Karen Johns and Company – Peach

Karen Johns & Company – Peach
(Ptarmigan Music/Jazz)

Released – January 2012

Not long ago, running an old playlist on the ‘pod, Karen Johns came up.

Ms. Johns is a very talented singer/songwriter who makes her home in suburban Nashville. The song was “Carry Me Away,” an original from her 2008 album, “Star and Season.” I listened with new ears, and liked it even more than I did in 2008…and I liked it a lot back then.

As serendipity seems to go – that same week a copy of Ms. Johns’ newest album, “Peach,” landed on the desk.

The forumla that works for my old top-40 ears is some sort of universal condition, one in which any of us can imagine ourselves, and a good hook – that’s the memorable earworm that sticks with you. It’s harder than it sounds.

Ms. Johns gets this, from the opening track – “Sugarboo” – the title itself is an earworm, evoking a breezy trip in a convertable with one’s sweetie – to the more melancholy “I Speak Woman, You Speak Man.”

Ms. Johns’ talent isn’t limited to the pen, though. None of this would work without her creamy and supple alto, and the “Company,” the backing band – James Johns on guitar, Kevin Sanders on keyboards, Chris Kozak on bass, Michael Glaser on percussion, Jim Hoke on reeds and harmonica (nice touch on “Sentimentale,”) and Ken Watters on trumpet.

Mix in some off the beaten track standards – two in Italian, and one (Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am”) that’s one of my all-time favorites – and well, this one will be in heavy rotation for some time to come.

Very highly recommended.


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The Mantini Sisters – Pretty World

If you’re an artist who has a website, or if you’re contemplating a website, please don’t auto-start your music. Put a big “Listen Now” button on the front page, or something. But don’t auto-start the music, okay? Don’t let “marketers” talk you into it.

I’m in marketing. It’s annoying.

Why annoy those who seek you out?

Mantini Sisters – Pretty World
Released – April 13, 2012

For me, sororal harmony doesn’t get much better than the Mantini Sisters. Their latest recording, “Pretty World,” is a collection of ten tunes, about which Barbara Mantini says, “We wanted to record songs we grew up with and loved, but give it our own…flavour.”

The ten are all Top-40 hits that pretty much span the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, with maybe an outlier or two.

Backing is more than ample – most tracks from a full-sounding Mark Lalama Orchestra. But it’s the sisters who are out front here. They’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years, and they’ve got it down. These ten form the basis of their newest stage show, one of several they’ve been performing all over the Toronto-Niagra region of Canada and the US for a while.

The Mantinis take the title track – made memorable by Sergio Mendes, Lani Hall and Karen Phillip – into a direction both fresher and sweeter than the original. Other favorites of mine include 1969′s “More Today Than Yesterday,” and Ann Mantini’s version of the 1974 Eurovision winner, “Eres Tu.” The Crosby, Stills & Nash tune “Teach Your Children” and Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song” will be getting the radio push.

Buttoned down, tight, and shimmery, this must be a heckuva show in person, because I had to take the disc into the big room with the big speakers to do this album justice.

This disc is very highly recommended.


“Sororal?”  Oh, go look it up.


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Maud Hixson – “Cottontail” and “Bittersweet”

Maud Hixson – Singles:
“Cottontail” and “Bittersweet”
Released – January, 2012

I keep saying that one of these days I need to take a trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul – if for no other reason than to soak up some of the great vocal music that Twin Cities women are creating.  One of the women who caused me to pay attention in the first place was Maud Hixson, who knows how to stay top of mind by simply staying in touch sometimes, just for the heck of it, dropping a postcard on a trip to New Orleans, or a “what do you think?” demo now and then.

This time, it’s a pair of singles.  Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” with vocalese lyrics by Jon Hendricks, and Billy Strayhorn’s “The Ballad For Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” re-imagined with lyrics by Roger Schore, titled “Bittersweet.”

“Cottontail” puts the pedal down, and Ms. Hixson stays on top of the ride for three minutes of breakneck fun.  The cold ending left me agape, and in stitches.  She’s not only at home with the genre, but makes it her own.

“Bittersweet” is the polar opposite – a lyrical ballad Ms. Hixson makes as melancholy as the title, wistful and sublime.  Her long-time collaborator, Rick Carlson gets noticed by me mostly for staying out of the way and framing that voice – that pure and lovely voice – perfectly.  Steve Pikal on bass and Jendeen Forberg on drums round out the backing trio.

Available at all the usual digital music venues, and at Ms. Hixson’s website.

I often talk about taking a chance on new music.  There’s no risk here.  It’s two bucks, a sure bet, and very highly recommended.


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Carter Calvert – And The Roger Cohen Trio

As Mom used to say, it’s sort of “…like the ketchup bottle. Sometimes none’ll come…and then a lott’ll.”  Sometimes during famine times at La Casa de los Cantantes de la Mujer  (Hope that translated okay), I’m left to review old records in the collection.

While listening to old friends with new ears can be fun, what’s really fun is listening to new friends with these old ears.

It’s been a bumper crop of tunes, this past month. Which means there’s a whole lot of music in the machine.

And maybe a whole lot of new friends.

Carter Calvert – and the Roger Cohen Trio
Released – March 20, 2012

In just about every business I’ve been involved in, we’ve spoken of two kinds of people – those who “get it,” and those who don’t. It’s such a joy to hear someone who gets it – who understands there is more to it all than just singing. While it’s true – not just anyone can hit the notes, not just anyone who can hit the notes knows how to put it all together.

And make no mistake – a very together bunch of people are behind this effort.

Carter Calvert has a background that stretches from an amusement park entertainment company to the Broadway stage. Her acting resume includes a stint as Grizabella in the national tour of “Cats,” and a Broadway run with “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues.”

But it don’t mean a thing if…well, you know. And Ms. Calvert delivers, whether a rollicking version of Memphis Minnie’s “Please Don’t Stop Him” to a gently swinging version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” to a version of “Fever” that’s so humid, that you just might forget Peggy Lee. Peter Gabriel’s “Washing Of The Water” nearly sounds like a hymn. Power to hit the balcony, intimate and lyrical, humid and sultry. They’re all on display here.

A word about Jim West, who’s on piano, and paces Ms. Calvert on every track, with his own demonstration of talent. Brian Glassman is on Bass – and bandleader Roger Cohen on drums, percussion, and as the producer.  Well done, guys.

Part of me says this disc would be a great audition tool, to demonstrate Ms. Calvert’s versatility.

And that would be cynical – if she didn’t nail every one. This disc is highly recommended.


Happy birthday today to Aretha Franklin – Sister Ree. I don’t know if I qualify to call her that, exactly – except that I grew up around Detroit, and that’s what they always called her on the radio, no matter the station. You didn’t need a snowplow in the winter – you could just turn up the radio, and it would all melt away.  At her party last night, she announced a new partnership with record guy Clive Davis, who helped engineer Ms. Franklin’s comeback in the 80s.

Happy 70th, Ms. Franklin. It’s your birthday, but I’ll play my favorite present from you.

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