Bob Stewart,
Talk of the Town
(VCW, 2003)

Why did good voices go out of style? There's a place for attitude, rappers and divas, but how come a good voice seems like a disadvantage? It wasn't always so. Bing Crosby reigned for years. Now to find a baritone who can hit 'em solid you have to go to Vegas or listen to the saccharine Bocelli/Groban school of watered-down operatic singing. Maybe Frank Sinatra started the slide. He had a good voice, but it was the "ring a ding ding" that cemented his popularity. And while I'm doing my Andy Rooney imitation, why are all these wimpy wannabes turning to the "Great American Songbook" and how come you people are buying their recordings? Norah Jones? Maybe someday, but have you heard Carmen McRae or Billie Holliday? And Rod is the wrong Stewart. The almost unknown Bob is the Stewart you want. He was singing this stuff when Rod was still making out with Maggie May in high school.

Bob Stewart's explanation for the demise of strong-voiced crooners is Elvis Presley. Bob started with big bands and was making Down Beat magazine's best-singers list in the 1950s. When he saw the change rock 'n' roll was making in the business, he quit and went fishing. Really. He stopped performing and began to make a living with fishing boats. Then a few years ago he sat in at a New York City lounge, found he still loved it and is now recording again.

I'll answer at least one of my own questions. Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and others are turning to the "Great American Songbook" because it contains the best popular songs ever written. But Bob got there first, knows them inside out and has the type of voice they were written for. Even better, on Talk of the Town his backup musicians are superb. A few of them have lived with the old standards even longer than he has and that's a good thing. Especially with a string section, Stewart sometimes takes the songs a little too seriously. This small-group setting is more informal and the relaxed but swinging jazz players bring out his best.

Pianist Hank Jones appears on 10 of 15 tracks. He is the cliched musician's musician. I doubt Jones has played an out-of-place note in the last 60 years. Glenn Drewes, a regular in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, also stands out. His tasteful trumpet accents seven tracks.

Stewart has a full, warm and easily recognized baritone voice. Though the sound is unique, he at times reminds me of other singers, most often Jack Jones and Bobby Darin (in Darin's more serious moments).

Exceptional cuts include the title song, "Solitude," "Easy Living" and "A Child is Born." The latter is a beautiful but less well-known tune. It was probably brought into the mix by Drewes since it was written by trumpeter Thad Jones, one of the leaders of the Jones/Lewis band that became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Jones wrote the song to celebrate the birth of a daughter.

Good voice, fine supporting musicians, great songs. What are you waiting for? Britney Spears won't be singing these any time soon. At least I hope not.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 10 April 2004