ON THE RECORD: Cook's New "Rainbow," Chaffin's "When the Wind Blows South," Plus "Carols for a Cure"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Cook's New "Rainbow," Chaffin's "When the Wind Blows South," Plus "Carols for a Cure"
Listening to Barbara Cook's newest album, "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder"; a Southern-flavored set from Philip Chaffin; and this 2008's "Carols for a Cure" from BC/EFA.


Far be it from me to suggest what songs Barbara Cook should sing. She has run the proverbial gamut in her dozen CDs on DRG since 1993, with an understandable concentration on the works of Mr. Sondheim. Song selection has been wide and varied, with the choices apparently coming upon close consultation between Ms. Cook and her arranger. (For many years, this was the accomplished and much-missed Wally Harper; presently, Lee Musiker is on the piano bench.) Cook & Co. have picked many familiar titles, some obscure; some obvious, some unlikely; most theatrical, some contemporary. It is safe to say, though, that just about everything Ms. Cook sings sounds good, and is enhanced by the singer's treatment.

All of which is by way of saying that this year, on "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," she has picked some true winners. That title tune, for example. "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" is an old Jolson song from the singer's heyday, when he was powerful enough to take his pick of the many songs auditioned for him and claim co-authorship credit. If he launched the song to stardom, why shouldn't he get a share of all the royalties to come when any other singer (like Barbara Cook) decided to sing it? The authors were game; if you were a young songwriter, a Jolson hit could make you. (Billy Rose doesn't owe his fame to "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," certainly; but at the time, which was 1928, it sure made a big difference to his burgeoning career.) George Gershwin was mighty lucky with "Swanee," which Jolson heard and liked and turned into a worldwide standard. But Gershwin and his heirs were especially fortunate that the song had already been used in a negligible stage show, and duly published, before Al wrapped his lungs around it; otherwise it might have gone down in the books as a song by Jolson-Gershwin-Caesar, with a one-third reduction in royalties.

At any rate, the Al Jolson-Billy Rose-Dave Dreyer "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" is an exuberant tune, in the very same vein as Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." And one that you don't hear all that often. Ms. Cook takes it up and sings the blazes out of it, after which she immediately turns to "Where or When." This is a song that Ms. Cook recorded for her 1959 LP "From the Heart," which remains one of the best things of its kind (and which you can still get, as DRG reissued it in 1988). But here we have another "Where or When," and 50-odd years adds depth and experience to the rendition. Those first two tracks, right there, are about as good as you can get. Far be it from me to suggest what songs Barbara Cook should sing, not when she goes and picks 'em like this.

Other effective items include a sunbeam rendition of "Lucky to Be Me," fitting in perfectly (and merely coincidentally) with this fall's Bernstein celebration and this week's Encores! production of On the Town; a heartbreaking rendition of John Bucchino's "If I Ever Say I'm Over You"; and a melancholy version of George and Ira's "He Loves and She Loves," interweaved with one of the Preludes. This last was a favorite of Jerry Kravat, the legendary musical booker and manager who shepherded and virtually created Cook's cabaret-concert career over 28 years. Kravat died on March 31, and "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" is dedicated to his memory. Also on tap are some older items from the Cook repertoire. "Cookin' Breakfast for the One I Love" is heard in a perky arrangement from the Wally Harper days. This is another Rose song, written (with Henry Tobias) to order for Mrs. Rose (i.e. Fanny Brice Arnstein Rose). "Be Yourself," the 1930 movie for which this little item was devised, was released on DVD last year; if this is typical of Ms. Brice's performances, she was an ethnic comedienne whose charm does not carry over the years. In any event, this explains the joke built into the line about Fanny "makin' bacon"; and where else are you going to hear Barbara Cook sing "oy gevalt!" (and rhyme it with oatmeal-with-salt). Ms. Brice, on film, mugs her way through the number; Cook makes it a breezy morning's interlude. "Sooner or Later," a risqué old tune from Charles Wolcott and Ray Gilbert, is another one of Wally's, revamped by Musiker. Also included are two arrangements from the recent period when Eric Stern was at Cook's piano, combining "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" with Passion's letter song, and merging Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" with "No More" from Into the Woods.

Any number of singers have hopefully worked their way into the recording studio and made that CD — released independently, from their living room — that was going to establish them as something other than one of those thousands of other singers in search of a recording career. Philip Chaffin did just that in November 2000 with something he called "Where Do I Go from You?" While the album did not exactly chase Harry Connick Jr. back to his vocal coach, it sold surprisingly well for an disc from a non-existent label with no distribution. Chaffin and his partner, Tommy Krasker, didn't even know to put a catalogue number on the CD. Krasker, an eminent musicologist, was in fact a record producer at the time; and a good one, working mostly with the Nonesuch label. So he knew how to put together an album, and had a reputation that enabled him to call on strong arrangers and top musicians. But "Where Do I Go from You?" was meant as a one-shot. Krasker and Chaffin had no expectation that others would call on them to produce their albums, or that in no time at all they would be handed full-scale Broadway cast recordings. Thus was born PS Classics, which in just eight years has given us 74 albums. A busy schedule, the administration of which has to some extent stood in the way of Chaffin launching a full-scale singing career. He gave us a second well-received CD in 2005, "Warm Spring Night," and now has found time for a third.

Chaffin hails from Baton Rouge, and "When the Wind Blows South" has a definite Southern flavor. This is fine with me, y'all, especially since it gives Chaffin the opportunity to sing Johnny Mercer's "Pardon My Southern Accent" and the little-know beauty by Arlen and Harburg that lends the album its title. An arrangement combining Victor Schertzinger & Johnny M.'s "I Remember You" with Burton Lane and Alan Lerner's "Too Late Now"; how much better listening can you get? (The latter rendition, incidentally, suggests that Lane and Lerner consciously pulled their near-perfect "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" from this song written for the 1951 movie "Royal Wedding.")

As is typical with items from the Messrs. Krasker and Chaffin, the disc is filled with well-conceived orchestrations (from the likes of John McDaniel, Michael Starobin, Larry Hochman and Sam Davis) and fine playing (from a band under Mr. Davis' direction). There are also some unlikely but rewarding song choices, including obscure offerings from the depths of the Frank Loesser, Arthur Schwartz and Jerry Herman catalogues. Along with items you simply don't expect, like John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "Here You Come Again." But most everything has that Southern flavor, matched with impeccable handling and Chaffin's fine vocals. As if all that's not enough, Chaffin gives us a stunning rendition of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "I Never Has Seen Snow."

ALSO NOW AVAILABLE is the 10th Anniversary edition of "Broadway's Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure," the annual CD benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. As always, any number of current musicals are represented. The headline among the contributions, I suppose it's fair to say, is "Cold Christmas," a new song by Elton John performed by the folks from Billy Elliot. On a somewhat different note, highlights from the first nine years which fill out the two-CD set include "Joy to the World (A Christmas Prayer)," courtesy of Beauty and the Beast in 2002. Of interest to those interested in such things because the ten-year-old singer, just then playing Chip, was one Nicholas Jonas (who wrote the song with his father). This very track from "Carols for a Cure" somehow or other made its way to the charts — the Christian Adult Contemporary chart, anyway — and a pop career was born. (For those who do not have any teenagers in their immediate orbit and don't keep the Disney Channel playing in the next room, the Jonas Brothers are big.) Included on this year's CD are stars of varying types, but that's not the point. It's the performers — featured and ensemble — along with the pit musicians and conductors who dedicate their time and efforts to "Carols for a Cure." The CD is available at broadwaycares.org and can be purchased at various theatres during the seasonal fundraising period. (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)

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