Bette Midler Sings
The Peggy Lee Songbook
THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook”
of being a pop singer, and of being Bette Midler in particular,
is playing “let’s pretend": all right, boys and girls,
who are we going to be today? Will we play it for laughs or
for tears? On the “Peggy Lee Songbook,” Ms. Midler plays it
for both, as she revisits 10 songs associated with that great
Benny Goodman vocalist turned legendary nightclub singer. (A
BaltoBoy Capture And Scan)
Ms. Midler, whose personality is as strong and defined as any
legend she could honor, playing let’s pretend doesn’t mean literally
assuming another persona, but affectionately translating an
alien mystique into her own language. Where Ms. Lee, who died
in 2002, could become dangerously and masochistically tangled
in a torch song, Ms. Midler’s residual optimism and humor reassure
you, even when it’s pouring rain, that the moment’s misery is
only a glitch in a fair-weather world.
not that Ms. Midler can’t dive into the depths of a ballad.
Her version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” the dreamy
Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein fantasy of marital bliss, is as
deep and touching as Ms. Lee’s classic rendition on her Frank
Sinatra-conducted album, “The Man I Love.” But what Ms. Lee
evoked as a wistful faraway vision of contentment, Ms. Midler
makes palpably present.
the lighter side, Ms. Midler’s brassy-sexy “Fever” is an irresistible
goof. And “Is That All There Is?,” in which Lee embraced disappointment
and nihilism with a sly, sinister wink, is inverted into an
exhilarating celebration of living in the moment.
album, produced by Ms. Midler’s old pal Barry Manilow allows
the singer and the songs room to breathe; it swings, and Ms.
Midler’s vocals burst with confidence and generosity of spirit.
Midler and musical director Barry Manilow follow their successful
tribute to Rosemary Clooney with a collection of songs immortalized
by Peggy Lee.
starts off with the inevitable “Fever,” which Midler does in
a brassy, finger-snapping way that would feel more at home at
the Sands c. 1960 than in a dimly lit 1950s boudoir. It’s a
deliberate, clever choice that works for Midler.
selection hits predictable bases ("Is That All There Is?",
“Big Spender") but it’s hard to argue when those bases
are so loaded. Midler actually sounds a lot more at ease than
on the Clooney disc.
handles the upbeat material as well as could be expected, but
she also shines on the slower numbers, delivering sultry takes
on “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “I’m a Woman,” and “He’s
a Tramp” (a song copenned by Lee, from the Disney movie Lady
and the Tramp).
(Thanks for the photo scan Darrell)
neglected gem in the collection is Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein
II’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” popularized by Irene
Dunne in 1937 before being covered by Lee.
arrangements are deliciously lush and Midler uses a slight vibrato
at carefully chosen moments, somehow sounding as if she had
suddenly been lifted back to the 1940s.
a real treat that epitomizes an accomplished album. –Elisabeth
Christian Science Monitor
October 28, 2005
Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook (Columbia)
and Linda Eder: By Myself, the songs of Judy Garland (Angel)
ago Peggy Lee and Judy Garland turned tunes into classics. But
if those songs are to survive, they need new interpreters. Two
of today's best take up the challenge and prevail. Bette Midler
bows to Lee, whose simmering sensuality and deceptive simplicity
made the Queen of Cool the defining sound of a buttoned-down
era. Understated rarely applies to Midler, but instead she brings
her expressive, supple voice and strong storytelling talents
to Lee's hits like "Fever" and "Big Spender."
Eder, less well-known outside Broadway and concert halls, comes
close to channeling Garland but wisely doesn't try to mine all
the tragic depths. Eder's gorgeous voice, in turns powerful
or tender, fills tunes like "It Never Was You" and
"Do It Again" with exquisite beauty and bittersweet
- Gregory M. Lamb
Review by John Bush
Midler's first songbook album focused on songs popularized by
Rosemary Clooney, and it became a surprising hit after being
latched onto by vocal fans as well as adult contemporary audiences.
Befitting her image, the record wasn't a reverent tribute; Midler
and musical partner Barry Manilow modernized the arrangements
of Clooney's bigger hits, recasting "Come On-A My House"
as a swing/hip-hop number and reimagining "This Ole House"
as a bluegrass song.
Midler's 2005 tribute to Peggy Lee is a more conservative affair,
perhaps due to Lee's larger status in the realm of American
song as compared to Clooney. That's not to say it's a disappointment;
in fact, it's a talented, affectionate record that may not add
much to the cause but is a solid tribute.
Certainly Lee's image as the bemused, world-wise, sometimes
sensual siren fits well with Midler's, and both have exhibited
an excellent rhythmic sense. And the material helps Midler flaunt
as only she knows how, from "Fever" to "Big Spender"
to "I'm a Woman."
While all of these contribute nothing more or less than Lee's
versions, Midler does noticeably improve "Is That All There
Is?," one of the most eccentric songs in Lee's repertoire.
Her studied boredom in the verses is good enough, but when she
reaches the uninhibited chorus, she reveals a marvel of catlike
The arrangements, most of them by Manilow, are very good, although
they reveal a close knowledge of the originals that contributes
to the reverence on display.
Oct. 28, 2005
BETTE MIDLER SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK
Midler offers another vintage valentine to fans with this slick
appealing collection of tunes made famous by sultry Peggy Lee.
vivacious Divine Miss M persona lends a fresh flair to such
''Fever" (augmented by finger snaps and a lively horn chart)
and ''Is That
All There Is?," fleshed out by a banjo rhythm. ''Let's
keep dancing and
break out the booze and have a ball," Midler sings with
a frolicsome edge
on this Leiber and Stoller composition.
Midler soul mate Barry Manilow produced the disc and arranged
many of its songs, as well as adding a vocal harmony to the
classic party tune ''I Love Being Here With You." Sings
Manilow: ''Do you want to dance?" To which Midler campily
mind if I do."
Fans of the Midler/Manilow partnership will naturally relish
this latest chapter of their chemistry. In fact, this may be
a better CD than Midler's previous tribute, ''Bette Midler Sings
the Rosemary Clooney Songbook," which was her last gold
album. Midler not only has fun with these songs but exudes a
welcome sensitivity on the sweet, strings-enhanced ''Mr. Wonderful"
and ''The Folks Who Live on the Hill." And let's not
forget Midler's signature earthiness on ''I'm a Woman,"
in which she plays
a bluesy, sex-kitten role with a Hammond B-3 organ adding pungency.
Best of all, Midler delves into this fertile '50s and '60s era
and makes it come
paid tribute to one of her strongest influences with the 2003
album Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook the Divine
Miss M now turns her sights on another beloved icon of song:
Wielding her trademark blend of tenderness and sass, Midler
brings sparkle to such polished jewels of songcraft as "I'm
a Woman," "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,"
"The Folks Who Love on the Hill," and "Big Spender,"
reminding us of Lee's own fine-tuned radar when it came to a
Wisely, Midler doesn't ignore Lee's own contributions as a songwriter:
"I Love Being Here with You," done as a playful duet
with old friend Barry Manilow, and the sparkling "He's
a Tramp" are highlights of a program stocked with memorable
performances. This apparent labor of love makes you look forward
to Midler's next musical tribute.
Saturday, October 29,2005
DIVINE MISS M REINTERPRETS PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK
Bette Midler puts her own spin on songs from the alluring
enduring female jazz vocalist
by Greg Morago
There comes a time in a pop artist's career when hits are scarce
and reaching into the canon of beloved standards seems inevitable.
But does it make sense? Does the world really need Clay Aiken's
rendition of The Christmas Song? Or Rod Stewart's take on I've
Got a Crush on You?
That's debatable. Plenty of pop singers have successfully mined
the American songbook, most notably Linda Ronstadt. Now comes
another familiar artist who proves that the songbook is full
of glorious possibilities and indeed, wonderful music.
BETTE MIDLER SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK is the Divine Miss
M's second successful venture into territory that Ella Fitzgerald
made famous with her landmark series of songbook tributes. Last
year, Midler scored with Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney
Songbook, an idea that came from her buddy Barry Manilow. He
produced the charming album on which she covered Clooney gems
such as Hey There, Tenderly, Come On-A My House and You'll Never
Know. The result was pure joy.
Midler again teams with Manilow on even more adventurous material.
Scaling Lee, perhaps the most alluring female jazz vocalist
of all time, is an Everest-grade expedition for a singer. How
then did Midler make it seem so easy?
Her take on Lee's classics isn't so much an adoring tribute
as Midler's own unmistakable fingerprint on iconic material.
And yet, it's hard not to think of Lee when Midler gets He's
a Tramp so scarily right. Lee's brilliant timing comes through
on a bouncy Alright, Okay, You Win and Is That All there Is?
Midler, never one for holding back, shows beautiful reserve(just
like Lee's magisterial restraint) on songs such as the sweet
Happiness is a Thing Called Joe and The Folks Who Live on the
As terrific as Midler's Peggy Lee Songbook is, it invites the
question: What's next? Earlier this week on the Today show,
Midler hinted about another possible songbook of the music of
Now that would be something.
(Thanks for sending Bev!)
Review by Pete Zorn
sage once said the life is a circle and everything eventually
returns to where it began. So, I guess it shouldn't come as
a shock that Bette Midler returned to her recording roots to
teaming up once again with Barry Manilow.
(A BaltoBoy Scan)
was her arranger in the early New York days of her career and
produced her first two albums: "The Divine Miss M,"
which won her the first Grammy for best new artist in 1973,
and "Bette Midler," the platinum follow-up.
toured, they recorded, and they fought. Eventually the feuding
led to the professional breakup. But, despite the disagreements,
they each held one thing in common: a love of the famed big
Two years ago Manilow and Midler teamed up for a retrospective
on Rosemary Clooney. This time it's Peggy Lee.
Miss M says that Manilow came to her with idea of recording
Lee's classics she instantly said yes. We're glad she did and
you will be too.
that she had to pull back a bit from her usual belt-em-out style.
Peggy Lee sang with such ease her sound was velvet - smooth
and deceptively simple.
the defining sound of her era.
understatement Midler captures Lee bringing her expressive,
supple voice and strong storytelling talents to Lee's hits like
"Fever" and "Big Spender."
brings sparkle to ”I’m a Woman,” “Happiness Is Just a Thing
arrangements are masterful while maintaining the integrity of
edition of Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook includes
a DVD side with all ten album tracks in enhanced PCM stereo
along with five complete songs including a version of "Is
That All There Is?".
is also never-before-seen home movie footage of Peggy Lee, archival
TV and film appearances by Peggy Lee, and interviews with Bette
Midler and Peggy Lee's daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, and granddaughter,
The Hartford Courant
November 4, 2005
'Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook'
comes a time in a pop artist's career when hits are scarce and
reaching into the canon of beloved standards seems inevitable.
But does it make sense? Does the world really need Clay Aiken's
rendition of "The Christmas Song" or Rod Stewart's
take on "I've Got a Crush on You"?
comes another familiar artist who proves that the songbook is
full of glorious possibilities and, indeed, wonderful music.
Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook is the singer's second such
successful venture. Last year, she scored with Bette Midler
Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, an idea that came from
her buddy Barry Manilow.
again teams with Manilow on even more adventurous material.
Scaling Lee, perhaps the most alluring female jazz vocalist
of all time, is an Everest-grade expedition for a singer. Her
take on Lee classics isn't so much an adoring tribute as Midler's
own unmistakable fingerprint on iconic material. Midler, never
one for holding back, shows beautiful reserve (just like Lee's
magisterial restraint) on songs such as the sweet "Happiness
Is a Thing Called Joe" and "The Folks Who Live on
Windy City Times
Pop Making Sense
by David Byrne with Tony Peregrin
Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook
late Peggy Lee is saluted on Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee
Songbook. After regrouping with Barry Manilow for her tribute
album to Rosemary Clooney, Bette returns in fine form here with
Barry as the musical director. Sultry sass keeps the temperature
rising on the opener “Fever” and Disney should listen up on
“He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Manilow even chimes
in with Bette on the duet “I Love Being Here with You.” Sure,
both Madonna and Sinead O’Connor have done takes of Lee’s classics,
but Midler’s personality and versatility prove to be the ‘wind
beneath her wings’ here.
SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK
This album is a dream come true. Before you accuse me of hyperbole,
allow me to explain. Bette Midler got a phone call from the
man who was her pianist, musical director and opening act in
the beginning of her career. He said he'd had a dream that Bette
recorded (with him) the songs of the great singer, Rosemary
Clooney. They went ahead and did it. A success and strong seller!
Lucky for us all, he had another dream about recording a Peggy
Lee tribute album. It's another reunion and another prize.
the odd credit of "all song layouts created by Barry Manilow"
and produced by him (other arrangers are credited on individual
songs), this album is filled with musical merriment and class.
The sound is bright and the band goes to town. This is a barrel
of fun with a couple of ballads to add variety to the mainly
upbeat, rhythmic feel-good festival ("Alright, Okay, You
Win" is a prime, good-time example). Less restrained than
Peggy Lee, Bette is loose on the uptempo numbers. However, she
shows little hint of her outrageous or bawdy side.
Broadway songs include the wide-eyed lovestruck title tune from
1956's Mr. Wonderful and a perky "Big Spender" from
Sweet Charity which, frankly, I wish had a bit of the brassier
Bette. The final theater number, "Happiness Is a Thing
Called Joe" from Cabin in the Sky, is a revelation. Warmly
arranged and conducted by Bill Ross, it's one of the best versions
of the standard I've heard. Bette really finds a homespun authenticity
in her reading of the lyric of contentment and commitment: "Sometimes
the cabin's gloomy and the table's bare./ But then he'll kiss
me and it's Christmas everywhere." It's like a warm, cozy
blanket wrapped around the listener. The movie song, "The
Folks Who Live on the Hill," is one of the most idyllic
tales ever. It finds Bette in another Bill Ross dream, at her
storytelling emotive best with Jerome Kern's majestic melody
and Oscar Hammerstein's story of a devoted couple living happily
ever after in their own kind of cabin (not in the sky).
pop hits for Peggy Lee written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
are as different as can be. "I'm a Woman (W-O-M-A-N)"
is a confident and brash smash. (It was also used in the songwriters'
Broadway revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe.) The signature tune, "Is
That All There Is?" takes full advantage of Bette's acting
skills with its spoken sections between choruses. Don Sebesky's
arrangement is credited as being based on the original by Randy
Newman, but Bette's speeches have all her own acting choices,
emphasizing different words and creating her own character.
The mini-tales of disillusionment are taken seriously and she
really breathes new life into the song, in the end making it
less devastating and more the story of a survivor.
fun is had with two songs Peggy Lee co-wrote. One is "He's
a Tramp" from the Disney film Lady and the Tramp and here
Bette comes closest to a Peggy Lee sound and style. The other
is the happy "I Love Being Here with You," a duet
with Manilow that has some cute banter. There's one song I haven't
commented on because I haven't heard it: My preview copy is
the standard issue, but there's an extra track on a version
of this album sold exclusively at Barnes & Noble. That song
is "He Needs Me," a fine song Peggy Lee performed
in the film Pete Kelly's Blues. If you have a computer or DVD
player, you may be able to access the visual component of the
album showing videos of the same material. I'm a longtime Bette
Midler fan, but I have found some of her albums to be wildly
uneven. This one is even - and even better than most.
Beach Post - Sunday, November 13, 2005
The A&E Downloader's Guide: Buy the whole CD, or just burn
a few songs?
Our consumer manual is here to help.
By Palm Beach Post Staff Reports
week's spotlight disc:
Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook (Columbia)
downlow: After the success of Midler's tribute to Rosemary Clooney,
here she takes on the cool '50s-'60s jazz vocalist's repertoire.
Lee was one of a kind, but it's easy to forget that so is The
Divine Miss M, despite all those cheesy movies and that failed
lineup: 10 songs
it all or burn some? Buy/download it all. Midler doesn't channel
Lee's quirky vocalizing here, but gives such familiar songs
as I'm A Woman, Mr. Wonderful, Big Spender and, of course, Fever
her own touch, with a little arrangement help from her ex-piano
player, some guy named Barry Manilow. Midler has always been
a great interpreter, and this is just sweet,
swinging adult music through and through.
this now: Track 1, Fever. Bouncy, brassy,
a total delight.
get burned: Nothing terrible here, but her duet
with Barry, I Love Being Here With You, is no great shakes.
When it comes to Midler duets, seek out her one years ago with
Tom Waits on I Never Fall for Strangers.
(Thanks to my Special Manilow Friend)
12 November 2005
MIDLER "BETTE MIDLER SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK"
Old-timers will recall Bette Midler's career was launched in
the early 1970s with a rendition of the Andrew Sisters classic,
"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." Last year she came full
circle with "Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,"
from an idea suggested by Barry Manilow, who produced the disc.
The results were good enough that this year she has taken on
Peggy Lee's songbook. Lee could bring much to a song with her
incredible control and cool detachment. Such words are not usually
associated with Midler, yet she manages to put her own stamp
on such Lee classics as "Big Spender," "I Love
Being Here With You" and "Alright, Okay, You Win."
She even holds her own on "He's A Tramp" and "Is
That All There Is?" The only time Midler sounds like she
is aping Lee is on "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe."
And the only time she falters is on the closer, "Mr. Wonderful,"
a track arranged by Ray Ellis, whose career dates back to a
time when singers such as Lee were at the top of the charts.
Still, for the most part, Midler, assisted by producer Manilow,
naturally and unself-consciously brings a lot to material made
immortal by Lee.
to my Special Manilow Friend)
Miriam Di Nunzio
November 13, 2005
the heels of her Rosemary Clooney songbook homage two years
ago, La Bette sets her sight on perhaps the torchiest of jazz
singers. This time out, Midler seems a little out of her element.
There's plenty of sass ("Alright, OK, You Win" and
"I'm a Woman"), plenty of brass ("Hey Big Spender").
But she never quite grasps the biting wit of "Is That All
There Is?" or the sizzle of "Fever" -- two of
Lee's most piercing odes.
is back as producer (they also worked together on the Clooney
disc), and the arrangements are swell enough (but not nearly
as exciting as those on the Clooney album). The disc is woefully
short (consisting of 10 cuts, just over 30 minutes of music),
and the selections don't dig very deep into the Peggy Lee songbook.
Where Lee often brought her voice way down to a velvety purr,
giving the songs their sensual persona, Midler seems content
to keep the material just on the outskirts of Leetown.
the dual-disc edition will excite Midler fans with plenty of
behind-the-scenes footage of Midler and the making of this album,
as well as priceless film and TV footage of Lee, who died in
2002 at age 81.
November 15, 2005
Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook (* * * ½) A
singer known for her bubbly warmth may not be the most obvious
candidate to cover the queen of cool. But the Divine Miss M's
wit and sass make her a natural for I'm a Woman, He's a Tramp
and the wry classic Is That All There Is? Midler also mines
the poignancy in ballads such as The Folks Who Live on the Hill
and Mr. Wonderful, al-beit with a lack of sentimentality that
Lee would have approved of. —Elysa Gardner
Toledo Blade - Dec. 4, 2005
BETTE MIDLER SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK
Bette Midler (Columbia)
Confidence never seems to be in short supply
for the multitalented Bette Midler. It certainly isn’t on this
album, on which she breezes through a great collection of Peggy
Lee covers. Midler’s backed by a fabulous orchestra and gets
a good assist on a duet from Barry Manilow, the album’s producer.
The sultry Midler quickly dispels any fears that she is an unlikely
match to cover the more subdued Lee, instead showing that she
is a brilliant fit. The project works because of Midler’s insight
and skills: She provides the right touch of sass and spark to
make this something other than a routine tribute album.
- TOM HENRY
The New York Blade
Is that all there is?
Bette Midler could do better than a middling rendition of the
Peggy Lee songbook.
By GERARD ROBINSON
Dec. 02, 2005
Bette Midler must think she’s approaching her
senescence. Where’s the great bawd from the Continental Baths
era who used to entertain suggestions from the audience like
“Show us your tits?” These days she’s a lady. She might as well
be wearing a tiara.
Her musical choices have withered to old standards
made popular four decades ago by dead (and inferior) singers.
And her rendition of these uninspired songs is wearying. She
doesn’t interpret them. She sings them as naked homage to the
women who made them famous.
It’s testimony to the lack of new material available
for divas of her kind that she’s had to go back to standards
of a different era in order to come back with something palatable.
God knows that the state of contemporary songwriting is execrable.
Streisand faces the same problem. When she tries new material,
it’s dreadful and she’s had to search Broadway high and low
as well as the movies and a staged reunion with Barry Gibb to
give the audience something to respond to. But Streisand has
been canny. In her cover albums, she’s turned standards into
signature tunes such as “Somewhere.”
With Midler, it started with an album called
“Bette Midler Sings the Songbook of Rosemary Clooney,” a cult
singer of the 1950s. The album was the brainchild of Barry Manilow,
who reportedly dreamt Bette singing it. And as if that wasn’t
enough, he followed up his dream with another one.
Midler, with producer Barry Manilow, has now
upped the ante with an album titled “Bette Midler Sings the
Peggy Lee Songbook,” which is a mismatch with Midler’s talents
if ever there was one, and a real stinker besides. Included
on the album are bummers like “He’s a Tramp,” “Mr. Wonderful”
and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” — an upbeat number that
you can scarcely imagine Lee doing at all. (She apparently recorded
it in 1947, which accounts for its obscurity.)
Peggy Lee was a mannered, sultry, almost rancid
vocalist in the repressed style of the ’50s and ’60s. She had
plenty of sex appeal — yet she was also cold as ice. She didn’t
have much range and she underplayed just about everything. She
was perhaps best known late in her career for “Is That All There
Is?” — which she performed in Mae West-like drag with a big
blonde wig and oversized sunglasses.
She also had a hit with “Fever,” and it’s hard
to think of anyone else singing it. Midler tries but she doesn’t
come up with anything better than Madonna did a decade ago.
Peggy Lee withheld emotion from the audience.
Bette Midler gives it her all. You could almost say that Bette
Midler is in love with the audience. Peggy Lee could scarcely
be bothered. And that’s why it’s so disconcerting to hear Midler
mouthing Peggy Lee’s sour lyrics even in songs like “Big Spender”
and the feminist theme, “I’m a Woman” which you half expect
Midler to parody.
Bette Midler doesn’t need Peggy Lee or Rosemary
Clooney. She’s a great performer, making fun of everything,
herself included. You could never imagine Peggy Lee laughing
at herself. And with well-chosen covers like Midler’s version
of the Beatles’ “In My Life,” which she did at the Johnny Carson
farewell, she interprets the song in a way that makes you think
her version will last forever.
The orchestrations on the album are thin and
naïve. Manilow and company don’t try to update the material.
They play it straight and corny right down the line. Let’s hope
Manilow doesn’t dream of Julie London next.
I’d love to hear Midler do standards, just not
the ones she’s chosen to do. This whole enterprise of singer
songbooks reminds me of Natalie Cole’s duets with her dead father
Nat King Cole and the “Saturday Night Live” parody pairing her
with other dead singers. Bette should have seen the laughs coming.
Hitting Katrina From Two Directions
'Higher Ground' Has the Heart but 'Our New Orleans' Has the
Soul of the City
By Steve Futterman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; C05
There are nearly 10 benefit albums with Hurricane
Katrina on their minds, and doubtless more are coming. Bring
'em on. In theory, at least, when it comes to raising relief
funds through music, everyone wins.
"Our New Orleans 2005: A Benefit Album"
and "Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert"
stand out in the crowd. If their hearts and intentions lie in
similar places, their execution reveals considerable differences.
"Higher Ground," a live recording of a Jazz at Lincoln
Center fundraiser in September, documents a generally satisfying
evening featuring a multifarious musical crew -- everyone from
Bette Midler, Joe Lovano and Shirley Caesar to Norah Jones,
Wynton Marsalis and James Taylor performing a diverse repertoire
connected only by a thin theme of life affirmation as expressed
in song. "Our New Orleans," in distinct contrast,
ropes together artists with New Orleans roots to record studio
versions of idiomatic Big Easy anthems and tunes addressing
the tragedy head-on. Both albums are rife with stirring performances,
but the unity of "Our New Orleans" packs a far greater
The subtle hands of a few smart producers are
all over the "Our New Orleans" project. Joe Henry
allows the iconic singer, pianist and fellow producer Allen
Toussaint to do what he does best: sell a performance through
understated grace and casual instrumental brilliance. A definitive
"Yes We Can Can" injects the album straight off with
funky positivity, while his solo instrumental, "Tipitina
and Me," gently evokes the spirits of Big Easy piano legends
like Professor Longhair and James Booker.
Henry also hooks up the ever-majestic Irma Thomas
with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for a surprisingly successful,
rock-infused take on Bessie Smith's 1927 "Backwater Blues."
That mournful narrative, in tandem with Randy Newman's closing
"Louisiana 1927," its intimations of political indifference
intact, remind us that history, both natural and social, has
a nasty way of repeating itself.
Producers Hal Willner and Mark Bingham elicit
a world-weary eloquence from Dr. John on "World I Never
Made" and a haunting "Prayer for New Orleans"
from Charlie Miller, his voice, accompanied only by his own
trumpet, as forlorn as a lone flood survivor clinging to the
last dry spot in town. A bone-chilling "Cryin' in the Streets"
by Buckwheat Zydeco, supported by guitarist and producer Ry
Cooder, distinguishes itself among arresting performances from
BeauSoleil, Eddie Bo, Davell Crawford and others.
The less-obvious artists who populate "Higher
Ground" triumph through a quiet intensity that matches
or surpasses that of the New Orleans natives.
In a solo, "Never Die Young," James
Taylor relies on the offhand eloquence of his undiminished singing
and guitar playing. Norah Jones also comes on restrained yet
packs a sly punch with Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going
to Rain Today," its blend of irony and pathos as potent
as ever. Irony raises its deliciously brittle head again in
Bette Midler's "Is That All There Is?" (That this
performance also acted as a preview for Midler's then-forthcoming
Peggy Lee tribute album makes you wonder about even the best
of intentions, though.)
The most impressive performances are those unburdened
by self-conscious New Orleans trappings. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard's
stately "Over There" (composed by his bassist, Derrick
Hodge) expresses its message of pity and perseverance solely
through vivid instrumental means. Pianist Marcus Roberts updates
Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues," skillfully
avoiding cliches. And Irvin Mayfield, dueting with pianist Ronald
Markham, renders "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" with
a dignity enhanced by the relative suppression of the trumpeter's
impressive technique. Dianne Reeves deserves extra points for
saving the slobbery patriotic anthem "The House I Live
In" through her focus and bravura vocalizing.
A few of the heavy hitters strike out. Diana
Krall sounds unconvincing on "Basin Street Blues,"
Wynton Marsalis and his "Hot Seven" strained on "Dippermouth
Blues," and Joe Lovano less emphatic than usual on "Blackwell's
Cassandra Wilson rights all wrongs, though,
on the album's capper, a rendition of Duke Ellington's "Come
Sunday" enriched by Mark O'Connor's gorgeous violin solo
and obbligato. Ellington's simple plea to a higher power says
all that still needs to be said: "Please look down and
see my people through."