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JAZZ | Spotlight

With a Song (or Two) in Their Hearts

May 21, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The jazz singers just keep coming. Some old, some new, some singing something borrowed, some singing the blues. And this month as, it seems, in almost every month, the records are flying in from all directions.

* Bob Dorough, "Too Much Coffee Man" (*** 1/2, Blue Note). The word that keeps coming to mind while listening to Dorough in action here is "joy." Although the material ranges all over the place, as it usually does in his albums, there is an implicit subtext, an optimism--and not a sappy one--that flavors each of his renderings. Dorough has had plenty of down moments in his 76 years, more than most in fact, but he is living testimony to Abraham Lincoln's assertion that "Most folks are about as happy as they choose to be."

Dorough's version of "The Coffee Song (They've Got a Lot of Coffee in Brazil)" swings with reckless abandon, driven hard by his vocal and Phil Woods' alto saxophone. But he can, as well, be tender without being maudlin--notably so in his own poignant "There's Never Been a Day"--and completely at ease with the irony in a tune such as "Yesterday, I Made Your Breakfast." And that's only a quick overview of an album filled with delights. Dorough, who performs June 1-3 at the Jazz Spot in Los Feliz, is a certifiable American classic.

*

Freddy Cole, "Merry-Go-Round" (***, Telarc Jazz). Cole's own classic qualities have been shadowed by having had an older brother named Nat King Cole, who also played the piano and sang. But Freddy uses his somewhat darker-hued timbre as the foundation of a style that, despite its clear connections with the Cole legacy, is very much his own expression. Performing here with a fine set of accompanists that includes pianist-arranger Cedar Walton, bassist George Mraz and a five-man horn section spotlighting the trumpet of Lew Soloff, Cole finds gold in almost everything he touches. He is aided by a program that embraces some lesser-heard material--Bobby Scott's title track, "Merry-Go-Round," Alfred Newman's "Through a Long and Sleepless Night," Bill Withers' "Watching You, Watching Me" and Cole Porter's "You're Sensational." His interpretations manage to both swing and satisfy, to set the musical comfort level high while keeping the feet tapping.

*

Jane Monheit, "Never Never Land" (***, N-Coded Music). OK, the name isn't familiar, but here's a flat-out guarantee that it will be within the year. And if you want to have fun with jazz-fan friends, play one of the ballad tracks--say, "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)"--and ask them how old they think the singer is. Then watch their reaction when you tell them that Monheit is 22; she sings like a jazz vocalist with decades of experience. The runner-up to Teri Thornton in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition, she performs here, in her debut, with an all-star backup group that includes pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lewis Nash and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.

That's pretty fast company, but Monheit, especially in her ballad work, is fully up to the task, singing tunes such as "Detour Ahead," "Dindi" and "Never Let Me Go" with a gorgeous tone, a sure talent for storytelling and an enviable knack for finding the essence of a musical line. Her up-tempo work is not yet at the level of her slower material, but don't forget, she's still very young, and there undoubtedly will be much more to come.

*

George Benson, "Absolute Benson" (***, GRP Records). It's not really a vocal album, as such, but this new outing includes just enough of Benson's inimitable voice to merit listing in this roundup. Two of the vocal tracks--Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto" and a new, Benson-created mirror-image tune, "El Barrio"--showcase his hard-swinging scat style. And on Ray Charles' "Come Back Baby" he is on his best blues behavior, pouring gospel- and blues-tinged lines back and forth between his voice and his guitar. Most of the balance of the material fits neatly into the night-music, smooth-jazz style he does so well, enhanced in this case by the presence--on keyboards as well as via several compositions--of Joe Sample. And Sample's lines are always filled with such melodic appeal that one can only wonder why some of his tunes weren't outfitted with lyrics. One suspects that a Benson vocal version of "Deeper Than You Think," for example, could have added another hit to his long list of chart numbers.

*

Denise Jannah, "The Madness of Our Love" (** 1/2, Blue Note). Suriname-born, Netherlands-based singer Jannah is one of a number of talented new jazz artists whose roots are in South America, singing vocal jazz with surprising ease and fluency. Blessed with a rich, dark sound, Jannah's second Blue Note outing focuses on standards--"Dearly Beloved," "My Favorite Things," "Just You, Just Me," etc.--a jazz item or two (" 'Round Midnight") and a few of her original pieces. Despite the attractiveness of her voice and the ease with which she approaches the material, however, Jannah is still sorting out her rhythmic articulation, which sometimes verges into a kind of stilted approach to swing. Nor does the production particularly support her with its emphasis on extended piano soloing from the competent, but not especially provocative, Bert Van Den Brink. Jannah has potential but needs more musical growth and seasoning. *

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