ON THE RECORD: John Pizzarelli Sings Rodgers "With a Song in My Heart," Plus Vintage Sammy Davis

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: John Pizzarelli Sings Rodgers "With a Song in My Heart," Plus Vintage Sammy Davis This week's column discusses John Pizzarelli's new recording of songs by Richard Rodgers, "With a Song in My Heart," and "Sammy Davis: The Capitol Years."
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JOHN PIZZARELLI: With a Song in My Heart [Telarc CD-83676]
Pizzarelli swings Rodgers, and how! Break out the superlatives, and order extras for your most deserving friends.

The accomplished John Pizzarelli has delved into the musical theatre songbook from time to time, especially when prodded by his equally talented singer-of-a-wife Jessica Molaskey. He has recorded a couple of dozen solo albums thus far, hitting just about every base except show tunes. Arlen might be a logical place to start, or Gershwin perhaps. Pizzarelli has instead chosen Richard Rodgers, mostly though not exclusively with Hart, and we get what is easily one of the most sparklingly flavorful CDs in years.

"With a Song in My Heart," which serves as the title tune for this collection, was one of Rodgers' very favorites among his work and it is not difficult to understand why. He was to write more memorable and more successful songs over the years, to be sure, but the man had been emulating Kern since his Broadway debut as a 16-year-old, in 1919. By 1929 he had his own burgeoning bag of song hits, filled with "Manhattan," "Mountain Greenery," "The Blue Room," "My Heart Stood Still," "Thou Swell," "You Took Advantage of Me"; but "With a Song in My Heart" was the first Rodgers tune that soared on melodic lines so pure as Kern. Mr. Pizzarelli adds his scatting, as is his habit, making this jazzy albums of "songs in his heart" irresistible from the start.

Song after song after song is special; as always, Pizzarelli's musical sense is impeccable. Every time he makes a departure from the usual and you perk up your ears, he finds a way to make it pay off. "Johnny One Note" with a samba beat? Not the way Mr. Rodgers originally heard it, but given the way it turns out I don't suppose you'd get any complaints from the composer. And then comes the nifty "I Like to Recognize the Tune," a sardonic outcry against pop bandleaders ("must you bury the tune?" the lyricist cries, railing against the meanies who murder the Arthur Schwartzes and Puccinis). Pizzarelli has a field day with it as the authors intended, inserting sly strains of Rodgers so we can recognize the tune along the way. For those who feel that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hart was a very different composer than the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein, this CD provides further ammunition. The three Oscar songs included here, "Happy Talk," "I Have Dreamed" and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," are clearly cut from a difficult musical cloth. Different, but equally enjoyable.

With such an enormous catalogue to choose from, Pizzarelli has made some wise selections. Sure, we'd gladly listen to his take on any Rodgers songs, even if he saw fit to restrict himself to the biggest hits. But no, he has avoided "Bewitched," "Lover" and "Blue Moon," digging his way through to less obvious treasures. With only 12 songs — and only nine of them from Mr. Hart — he has favored us with "Nobody's Heart," "It's Easy to Remember" and "She Was Too Good to Me." Three stunningly good songs that are typically overlooked, and what a perfect job Pizzarelli does on them!

Pizzarelli is accompanied by his usual gang, Larry Fuller on piano, Tony Tedesco on drums and brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass. Ol' man Bucky Pizzarelli guests on "Easy to Remember," Cesar Camargo Mariano on "Happy Talk," and the basic combo is supplemented on half the tracks by what they call the Swing Seven, with swingin' special charts by Don Sebesky.

John Pizzarelli sings the music of Richard Rodgers, although not enough of it for our tastes. We shan't invoke the name Ella Fitzgerald, but she managed to work her way through 25 from the Rodgers & Hart songbook. Let us hope that Mr. P. returns for more, and it might even "enter his mind" to invite Mrs. P. into the studio with him next time.

SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: The Capitol Years [DRG 19111]
This new CD from DRG, on first examination, looks like just another compilation album of a famous icon; in this case, the fellow whom they used the call "the world's greatest entertainer." Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) started performing in vaudeville at the advanced age of three or so, and burst into prominence in the mid 1950s. He signed with Decca in 1954 and began hitting the charts with his recording of "Hey There" and his debut album, "Starring Sammy Davis Jr."; went to Broadway, with Mr. Wonderful, in 1956; and the rest, as they say, is history. Davis became — well, the world's greatest entertainer for a spell, after which he turned into something of a caricature of himself and spiraled off into a different category. This is the cool cat who turned square when he kissed Richard Nixon during the 1972 reelection campaign. Which sure didn't get my vote.

Five years before Davis began recording with Decca, he went into the Capitol Studios to make 20 singles. And it is these singles, or rather 14 of them, which have now been released by DRG as "Sammy Davis, Jr.: The Capitol Years." Year, really it should be; these tracks came from five sessions recorded in Hollywood in 1949. Here we have Davis, literally bursting with talent. He sings; he scats; he tap dances, giving a remarkable aural demonstration of that art. We tend to forget just how phenomenal Davis must have been at the time. How phenomenal he had to have been, storming his way into a segregated industry and grabbing the spotlight that his talent merited. Read his autobiography "Yes, I Can" sometime; this was no American Idol-like discovery, with overnight fame and instant magazine covers. When Davis first played the top hotels in the country, they gladly paid him for bringing in the customers but wouldn't let him eat, drink, or sleep on the premises. Such was his fame that he was able to singlehandedly change this policy. If Davis became something of an egotistical terror — take a look at Charles Strouse's account of working with Davis on Golden Boy, in his new book "Put on a Happy Face" — so be it. The man came a long way, supported only by his talent, and deserved everything he battled for.

But let's go back to these early recordings. Davis is already very good, here, three years before started to break through to prominence. (A drummer who regularly played for Capitol went to the A&R guy and told him that this guy was good, they should bring him in for a session.) These were not lavish, big-budget star sessions; just some guys pulled together to record with an unknown. And the song selection seems somewhat haphazard; I mean, Sammy Davis sings Billy Hill's "Wagon Wheels"? But even so. Tops in interest, at least to this listener, are scat-filled renditions of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and "I Ain't Got Nobody"; a wild South-of-the-border novelty called "Be-Bop the Beguine"; an even wilder and bluntly suggestive blues-piece called "Got a Great Big Shovel," which Davis released under the moniker Shorty Muggins; "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile," which has more taps to the measure than I think I've ever heard; and a very nice rendition of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed's "You Are My Lucky Star" which looks forward to the gold-plated Davis who in 1949 was still around the corner.

And don't overlook the liner notes. Will Friedwald outdoes himself, writing in a colorful jazzman's lingo that almost needs translation. (Has anyone ever used mellowroonie as an adverb?) These six dense pages are informative and entertaining, and after reading them I felt that I'd actually learned something.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)