Except for maybe John Denver, it's hard to think of a singer who's enjoyed as much popular success and as little critical acceptance over the past dozen or so years as Barry Manilow. In 1984, though, Manilow recorded an album that did warm the hearts of at least a few reviewers, mostly jazz critics.
Nearly everything about "2:00 AM Paradise Cafe" seemed a disarming departure from the formulaic, crescendo-building ballads that first put Manilow on the charts a decade earlier. Playing alongside a well-seasoned jazz quintet that included Gerry Mulligan and engaging both Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme' in cozy duets, Manilow sang in a refreshingly understated manner. The simple, affecting arrangements alone made the album worth hearing, and the songs, all of them written at least in part by Manilow, were certainly a couple of cuts above the average pop fare. For Manilow, the album became such a personal triumph, an honest expression of what he felt his music was really about, that he named his recent autobiography after it.
Now we have the son of "Paradise Cafe," or more precisely, its prequel, since "Swing Street" (Arista AL 8527) sets the clock back several hours, for two shows beginning at 8 p.m. and midnight. As night life goes, this is prime time, so the album opens with several flamboyant production numbers that seem to have been at least partially conceived with an eye toward television. At its very least, this is video-friendly music. (And yes, "Swing Street" the television special is set to air soon.)
Again, Manilow has surrounded himself with guests -- saxophonists Mulligan, Stan Getz and Tom Scott, singers Diane Schuur and Phyllis Hyman, August Darnell's kinetic ensemble Kid Creole and the Coconuts and others. Yet despite the impressive cast, the album is sadly uneven. Most of the problems surface on the first side, or during the first show as Manilow has structured it. Not only do the title track and the swing era classic "Stompin' at the Savoy" suffer from bland and predictable arrangements, but the colorfully harmonized "Big Fun," which features the West Coast vocal group Full Swing, comes off sounding like a cut-rate version of Manhattan Transfer. Ultimately, Kid Creole enlivens the proceedings -- this is where the album begs for visuals -- but anyone familiar with the group's own recordings wouldn't consider its turn with Manilow anything special. Unlikely, perhaps, but not special.
Far better are the ballads, beginning with "Black and Blue," a yearning duet featuring Hyman's lusciously moody contralto and Scott's spiraling saxophone. "Summertime," a duet with Schuur, has to be regarded as undernourished by jazz standards, but it does have a fetching arrangement and Getz's softly luminous tone going for it. Also pleasant, if hardly memorable, is Manilow's plaintive paean to his home borough, "Brooklyn Blues," and his earnest reprise of "Stardust." Mulligan's robustly romantic baritone sax returns, fittingly enough, on "One More Time," an unabashedly sentimental love song that brings the midnight show, and the album, to a tender close.
'Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra' Thanks to friends like Getz and Manilow, as well as frequent appearances on "The Tonight Show," Diane Schuur has become an extremely popular jazz singer in recent years, but older fans of the Count Basie band are likely to find her first recording with that ensemble a tad strident. The problem is obvious: The very quality that makes Schuur such a crowd pleaser in concert -- her octave-leaping range -- doesn't suit the Basie band particularly well. After all, this is a band that has always valued economy over flash.
Granted, "Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra" (GRP-9550) is the work of a fine singer and a great band, but it's an uneasy alliance at best, never coming close to matching the contributions of singers associated with Basie bands of the past, be it Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes or Billie Holiday. (While the comparison may seem unfair -- these singers were all giants -- it's nevertheless instructive: If you want first-class Basie, there are other places to look first.)
Fortunately, it's only when Schuur rushes into her open register -- or worse, into a shrill falsetto -- that she gets into trouble. Despite a tendency to sing with unrestrained enthusiasm at times, she does know how to nurture a quiet song, bringing her voice down to a warm, expressive tone and intimacy. In these more thoughtful moments, she sounds just fine amid the band's swirling saxophones, muted brass and easy, unflappable rhythms.
Highlights include "Travelin' Light" and "Only You," both rendered with a gracefulness worthy of the band that's backing her; and even less impressive performances, such as "Every Day," are not without merit due to stellar support from Basie's men, now led by saxophonist Frank Foster. The band, by the way, was recorded only three days before the death of guitarist Freddie Green, a nearly 50-year veteran of the band. His pacing was flawless right up until the end.