CDs of Fred Astaire and Others Singing the Great American Songbook

December 5, 2013 Updated: December 5, 2013

“The Great American Songbook” generally refers to the most enduring popular songs from the 1920s to the 1960s. Many came from Hollywood and Broadway as well as the world of jazz and venues like the Cotton Club. CDs from that era and beyond have recently been released honoring these songs.

Probably no one has had more classic songs written for him than Fred Astaire. He and his sister Adele were the leading dance team on stage during the 1920s and after she retired to marry into British royalty, he went out on his own.

Astaire soon found another ideal partner in Ginger Rogers. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Sony Masterworks have just issued a 2-CD set, “Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO.”

Though Astaire had a limited vocal range, top songwriters were clearly inspired by his charming way with a lyric and impeccable sense of rhythm. On the RKO set, he can often be heard breaking into dance, and his tapping feet are like master percussionists.

The songs, like the movies, are upbeat. Astaire did not sing with deep feeling but, like Louis Armstrong, his vocals conveyed joy.

The songs on the set are by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and George and Ira Gershwin. The liner booklet contains an essay by Michael Feinstein and has a photo of Astaire sitting at a piano with the Gershwin brothers.

The songs are from classic films, such as “Top Hat,” “Swing Time,” and “Shall We Dance,” and include “Night and Day,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “A Fine Romance” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

Even the lesser songs (such as “The Yam”) are enjoyable. As a bonus, there are two songs at the end by Ginger Rogers.

Astaire is the TCM “Star of the Month” for December, and his films will be shown on Dec. 4, 11, 18, and 25. Although listening to Astaire is a pleasure, there is nothing to match watching him dance.

Tony Bennett

Among recording artists devoting themselves to the Great American Songbook, Tony Bennett is one of the supreme interpreters. While he is still actively performing, perhaps the height of his vocal powers was in the 1960s.

RPM/Columbia/Legacy Recordings has just released “Tony Bennett Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964.” He is accompanied by his longtime musical director Ralph Sharon and his trio (Billy Exiner on drums and Hal Gaylord on bass) as well as Louis Basil’s orchestra.

The songs include those he established as hits, “I Wanna Be Around,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” as well as such classics as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Chicago.” He also does the ultimate saloon piece, “One For My Baby” (which coincidentally was first performed by Fred Astaire in “The Sky’s the Limit”).

The CD includes some rarities, such as “The Moment of Truth,” “Firefly” and “I’m Way Ahead of the Game.” The only disappointment on the recording is the tiresome banter by Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, and Danny Thomas, all of whom were in the audience. Bennett himself was there to sing and that’s what he does superbly throughout the performance.

Laura Benanti

The nightclub 54 Below has been presenting Broadway stars and the recordings issued by Broadway Records show that the Great American Songbook is still growing, especially when younger performers are on stage. Tony winner Laura Benanti is always a delight, a deft comedienne, and a terrific singer.

The CD of her live act, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention” presents her on the cover apparently wearing nothing but an accordion, a reminder that she played the title role in the last Broadway revival of “Gypsy.”

She starts with an evergreen, “I’m Old Fashioned.” She sings “My Time of Day” by Frank Loesser, and her own adaptation of “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady” as a tribute to the neighborhood where she grew up.”

She does a couple she wrote (“The Ukulele Song” and the lovely ballad “New Mexico”) and two by her music director/pianist Todd Almond. She also does an affecting combination of “Starry Eyed” and “Video Games.”

Benanti makes a spirited defense of Harry Chapin—he was often charged with sentimentality—and sings his “Mr. Tanner” (which still strikes me as sentimental). The most stunning number on the album is her adaptation of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation.” Her banter is pretty funny.

Aaron Tveit

Aaron Tveit’s “The Radio in My Head” starts with the rousing “I’m Alive” from “Next to Normal.” Tveit played Gabe in the original cast. The album also includes “Goodbye” from “Catch Me If You Can,” the Broadway musical in which Tveit played Frank Abagnale Jr. (the Leonardo DiCaprio role in the movie).

Tveit is a fluent interpreter of songs by Leonard Bernstein, Johnny Mercer, and Rodgers & Hart, as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein. He does Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” inspired by the Garth Brooks version. Like Benanti, he includes a Joni Mitchell piece (”A Case of You”), which he mixes with Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman.”

Much to my surprise, the number that gives me the most pleasure is his playfully mocking rendition of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

Christine Ebersole

The jazziest of the recent recordings by Broadway stars is Tony Award Winner Christine Ebersole’s “Strings Attached” (on Motema Music). Someone had the excellent idea of teaming her with violinist Aaron Weinstein.

The whole album is dedicated to the Great American Songbook, albeit with a Hot Club of France feeling, and appropriately starts with a propulsive “Shall We Dance” (another of the Gershwin songs on the Astaire set) as well as the brothers’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”

Ebersole expresses longing on “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “Moon Dreams.” “After You’ve Gone” begins pensively but then turns upbeat with “Too Gone Too Long,” ending with her telling her man to “stay out.”

Ebersole gently swings “This Time the Dream’s On Me” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” as well as a vibrant “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” “Am I Blue” is not the tune by Harry Akst and Grant Clarke that has been done by Ethel Waters and others but a lesser known but pleasant piece by David Chamberlain.

Ebersole is always wonderful on stage and this album reveals another facet of her immense talent.

Stacey Kent

The Grammy-nominated British jazz singer Stacey Kent is originally from New York. She has often sung pieces from the Great American Songbook and even recorded an album of songs associated with Fred Astaire (“Let Yourself Go”). However, her latest CD, “The Changing Lights” is inspired by Brazilian music.

Kent sings classics by Jobim, Caymmi, Valle, and Menescal, who performs on two of the tracks. Kent also introduces new works by her husband, saxophonist/arranger Jim Tomlinson, and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as compositions Tomlinson wrote with Portuguese poet Antonio Ladeira and French lyricist Bernie Beaupère.

Kent will celebrate the release of her album at Birdland from Dec. 3–7.

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