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Friday, June 23, 2017

Open to Interpretation

Written by  Gregg Shapiro

Croatian string duo Two Cellos first came to our attention with its rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Since making its major-label debut in 2011, the pair has applied the classical crossover shtick to songs by Nine Inch Nails, U2, Sting, Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Coldplay, Radiohead, Muse, and even the Magnetic Fields, to name a few. On Score (Portrait), Two Cellos turns its attention to the music of the silver screen, and the work of legendary film composers such as Henry Mancini (“Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Ennio Morricone (“Cinema Paradiso”), Francis Lai (“Love Story”), Nino Rota (“Love Theme” from The Godfather), James Horner (“My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic), John Williams (“Main Theme” from Schindler’s List), and Vangelis (“Titles” from Chariots of Fire), among others, with a pleasing albeit safe outcome.

Broadway actress and award-winning cabaret goddess Karen Mason returns with It’s About Time (Zevely), her first new studio album in nearly 10 years. A gifted chanteuse deserving of wide renown, Mason’s unparalleled interpretative skills are on full display here. The primary focus of the album’s 14 tracks (including two bonus cuts) is Broadway musicals. “Finding Wonderland” is from the Frank Wildhorn musical Wonderland (in which Mason appeared as the Queen of Hearts). She puts a fresh bloom on “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (from Gypsy), and the medley of “Somewhere / Impossible Dream” (from West Side Story and Man of La Mancha, respectively) is a powerful pairing. Songs from musicals by composers not especially known for their Broadway work, such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David (“A House Is Not a Home” from Promises, Promises) and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (“Fifty Percent” from Ballroom) are also given their due. Gay fans are also sure to love the trio of Judy Garland songs (“Over the Rainbow,” “The Man that Got Away” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”), as well as the title tune, a same-sex wedding anthem co-written by Mason’s husband Paul Rolnick.

Los Straitjackets, the Mexican wrestling mask-wearing band from Nashville pay homage to living legend Nick Lowe on What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc). What’s more the 13 selections are instrumental surf-rock renditions of both familiar and lesser-known tunes from Lowe’s impressive catalog. It may take you minute, but you’ll surely recognize “Cruel To Be Kind,” “Heart of the City,” “Shake and Pop,” “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” and, of course, “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the song referenced in the album’s title. Also worth mentioning are “I Live On a Battlefield” and “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.”

Winner of the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, Jazzmeia Horn makes her album debut on A Social Call (Concord). Touching on scat-singing, gospel, soul and, of course jazz, Horn blows her way into our consciousness. She pays homage to Betty Carter (the title tune and “Tight”) and combines tunes in unexpected ways to create outstanding medleys as with “Lift Every Voice and Sing/Moanin’” and “Afro-Blue/Eye See You/Wade in The Water”. She also leaves her mark on contemporary statements-making R&B standards, including “People Make The World Go Round” and “I’m Going Down”. A Social Call is a welcome introduction.

A “nostalgic musical stroll through the golden age of Italian popular song,” the 11-track various artists compilation Vintage Italia (Putumayo) is as delicious as your favorite bowl of pasta and sauce. Drawn from deep within Italian music’s vaults, songs such as “Bocccuccia di Rosa” performed by Fred Buscaglione, Renzo Abore’s rendition of “Ba… Ba… Baciami Piccina” (which some might recognize from Rosemary Clooney’s “Botch-a-Me” version), Flo Sandon’s “T’ho Voluto Bene (Non Dimenticar),” “Musetto” sung by Nicola Argiliano and “Picocolissima Serenata” by Jula de Palma,” will have you seeing visions of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni zooming through the streets of Rome on Vespa. The addition of newer recordings such as Pink Martini’s version of “Ninna Nanna” and Quadro Nuevo’s cover of “Roma Nun Fa la Stupida Stasera” only add to the festive atmosphere.

A couple of vocal duos team up for tributes. Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke (Harbinger) by Sharon Paige and Keith Ingham features 16 compositions with lyrics by Johnny Burke and music by James Van Heusen (“But Beautiful,” “Swinging on a Star” and “Like Someone in Love”), Duke Ellington (“One Hundred Dreams from Now”) and Bob Haggart (“What’s New?”), as well as Burke himself (“He Makes Me Feel I’m Lovely”). In honor of Ella Fitzgerald’s centennial, Comes Love: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass (River Lily) by Patrice Williamson and Jon Wheatley celebrates Fitzgerald and her collaboration with guitarist Pass, on songs including “Lush Life,” “One Note Samba,” “By Myself,” “You Turned the Tables on Me,” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” as well as the title number.

Dutch jazz vocalist Fay Claassen gives listeners to reconsider familiar pop songs in new settings on Luck Child (Challenge). Her jazz vocal readings of songs by Paul Simon (“One Trick Pony”) and the Beatles (“Blackbird”) offer fresh takes on the tunes. The same is true for her rendition of traditional “Shenandoah,” in addition to Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso” and recognizable jazz standards such as “God Bless the Child” and “In a Sentimental Mood.”

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