Thou Swell-- Richard Lanham

Lanham is a woefully unheralded singer who recorded this CD in 1999, only to have it get "lost in the shuffle" and not be released until 2013. On Lanham's website is a link to a positive 1999 review of this music, which was apparently slated to come out with a different title, "Sings Swing and Romantic Tunes." Be that as it may, Lanham is a versatile vocalist with a pitch-perfect, flexible, light tenor voice, as well as great charisma and interpretive skills. The veteran Lanham's resume is fascinating. At the age of 12 he was singing with his brothers in the Tempo Tones, a doo wop group that appeared on American Bandstand, and at 16 he was performing on weekends with the trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. He went on to sing with various incarnations of the Inkspots, Drifters, and Cadillacs, and has shared the stage with jazz artists such as Howard Johnson, Bross Townsend, Bernard Purdie, Sheila Jordan, and Chico Freeman. He has also acted in a number of theatrical productions. For this 1999 session, Lanham hired tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon to write the arrangements, and surrounded himself with a fine group that included trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, flutist Dan Block, guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Bim Strasberg, drummer Joe Strasser, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. The end result is infectious renditions of well-known tunes that will encourage repeat listens.

From the onset of the title tune, "Thou Swell," Lanham is in complete control, swinging and phrasing with both grace and verve. Weldon's lusty arrangement and his and Magnarelli's short but vibrant solos seal the deal. Lanham takes Neil Sedaka's hit tune, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," at a slower tempo than customary, allowing him to bring all his genuine feeling to bear, effectively turning it into a romantic ballad. Magnarelli's obbligatos, Bernstein's glistening solo, and Saunders' soulful comping only add to the endearing mood. Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" is unfurled by Lanham with much of its composer's swagger and down-to-earth delivery. Weldon wails heartily, the horns vamp, and Lanham simply charms. Lanham's Nat King Cole influence is evident on "Stardust" in his sensitive phrasing, and even in his tonality to some extent. His singing of the verse is particularly noteworthy, as is Saunders full-bodied accompaniment throughout. Magnarelli's improv, conveying a Clifford Brown-like lyricism, fits perfectly.

Lanham sings "Calypso Medley" at a quicker pace than did Harry Belafonte, but just as convincingly and with perhaps a bit more lightheartedness. Block's flute and Sadownick's congas provide festive texture to this delightful version. "I'm Beginning to See the Light" finds Lanham floating over the beat, joyfully communicating, in an arrangement that creates the illusion of a vocal headliner at the helm of an inspired big band. Lanham's assured delivery and flawless intonation on Cole Porter's "All of You" are impressive, and Saunders' piano solo, Strasberg's buoyant bass, and the combination of Strasser's drums and Sadownick's congas help to keep this track swinging all the way. The Latin arrangement of "Amour" merges zesty horn parts with Block's dancing flute, and Lanham soars strongly above it all.

It's impossible for Lanham to avoid comparison to Cole's famous treatment of "Walking My Baby Back Home," but his higher range and personalized articulation of the lyrics manage to set him apart. Bernstein's openhearted statement is an aptly appealing plus. Lanham comes closest to Cole's style on "Unforgettable," deepening his voice and mirroring Cole's phrasing unapologetically in an obvious salute to one of his idols. Saunders' melodic solo and salutary backing enhance this classy recital. Lanham is fond of Shirley Horn's recording of the somewhat obscure Gershwin song "Isn't It a Pity." His impeccable, emotive artistry on the ballad is front and center here, as he once again aces the verse. Weldon's arrangement is both constructive and unobtrusive, and his tenor solo is warm and sympathetic. Everyone from Gloria Lynne to Sam Cooke has recorded moving versions of "I Wish You Love," and Lanham's can be added to that list, this time with a Latin rhythm that distinguishes it from the pack. The singer captivates with his unforced passion and the purity of his voice.

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Scott Albin