THE BLOG
06/05/2016 10:22 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Easy Listener: Sizzling-Hot Jazz/Cabaret CDs From Barb Jungr, Dane Vannatter, Barbara Fasano, Tony Yazbeck

There was a time not that long ago when cabaret rooms and jazz rooms were considered distinct territories. You might say the difference came down to--this is an extreme generalization, of course--the former venues being a place where lyrics took precedence and the latter venues being a place where melodies took precedence.

But to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan, whose work is now showing up in both arenas, things have changed. The reasons why are too extensive to go into here, but what's important for this report is that entertainers and musicians who previously would have restricted themselves to one locale or the other are crossing the street more often. Three of the four following CDs (check iTunes for availability)--are examples.

Shelter from the Storm - Barb Jungr - Linn: Truth is, she's shuttled between rooms for a while, but the collaboration with Laurence Hobgood, possibly best known these days for his collaboration with first-man-of-jazz-singing Kurt Elling, is a big step farther into jazz fields. Moreover, Jungr is so supernal at what she does that she transcends any sort of easy categorizing and rises to a uniquely higher plane. Part of the explanation is her ability to delve into songs and find things in them even their manufacturers hadn't realized were there. She's also committed to having a strong motive for any collection she puts together. Sensitive to how troubled the world is now, she's gathered these numbers together for their offering at least tentative hope. Unsurprisingly, she includes songs from her long-time fave raves Dylan and Leonard Cohen. With them she's found comforting, teasing messages from, for instance, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim and David Bowie, along with three atmospheric entries Hobgood and she have penned. In liner notes, Jungr writes, "Come ride our camel towards the oasis." Accept the invitation: Saddle the nearest camel quickly.

Give Me Something Real - Dane Vannatter - Dane Vannatter: Some warblers who concentrated on cabaret rooms have shifted their attention to jazz rooms. They've done so from expedience. At a time when the number of cabaret rooms around the country has been shrinking, they've had to make the lateral move in order to nail bookings. Whether that's Vannatter's tactic may or may not be, but as someone who's always been among the best of the cabaret crooners, he's made the transition smoothly. As evidenced here, he's loosened up the sort of standards to which he's always leaned while fronting several adroit musicians. Some of the songs are jazz-ready, and some may not sound as if they would be. The Hammerstein-Sigmund Romberg "Lover Come Back to Me" is one of the latter, whereas Billy Strayhorn's "Something to Live For" is one of the former. Both come off beautifully in Vannatter's hands and issuing from his smooth pipes. Perhaps the inspired track is a medley (mash-up is a more appropriate description) of Coldplay's "Fix Me" with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Perhaps the jolliest track is his take on Bob Haymes's "I Love My Bed."

Busy Being Free - Barbara Fasano - Human Child Records: Another ultra-classy cabaret singer, she realized some time ago that jazz rooms doubled her chances of a gig on Saturday night. She has tidily accommodated herself since. For one piece of evidence, she has Warren Vaché, than whom there is none better, on his evocative cornet here. Like Jungr, Fasano relishes the notion of a unifying theme and relishes its remaining not so blatant that it becomes didactic. Fasano's theme, subtly promoted, is temporality, impermanence. She stresses--but not by using a hammer to get the point across--that seizing the moment is the best way to enjoy life, or squeeze the most out of it. She establishes her sultry thesis immediately with the Philip Springer-Carolyn Leigh "How Little We Know." In the Hammerstein-Rodgers "The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top," she repeats the concluding lyric "Don't you wish it would go on forever." She closes her sweet sermon with the mysterious Rodgers-Lorenz Hart "Where or When." The range of songwriters to whom she turns in order to make a convincing case for her belief is traffic-stopping--among others, Joni Mitchell (who supplies the CD's title), Nellie Lutcher, Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson. Her sources are an indication of how discerning Fasano is. More than any of that, however, as a singer always at the top of her game, on this CD she's doing the best singing she's ever done. Every vowel, every consonant is intelligent, lush and sexy.

The Floor Above Me -- Tony Yazbeck - PS Classics: A hot Broadway triple-threat man of the moment, he's sticking strictly to cabaret mode. At he gets underway--singing and, get this!, tap-dancing, too--he does something that, as a matter of fact, is hardly unusual for cabaret performers: He tells the story of his show-biz life as well as his love life. (Wife Katie Hull makes a couple guest appearances). Until the listener realizes there's no applause at the ends of numbers, it seems as if Yazbeck is releasing a live recording of his cabaret act. That's close to a correct assumption. Yazbeck and writer Howard Emanuel have adapted the CD from the act already performed at jumping Manhattan joints Birdland and 54 Below (now Feinstein's/54 Below). The singer-dancer actor sculpted the piece after winning raves as Gabey in the 2014 On the Town revival. The CD attests to those wide-ranging skills. (Clyde Alves, who was Ozzie in the On the Town dust-off, also chimes in on voice and taps.) As with acts of this sort, Yazbeck chooses songs to underlie and elaborate on his autobiographical data. He plucks them from the best 20th-century Broadway and Hollywood songwriters. Therefore, his sleek version of, say, the George and Ira Gershwin "Fascinating Rhythm" for Lady, Be Good! and Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat aren't surprising inclusions, whereas the John Lennon-Paul McCartney "Gotta Get You Into My Life" and Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" might be. Hold on. Anything having to do with dance is a natural fit for Yazbeck, of whom producer-director Hal Prince says in a liner endorsement, "No one I've ever seen has more talent."

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