If you like great songs--not necessarily great songs you already know--and you like women delivering them, here are five CDs that you'd be extremely foolish to think you can live without:
Barb Jungr, Hard Rain (Kristalyn): There are singers and then there are interpreters. Jungr is perhaps today's absolute best example of the latter. Throughout her highly successful career, she's been drawn to visionary songwriters whose works she's examined from unexpected angles. Drawn inexorably to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (who sometimes writes with Sharon Robinson), she sides with their unflinchingly realistic view of the world. Here, she puts the emphasis on songs she hasn't recorded before. She's convinced those combined form a cogent view of the out-of-kilter world. And she's convincing about it. What she doesn't do is use the songs to harangue. Quite the opposite, she sings them almost sweetly, but it's a sweetness to which the immensely angry resort when they want to make their point without ever raising their voice. The effect is often--it surely is here--that much more damning. Among the accusatory items are "Masters of War," "First We Take Manhattan," "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Blowin' in the Wind" and the title song. Simon Wallace's superb arrangements are spare, the better to make it clear that in these apocalyptic days no one is spared.
Stacey Kent, The Changing Lights (Warner Bros): Kent's voice might be called light, but perhaps it's more accurate to describe it as fragile, emotionally fragile. That's often true of the 15 songs she includes. At times in the past, particularly when she started, Kent was piquant, not to say perky. That's less the situation now. The shift may have to do with the Brazilian music she favors and has mastered to such an extent that composers in that country rank her with the best of their home-grown singers. Take, for instance, Vinicius de Moraes's "How Insensitive" and its devastating Norman Gimbel lyrics. Behind Kent's floating notes is the anguish of love gone wrong simply because that's how it goes all too often. The evanescence of love, of romance is a recurrent theme for Kent. It's definitely the motivating factor behind two songs, "The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain" and the title tune, which are both written by Kent's saxophonist-producer-arranger husband Jim Tomlinson and the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. The Tomlinson-Ishiguro team, who've taken to writing regularly for Kent, is formidable. Almost everything they offer has the melancholy feeling of love that's not everlasting but neverlasting. (What a contrast to the noticeably happy Kent-Tomlinson marriage!) Tomlinson's arrangements are always nuanced and unhurried. They're the perfect match for Kent's enormous talents.
Audra McDonald, Go Back Home (Nonesuch): Where does someone like McDonald come from? She was born in Germany, raised in Fresno and, but for four years in Los Angeles working on a television series, has spent most of her adult life in New York City and on the stage. But those are only the facts. Where does someone with the breadth of her abilities originate? Possibly about to snag her sixth Tony this coming weekend for her magnificent impersonation of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, she uses the classically trained voice with which her fans are more familiar on her latest collection. As she likes to do, she gathers songs that aren't from previous chapters of the Great American Songbook but from current and coming chapters. Yes, she closes with the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II "Edelweiss" and the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green "Make Someone Happy" and goes through a couple of John Kander and Fred Ebb doozies, such as the profoundly moving title tune of her album, but she precedes them with songs by up-and-comers like Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich (the hilarious "Baltimore"), Adam Gwon (the startling "I'll Be Here" and the always worthy Michael John LaChiusa. Verdict: Impeccable.
Christine Ebersole, Strings Attached (Motema): What do you get when you set three musical geniuses loose in a recording studio? You get something a lot like this smoking package. Ebersole, the owner of a couple of Tonys, can sing just about anything she wants and has very well for some time. Only recently, however, did she join up with pianist Tedd Firth and jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein, who also produced and arranged everything here. Well, Firth surely came up with the innumerable piano breaks heard. The upshot of this combo--with bassist Tom Hubbard, who's no slouch--is that Ebersole has become something she wasn't before and maybe never thought she'd want to become: a jazz singer. Even her usual timbre is altered as she eases through standards like the Gershwin brothers' (that's George and Ira) "Shall We Dance?" and "Our Love is Here to Stay," the sassy Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart "I Wish I Were in Love Again," Cole Porter's moody "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and the languid Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer "This Time the Dream's on Me." A highlight among these highlights is Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" to which Richard Maltby Jr. added jive-y words for his Ain't Misbehavin' revue some years back. Weinstein? Fabulous. Firth? Out of this world. Ebersole? Hot as a pistol.
Judy Kuhn, All This Happiness (PS Classics): In the past year or so, she's distinguished herself in the sleek Passion revival and the award-winning Fun Home. When she records, however, which she does from time to time, she doesn't stick to Broadway tunes. She applies her pitch-perfect voice to songs from other corners of the tunesmithing globe and from writers a Kuhn fan might not immediately associate with her. Okay, she does a Stephen Sondheim medley--"In Buddy's Eyes" from Follies and "Happiness" from the above-mentioned Passion, in which she played the man-stalking Fosca--but she also intrepidly ventures into two Joni Mitchell songs ("Help Me," "Night Ride Home), Tom Waits's "Temptation," Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and Randy Newman's "Losing You." That's just for starters. She also reprises Laura Nyro's "Goodbye Joe," which serves as a reminder that some seasons back she was in a juicy off-Broadway revue and review of Nyro's inimitable catalog. Dan Lipton, whose taste obviously jibes with Kuhn's, is the arranger and plays the piano, with Damian Bassman on drums and percussion and Peter Sachon on acoustic and electric cello. The sophistication here is so lavish you could spread it on a layer cake.