Contrast the gentle, understated readings of "Always" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" with the oddball, old-timey growl he lends to Fats Waller novelty tunes (including the best known "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," from whence springs the album's title). Yeah, the guy's having fun.
He even adds a perfectly timed period-sounding original, "My Valentine," dedicated to his new wife, Nancy.
LOVE MINUS ZERO: Role model for many a piano jazz chanteuse (including Diana Krall), Roberta Flack returns to the microphone with "Let It Be" (429 Records, B). She's offering new takes on some of the most memorable and romantic classics of Paul McCartney (him again!) and John Lennon from their Beatles daze. Flack brings a fresh edge and strong personality, from the electro-percussion-popped "We Can Work It Out" to the gospel truth of "Oh Darling" and "The Long and Winding Road."
Got a Bob Dylan fan to shower with affection today? Here's a way that also makes a meaningful contribution to Amnesty International. "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan" (Amnesty International/Fontana, A-) delivers a generous four-disc collection of mostly new performances by Dylan devotees both expected (Bryan Ferry, Billy Bragg, Pete Townshend, Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Mark Knopfler, Jackson Browne, Dave Matthews) and a bunch you'd never assume. Among the latter: Ke$ha, with a shockingly subdued "Don't Think Twice It's Alright"; Miley Cyrus, Raphael Saadiq and Adam Levine/Maroon Five. Adele's "Make You Feel My Love" was recorded live at WXPN.
You get a good mix of familiar and relatively obscure Dylan tunes, the socially conscious and emotionally confiding, in this $30 bundle. And it's consistently surprising to hear those words and music coming out of the mouth of a smooth, cleanly articulating singer.
A LOVE OF PLACE: I've often heard hints of early electric beatpoet/Greenwich Village-era Dylan (and some Lou Reed scrappiness, too) in the music of Chuck Prophet. And that's a fine thing. But Prophet's "Temple Beautiful" (Yep Roc, B+) is very much a West Coast thing, too - a themed homage to his hometown and cultural muse, San Francisco. Jumping out for me? "Castro Halloween," "Museum of Broken Hearts" and "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat."
While new to the roster of the Chicago-based Alligator label, veteran talent Joe Louis Walker fits in perfectly with that city's crackling, electric blues signature sound on "Hellfire" (Alligator, B+). Pick to click? His celebration of "Black Girls," from Aretha Franklin to Shemekia Copeland. Walker plays Warmdaddy's Friday and Saturday.
JAZZ BOUQUETS: Saxophonist Kirk Whalum is surely expressing the "Romance Language" (Mack Avenue, A-), a big bag of hot buttered soul/jazz to share with a loved one tonight. Brother and kindred spirit Kevin Whalum adds quiet storm intensity on vocals, as they work through older gems such as "They Say It's Wonderful" and "My One and Only Love" and more contemporary fare like Eric Benet's "Spend My Life With You" and Joe's "I Wanna Know."
Steve Tyrell's lightly raspy, swinging, saloon singer style and fine taste in standards shine anew on "I'll Take Romance" (Concord, B). The man had me from the opening notes of "At Last," an eerily fitting tribute to Etta James released just days after her passage.