Big City Blues. It's just not a good song and neither is the inexplicable Theme From Arthur (The Best That You Can Do), which has the added feature of sounding as if it were recorded in a shoe box. Even more curious is the lack of anything representing his later work with George Shearing. This might have been due to licensing restrictions.We've seen these fellows live and have many of their platters. Their output is among the best of both of their careers.

Disc Four aside, we couldn't have hoped for a better tribute to one of the finest singers anywhere. Our advice is to buy the box, buy Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (Verve 821 581-2), buy anything by Mel and George Shearing on the Concord Jazz label and then continue filling in the gaps as you go. We must also mention how good the accompanying 62-page booklet is. Author Will Freidwald (Jazz Singing) has cleverly and concisely summed up Tormé's career and music in his usual witty way. We read the Tormé autobiography It Wasn't All Velvet and while it was somewhat interesting, reading about his gun, motorcycle and wife collecting wasn't as good as reading about his music.

Original review appeared Summer 1996
 

Cesaria Evora:
Mar Azul
Melodie 79533-2
Miss Perfumado
Melodie 79540-2
 

"Painfully beautiful" describes these haunting CDs. Evora is from Cape Verde, which the tourist books advise is only interesting if you're keen on seeing how Africans deal with relentless drought, but the secret to these islands is the Portuguese/African mix that sounds so familiar thanks to Brasil and so new thanks to Cape Verde. Don't leave your music dealer without a copy of at least one of the above.

Winter 93

 

Martin Denny
Exotica I & II
Scamp SCP 9712-2
Easy Listening/
Lounge/Exotica

Anyone with even a passing interest in the Exotica and Lounge trends should purchase this perfect re-issue of Martin Denny's seminal Exotica and Exotica Volume II. The sound is great, the original cover art retained and the additional liner notes are by Denny himself.

We've previously mentioned how much we preferred the complete re-release of Afro-desia (Scamp SCP 9702-2)to the Rhino compilation Exotica: The Best of Martin Denny (Rhino R2 70774). Exotica I & II further makes the case that the original music in the original context makes more sense, at least most of the time.

The combination of Denny's percussive piano and Arthur Lyman on vibes is as key to the Exotica sound as George Shearing's piano/vibes mix was to cocktail jazz. Augie Colon on percussion (and bird calls!) provides the fire the same way Armando Peraza did for Shearing.

The temptation is to dismiss these Denny recordings as camp. Yes, the bird calls and jungle noises are funny and there might be a few musical clichés here and there but the real reason the Denny legend has lasted for so long is the music. Denny knew a good hook when he heard it and his choice of songs (excluding Ebb Tide) was more important than the camp.

Summer 96
 

Sammy Davis, Jr.
The Wham of Sam
Reprise/Warner
945637-2

For reasons we'd like to forget, we were once stuck just outside of Seattle in a boring hotel room during a rainstorm. Desperate for something to do and having limited capitol, we made our way to the hotel's gift shop where the selection of paperbacks was so meager that the only thing even remotely readable was a Sammy Davis, Jr. autobiography. If this sounds like your idea of hell, we understand. As far as we were concerned, along with most of our generation, Davis was the man who embraced Richard Nixon on television, played second fiddle to Sinatra in the Rat Pack and sang the retarded song The Candy Man.

On this same trip to Seattle, we happened to call our mater, Lady Luck as we like to call her, and casually mentined the Davis book. Did she ever perk up! To her, he was hip. Her generation saw Davis as a cool cat who went where the action was. So much for perspective.

Looking back, we now see Davis was pretty amazing in many ways. We would never have hugged Nixon, but the "youthquake" of the sixties promised much more than it delivered. In a weird way, the Rat Pack was diverse ethnically and everybody played second fiddle to Sinatra, not just Davis. As for The Candy Man, there's no real excuse but to discount Davis' talent on his one big hit would be a shame.

Davis had a tremndous voice that was abused by the I'll-Do-Anything-for-Approval school of show business. Luckily, he made some great recordings and here we have one of the best. The Wham of Sam is a collection of dates with arranger Marty Paich that will knock you out. While the arrangements obviously are bound to sound like a Mel Tormé set (see the Mel Tormé review above), Davis has a distinct voice and a wild sense of rhythm. We've played this CD over and over and it's so completely musical that we'd have trouble picking a favorite track.

October 94

 

Nancy Wilson
Ballads, Blues & Big Bands:
The Best of Nancy Wilson
Capitol CDP 7243 8 34886 2 9

When Nancy Wilson burst on the scene in the 1960s, she was part of a new generation of post- Big Band vocalists. Singers like Diana Ross, Leslie Gore and Joanie Sommers were certainly more in vogue but except for a brief period in the early '70s, there's always been a place for a good vocalist, no matter what the trend.

Nancy Wilson has a sexy voice and during the period covered by this three-CD set, she made few bad records but there's a sameness to the way she approaches each song that starts to get boring. Dinah Washington, especially as she matured, had the same problem. You could read from the album cover the list of songs and figure out exactly how she'd phrase each song. They both did their jobs well but there weren't many surprises.

The tracks here are all good but by the end of the first disc we caught ourselves asking, "There are two more to go?" We much prefer re-issues of complete albums to compilations in general, but for Nancy Wilson, we almost insist on it. Individually, albums like The Swingin's Mutual (Capitol Jazz CDP 7 99190 2) or her date with Cannonball Adderly (Capitol CDP 7 484552) are great and recommended. This huge collection might be overkill but that's not meaning to dismiss Wilson's talent.

Summer 96
 

 Let's Go: Mexico!


Jorge Negrete 

When it came to Latin American music, we'd always pooh-poohed mighty Mexico. Latin pop musicians and singers from all over the Americas have always strived to break into the massive Mexican market and more often than not they've produced a mediocre, not unpleasant, international sort of pop music. On a more folkloric level, we've always loved the mariachi bands but we've always found it a bit frustrating because the stomping rhythms make us want to dance but to what step? We appreciate the Norteño and Tex-Mex bands but they really don't make our heart flutter the same way a wild mambo does. We appreciated Mexico's art, masks made from coconuts, novenas (candles with different saints on them), beaches, cuisine (almost obsessively) and language but to our shame we just skimmed over the music.

Comparing Mexico's music to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brasil, Peru , Colombia or even Argentina isn't really fair. The history, content and attitude are totally different. Much of the music is about having a good time and yelping and hooting are encouraged. It's without a trace of cynicism and that can be off-putting to your average callous sophisticate.

Our romance started when talented musicologist and musician Bro. Cleve came back from a tour of among other things, the danzon halls of Mexico. The danzon is a fairly popular Cuban ballroom dance that led to the mambo but in Mexico it remains a dancehall favorite. Bro. Cleve was kind enough to send us a tape of some of the best music and on the flip side were recordings by the weird and wonderful Astrid Hadad. Hadad sings traditional rancheras with a traditional band and has a voice that knocks our socks off. If Linda Ronstadt (who has a fine voice) weren't so conscious of every note that came out of her mouth and came equipped with a sense of humour, she just might come close to the magic of Astrid Hadad.

The really great news is that the best of Hadad is now available domestically on ¡Ay! (Rounder Records CD 5065). Much as Fellini and Rota created a fantasy that became our idealized version of Italy, Astrid Hadad creates the carefree, drunken, painful version of Mexico we search for but don't quite seem to find.

The opening number, Los Tarzanes, never fails to receive an hysterical reaction when we play it for our guests. It has it all: humour, big soaring notes, a rowdy backup band encouraging Hadad on and a great beat. Much of the rest of the album follows this lead and we have to say it's one of the few discs we've purchased in the last few years that we've played incessantly, almost to the point of being sick of it. Most of the songs are new to our ignorant ears but the proprietor of our favorite Mexican restaurant in San Francisco merrily sang along to most all of the numbers when we gave her a copy. The one tune we were familiar with is Por un Amor, thanks to La Ronstadt, but there's no contesting who does the better version.

Enthusiastic about the possibilities of Mexican music, we thought we'd try to find some decent mariachi music on disc. This proved to be a bit more difficult. Many of the recordings are from third and fourth generation masters and the sound quality is abysmal. The Mariachi Vargas is the most renowned of mariachi bands but we couldn't find any superior contemporary albums. We did find some pretty rotten things by bands that made use of the electric bass or even drums and we started to get frustrated with our search.

Just because the album art looked nice, we gambled on Mariachi Cobre's Este Es Mi Mariachi(Kukuck/Celestial Harmonies 11105-2) and we were rewarded with a great hour of everything that makes mariachi great. The opener, La Madrugada, isn't anything special but the title that follows, Las Tres Huastecas, is a real flag-waver of a number. It has a strong melody and an intricate string arrangement that builds to a mighty breathtaking crescendo. Most of the numbers are at least strong and many are memorable. All of the vocalists have those soaring caballero voices that make the weak melt. In fact, aside from the top-notch musicianship, the highlight of these recordings is the male voice. For such a macho culture, it's fascinating that they hit those sissy falsetto yodels whenever they can. In lesser hands this could be a disaster, but vocal discipline is a key aspect of Mariachi Cobre. A quasi-operatic version of the classic Estrellita (Esquivel fans take note) is what makes us melt.

Feeling lucky, we tried Mariachi Cobre's most recent release, XXV Aniversario (Black Sun 15022-2). It's fine but the blood never boils the way it does on Este Es Mi Mariachi. Not to be discouraged, we got a hold of Mariachi Cobre (Kuckuck/Celestial Harmonies 11095-2) from 1992. Pay dirt! The intricate strings were back with El Balajú, the passion was in an instrumental version of Guadalajara and the singing on El Pastor with the falsetto climbing higher and higher makes us weak in the knees.

All three albums have the occasional klunker where folk music meets Mexi-pop but it's really too rare to worry about.

Completely humbled by the music and our previous attitude towards Mexican music we persisted and dug into the archives to find traditional favorites. As you can tell, we tend to get a bit obsessive when we discover something we like. RCA has released a series of ranchera greats on their budget line and you'd be safe to buy most any of them. Particularly important is Lucha Reyes' 12 Exitos Rancheros (RCA 743213114026). Astrid Hadad cites Reyes as an influence and her dramatic over-the-top readings are great. She strikes us as the Edith Piaf of Mexico. Also good is the Jorge Negrete collection, also titled 12 Exitos Rancheros (RCA 743213113821). Many of Negrete's songs are classics, like Hijo del Pueblo and Adiós Pampa Mia, but this collection doesn't include our favorite, Los Altos de Jalisco.

One huge mistake is to buy titles on the Orfeon label. It's tempting because they are moderately priced and feature great names but almost all of the ones we purchased are vintage recordings of vocals with new orchestrations, not particularly well done. The original recordings are iffy at best and seem at odds with the rest of the orchestra.

Summer 96


 



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Scientific, Accurate
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5 Martinis = Classic
4 Martinis = Great
3 Martinis = Good
2 Martinis = Fair
1 Martini = Poor

 

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