An old song, with memories strongly attached, can seem like an old friend. So can a singer who connects to the lyric and to us. Here are some older female singers with mostly older material—including "Old Friend," "Seems Like Old Times" and "Old Devil Moon." We begin with a lady who had her 81st birthday a couple of weeks ago.

BARBARA COOK
RAINBOW 'ROUND MY SHOULDER

DRG Records

"Maybe it's just growing older/ Maybe it's knowing a bit too much" could be an interview quote explaining why Barbara Cook's song interpretations capture and convey so much understanding, depth and humanity. In fact, that line is from "Harbour," written by Peter Allen, and it's one of the poignant pieces on this new CD. If you're feeling tired, blue or stressed, the beauty and warm wisdom radiating from Barbara Cook's voice on her newest CD is the balm. It's "good for anything that ails you," to invoke the title of one of its zippier tracks, even though a large number of the songs are on the sad side. With Barbara's convincing interpretations and painting pictures in song, the sorrow and loneliness feel devastatingly real and the bursts of ebullient expression have a layer of gratitude not taken lightly. For example, her wonderment and awe come through as she phrases the line, "I am simply thunderstruck at this change in my luck" from "Lucky to Be Me," which could have been simply an upbeat assumption of good times in less creative hands. "The unexamined life is not worth living" might be the credo for both the happy and sorrowful numbers here.

Using humor deftly in a daffy ditty is the recipe for her success when Cook sings about "Cookin' Breakfast for the One I Love," a song once warbled by Fanny Brice. The arrangement was done by the singer's longtime music director, the late, much-missed Wally Harper. The very talented Lee Musiker, pianist and new music director, did the new settings and is credited as co-arranger for a few tracks addressed in past performances. A small band is employed here. This CD is not about bravura performances; the pick-me-ups are on the light, breezy side; and the love-gone-wrong times are not about belty torch singing, but rather quiet, pained reflection. However, that doesn't mean emotions are not deeply felt and worn on the sleeve.

When she laments, it's not an opportunity for "poor me!" tears—there's an examination of feelings and causes, as if to examine, communicate and justify each statement, almost playing winning defense attorney for the lyricist. The stage veteran is an actress whose raw material is a story set out in rhymed lines, and she is a gifted singer whose vocal colors can be selected to match any needed hue. Barbara and her arrangers see the potential, even hidden, possibilities in songs beyond the obvious and previously used path. Sometimes that means slowing down the accustomed tempo or just slight pauses to break up the rush of music and words to bring emphasis to a word or moment. The old song "I'm Through with Love," is one that other singers have tossed off cutely or quaintly. Not Barbara. Conveying the burden of the bleak future to be really "through with love" as someone who says, "I mean to care for no one," is far more interesting. Throughout the selections, Barbara's phrasing and intensity on the serious songs brings out an analytical assessment.

In the past, there have been numerous re-recordings of songs (and not necessarily in strikingly different ways) on Barbara Cook's studio albums and, more understandably, on her numerous live albums. She does that again here, but it's not as extensive or egregious as might appear. Any singer with a decades-spanning recorded oeuvre should be entitled to take a second crack after a time lag of half a century; that's the case with "Where or When" (also found on her Rodgers and Hart collection, Songs from the Heart, released in 1959). This new CD's three medleys—or rather, song pairings— use a number recorded/released rather recently as a stand-alone piece to serve as effective-in-juxtaposition follow-up companion pieces to comment on a newer choice. "Smile" (heard on 2005's Tribute) becomes the stoic but encouraging advice to one's self following the aforementioned "I'm Through With Love." Two Stephen Sondheim creations from her last album do similar—and similarly effective—duty: the pleading, burdened "No More" is joined with the despair-ridden and desertion reflected in the title song from Lost in the Stars; and "I Wish I Could Forget You" from the Passion score full of sung letters of unrequited love is a latter day cousin to the oldie "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (with its fantasy " ... and make believe it came from you"). The latter song is usually done with bounce and/or sauciness, but Cook takes it slowly and seriously and milks its loneliness. Track seven, "Sooner or Later," is not Sondheim's tune but an older, same-named, but also sly, confection Barbara previously essayed on her Disney Album.

The new and very welcome album includes one very recent song, John Bucchino's heartbreaking "If I Ever Say I'm Over You." Otherwise, it's old favorites like "Old Devil Moon" and the wistfully wondering "For All We Know" which ends the album with its plea to "make this moment sweet again." With a song's treasured old friend, sweet-voiced Barbara Cook, that's a given.

TERI RALSTON
I GOTTA GET BACK TO NEW YORK
(LIVE AT THE METROPOLITAN ROOM)

LML Music

When Teri Ralston sings about the treasured visits with a supportive "Old Friend," she really feels like one to the audience, whether you're listening alone in your living room or with company for a little night music at The Metropolitan Room, the nightclub in Manhattan where her CD was recorded live (She returns to the Metropolitan with this memory lane act again this coming Monday night, November 17.) The veteran actress may already feel like an old friend to theatre lovers and cast album fans. We welcome back her silvery Sondheim-saturated soprano and personality-plus tang of a voice (especially here) with a more down-to-earth accessibility as herself. Her cozy, rosy outlook comes through with plenty of drama, but it has a real-deal feel, not show bizzy or "grande dame" by any means.

I'm already lost in her charms by the time she gets to Annie Get Your Gun's "I Got Lost In His Arms" and "Old Friend," from Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. She was in both shows along her own theatrical road around the country, and brings a personal glow and know-how to these and others.

What an overflowing basket of goodies this CD is. Teri recreates her bilingual "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife that is a mini-gem in any language. She also relates an anecdote about that production not getting its act together while taking it on the road (its composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz is in the house at The Metropolitan Room and pipes up with a quip). "No Fears," Amanda McBroom's damn-the-metaphorical-torpedoes/ full speed ahead approach to life is affirming and moving. A studio bonus track, "The Road Not Taken," is not to be confused with Follies' "The Road You Didn't Take" but is a similarly themed exploration of the avenue of regrets that often intersects the street of dreams. It's from Too Old For the Chorus by Marie Cain, Mark Winkler (album producer) and Shelly Markham (the pianist/arranger/ album associate producer). The live tracks feature a trio completed by bassist Jered Egan and Shannon Ford, and each of the two studio bonus songs has different musicians.

Teri has a long history of work on Stephen Sondheim projects, both performing and directing: Jenny in Company and one of the quintet in A Little Night Music (original casts of both in the 1970s), and the master songwriter's work is well represented. There are Sondheim sound bites and in some of the wisely included patter that really is worth preserving (Teri has a ready laugh and a ready wit—in person, a ready smile). Speaking of time marching on, she talks cheerily about the reality check when she was offered a role in a recent production of ... Night Music and it was to play the aged grandmother role of Madame Armfeldt. Without spoiling the surprise and fun, I'll just say that a medley of songs from these two shows is adorable, but be forewarned that it's not about big chunks of the songs. Follies gets the big nod: Sally's songs "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" (a studio version as a bonus track), plus the London production addition, "Make the Most of Your Music." Each is fine, but that London addition is actually the most rewarding—not just because it's rarely done, but because it has a little of everything: sly humor, a wink, big notes, big ending, self-aggrandizement, self-deprecation and spunk. Teri "gets" Sondheim, perhaps even more so because she has directed several of his shows. Another old friend, from the original Company, Pamela Myers guests for solos on her showstopper "Another Hundred People" and finds a surprising characterization and point of view for the 1960s pop song, "Little Green Apples," making it a belated cabaret-worthy character piece.

HELEN MARCOVICCI
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES

AndreaSong

Dignity and elegance are the adjectives that keep coming to mind when I listen to Helen Marcovicci. She's rather regal, too, by design or just the naturally elegant sound of her arrestingly direct voice. The lady is also formal in her approach, but that is not to say that she sounds aloof or standoffish. Imagine a human cello with a fur collar and you get the idea. I enjoy her new album very much, and her unadorned style and respect for the songs is refreshing in its back-to-basics approach that would make trimmings and embellishments unnecessary. There's not as much Helen here as I'd wish: the album is a mere 36 minutes in length, and some tracks have longer-than-usual piano introductions as was more common in old times, and Seems Like Old Times is in many ways a throwback to back then. However, the good news is that the pianist very much on the same page and mindset of unadorned musicality is Shelly Markham; he's also been the accompanist/music director for some time now (in live performance and recordings) for another Marcovicci, Andrea, the storied storytelling cabaret star. Andrea is appearing currently at The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, for an extended run. It is the tradition that her mother, who has now reached her 90th birthday and is in fine form, guests on Thursday night shows. In person, she makes a strong and emotional impression, too. To reflect the memories inspired by the album's title song, Seems Like Old Times has a picture of Mrs. Marcovicci as a young woman; she performed as a singer under the name Helen Stuart before retiring to be a wife and mother full time.

Sure, knowing a woman has entered her tenth decade affects the experience of listening. If you're expecting a disclaimer or adjusted "grading curve" from me, it's not really needed. The vintage songs and songstress sound lovely and moving. There's not a huge range here (in style or mood); the singer is not taking shortcuts when going through these melodies—she has an attractive, dark-hued, dramatic and deep voice and yes, she hits the notes with no real need to say, "Well, she's 90." It's more, "Wow! She's 90?" One also imagines a wealth of memories, yellowed scrapbook pages and love letters, pressed flowers in a memory case and other recollections firmly pressed into the mind when Helen Marcovicci sings something like the title song or the vow to be true in love until "The Twelfth of Never." An elegance (not faded, but perhaps clung to and a bit fragile) emanates from Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night," a piece that works well with a certain majestic grace. Less effective is "It All Depends on You" which depends on a lighter touch.

There are a couple of curiosities here. The skimpy packaging gives no clues. Why the odd choice of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"? Is Mrs. M. a baseball fan? Is it because this all-American classic is celebrating its own landmark birthday this year (it was published 100 years ago)? Is the disappointing and disjointed "Blue Skies" meant to sound like an informal family sing-along gathering? It feels like a tentative, unmixed rehearsal as daughter and pianist share the singing just on this track, and this song, which doesn't really inspire interaction or musical conversation, seems an odd choice that doesn't keep the three on the same page or have a raison d'ĂȘtre. What does come through is the perspective and awareness of time passing and its value.

Like the new Barbara Cook album, with which it shares the song of possible goodbye instead of goodnight, "For All We Know," this album has a sense of making moments count. Rather than the more commonly chosen "Smile," Helen opts for the more nostalgic and sentimental "Smiles" ("there are smiles that make us happy, there are smiles that make us blue"). I get the sense that there is more than music to impart—some wisdom perhaps born of a few tears, plus a respect for life without ever being blatantly effusive. But the pleasures in the music on this memorable CD is enough.


Until next time, old friends ... (and new ones).


- Rob Lester


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