More Standards to Which We Can Repair

By Roger E. Bissell

I join Robert L. Jones in his toast to the Great American Songbook (“Raising ‘The Standards’,” The New Individualist, Fall 2005). Not only did he give a much-deserved salute to the old-timers who helped keep the standards alive during the rock-dominated era of the latter 1900s, but he also drew our attention to the growing number of rock and pop singers who are introducing new generations to these quintessentially American artworks. Realizing that any such tribute is necessarily selective, I nevertheless have a few more examples to share with TNI’s readers, along with some factual corrections to Jones’s article.


In regard to the old-timers, I appreciate Jones’s citation of Sinatra’s “Duets” albums, and I have to add to this one of my absolute favorite recordings: Sinatra 80th – Live in Concert (Capitol, 1995). It is fascinating to compare his later versions of songs like “My Heart Stood Still” with earlier takes on albums like The Concert Sinatra (Reprise 1963/1999). In the intervening 30 years, there was a noticeable deterioration of Sinatra’s vocal quality, but an even more striking increase in the emotional depth of his treatment of the lyrics. Something to ponder for its implications far beyond pop and jazz vocal music.


Another of my favorites by a veteran singer is An Evening with Mel Torme – Live from the Disney Institute (Concord Records, 1996), the final recording by “The Velvet Fog.” I was privileged to hear Torme in live performance of the material on this CD just months before health problems ended his singing career, and I was astonished at the power and range of his vocal ability and expressiveness. Not only were his jazz and scat singing top-notch, but his ballad singing was lovely. “Stardust,” in particular, was (there are no other words for it) transcendentally beautiful.


Rocker Rod Stewart has (so far) cranked out four CDs of standards as part of his ambitious “The Great American Songbook” project: It Had to Be You (J-Records, 2002), As Time Goes By (J-Records, 2003), Stardust (J-Records, 2004), and Thanks for the Memory (J-Records, 2005). These are also available as a boxed set from J-Records. And say what you will about his raspy voice and over-the-top body language in his television and video performances of these songs, Stewart has done more than any other single artist in the past 25 years (with the possible exception of Linda Ronstadt) to help today’s young people connect with our American musical heritage.


Another rock-pop artist, Boz Scaggs, recently released what he called But Beautiful: Standards, Volume 1 (Gray Cat Records, 2003). Eschewing the usual lush big-band or orchestral settings, Scaggs instead went with a very sparse orchestration: piano, bass, drums, and saxophone. The arrangements are stylistically imaginative, the jazz solos are top-notch, and Scaggs’s mellow renditions left me eager for more. Two more CDs of standards that fans of Ray Charles will want to know about are The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1990) and Standards (Rhino, 1998). And veteran crooner Johnny Mathis has a wonderful compilation of songs by one of my favorite song-writing teams: How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Songs of Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (Sony, 1993). (Legrand and the Bergmans are who I want to be when I grow up.)


Honorable mention has to go to pop singer/songwriter James Taylor, for his ventures into classic American songs. In particular, check out “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” on Hourglass (Sony, 1997) and “The Nearness of You” on jazz sax superstar Michael Brecker’s Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (Umvd Labels, 2001).


Female vocalists have been even more prolific in their recording of the standards. “Best of Show” has to go to Maureen McGovern for her many fine CDs, a number of them focusing on particular songwriters. In addition to Another Woman in Love (Sony, 1987), State of the Heart (Sony, 1990), and The Pleasure of His Company (Sterling, 1998; this one performed as a duo with Mel Torme’s pianist, Mike Rienzi), I have to cite Naughty Baby – Maureen McGovern Sings Gershwin (CBS Records, 1989), Out of This World: McGovern Sings Arlen (Varese Records, 1996, reissued 2003), The Music Never Ends: The Lyrics of Alan & Marilyn Bergman (Varese Records, 1997, reissued 2003), and With a Song in My Heart: the Great Songs of Richard Rodgers (Centaur, 2001). A personal recommendation: her recordings of Arlen’s lesser known ballad, “Right as the Rain,” are just what the doctor ordered for rekindling one’s musical and personal romanticism.


Jones mentioned Linda Ronstadt’s recordings with Nelson Riddle: What’s New (Elektra, 1983) and Lush Life (Elektra, 1984), both of which were released before Riddle passed away in 1985, but he failed to mention the third Ronstadt-Riddle collaboration, which was released after Riddle’s death: For Sentimental Reasons (Elektra, 1986). Happily, these three albums were reissued as a double CD entitled Round Midnight. And speaking of “Lush Life,” another CD by the same name was released two years previously to Ronstadt’s by disco queen Donna Summer (Polygram Records, 1982, re-issued 1994). I personally prefer Summer’s rendition to the one by Ronstadt, but it is nothing short of amazing to me that either of them attempted this difficult song and pulled it off as well as they did.


Along with folk-rocker Carly Simon’s 1981 album Torch (Warner Brothers, re-issued in 1990), we should also note her other standards albums: My Romance (Arista, 1990), Film Noir (Arista, 1997), and Moonlight Serenade (Sony, 2005). Pop-jazz singer Toni Tenille has released two excellent albums of standards, one in 1988, Do It Again (re-released with additional tracks as More Than You Know (Varese Records, 2003) and, more recently, Incurably Romantic (Varese Records, 2001). I have personally performed with this artist, and her appreciation of jazz music and for the working musician make her a delight to work with.


More honorable mentions: Best Individual Performance goes to Gloria Estefan for her sparkling, romantic rendition of Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Tonight” on Dave Grusin Presents – West Side Story (Encoded Music, 1997). And Shocker of the Decade (for me, anyway) is awarded to Queen Latifah for The Dana Owens Album (Interscope Records, 2004), for her recordings of (yet another version of) “Lush Life,” “Close Your Eyes,” “If I Had You,” and “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the latter being a classic jazz reworking of the great standard, “I’m in the Mood for Love.”


Last, but not quite, is the relentlessly lush 7-CD compilation of recordings originally made in the 70s and 80s by the Singers Unlimited: Magic Voices (Polygram Records, 1998). Their baritone singer, Gene Puerling (along with the other two male singers), was one of the fabulous mid-20th century jazz vocal group, the Hi-Lo’s, and his arrangements for that group and the Singers Unlimited are legendary. There are hours and hours of pleasurable basking in these harmonically and rhythmically fresh renditions of the standards.


Finally, I have to mention – for obvious reasons – one Tony Bennett recording which is not currently available on CD. In 1969, Bennett recorded a very uplifting, dynamic version of “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” the title song of the album (Columbia, CS 9882). If you are a Bennett fan, and you do not already own this album, you may be able to find a copy of it in a used record store or on the Internet. A caveat: those preferring Sammy Davis Jr.’s more reverential take on the song might experience Bennett’s Count-Basie-like big-band jazz setting as tantamount to sacrilege, but I personally think it takes a great song to an even higher level.