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Kristin Chenowith   
As I Am
(Sony Clasical/Integrity)
Mary Haskell
Inspired: Standards-Good For the Soul 
Debby Boone 
Reflections Of Rosemary
Back when Sandi Patty released her kind-of divorce catharsis concept album __Le Voyage__, a  brainstorm of mine was that her label should take out ads in magazines such as The Advocate_ and __Out!__ to pre-evangelize and market her to homosexual men. Patty envisioned the album as the closest she would come to being in a Broadway production, and with the general love for big-voiced divas and showtunes among gay guys....come on, it's a natural, right?

I'm not recommending every biblically orthodox congregation take on their nearest Metropolitan Community Church (the "denomination" that seeks to reconcile homosexuality with scripture) parish as a pet project. However, such rich, orchestrated arrangements and mature glamor as described above have made a return to Christian music making. The difference now is that it comes outside of the Nash Vegas contemporary Christian establishment. Actresses and a former general and Christian market hitmaker have generated the new influx of higher brow classiness. 

Patty herself gives one of the fourteen song testimonials on TV and stage actress/former Miss America Mary Haskell's Inspired-Standards-Good For The Soul. The one-time Ms. Patti relates how Haskell's cover of The Carpenters' oldie "I Won't Last A Day Without You" reminds her of God's love. That song selection typifies the approach taken on Inspired. Songs written mostly with earthly subject matters in mind become odes to and about the Lord. Ever heard the old slag against so much CCM as "Jesus is My girl/boyfriend" songs? 

Haskell hits that tack hard, but it's more likeable than the bulk of that aforementioned schlock for multiple reasons. Primary among them is the dusky sleekness of  Haskel''s pipes. She sells her repertoire with the heart of a lady born for the Great White Way. That said repertoire consists in part of a page in the Great American Songbook such as Sammy Kahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's "All My Tomorrows" on one hand and The Supremes' and Temptations' "You'll All I Need To Get By" on the other shows Haskell's command of glossy adult pop.

Perhaps too glossy at times. The copious use of background choruses and instrumental extravagance may work for a Bernadette Peters guest appearance on Carol Burmnett's '70's sketch show or a dash of inspiration on Delilah's or John Tesch's syndicated adult contemporary radio shows. Others accustomed to more restraint will enjoy this less. The closing rendition of Kahn's "The Secret Of Christmas"-dig that flute-may make it worthwhile. Thing is, it's tough to imagine Haskell singing to a backing that doesn't flirt with bombast and schmaltz. Still, her voice impresses even when arrangements and material don't match her elegance and grandeur.

Broadway blondie Kristin Chenoweth's inspirational-leaning As I Am sounds about as slick as Haskell's work, but more instrumentally inventive. It must be her theatrical connection that landed this on Sony's classical imprint, as there's nothing here to confuse Chenoweth with any operatic soprano, much less a crossover queen like Sarah Brightman. 

What Chenoweth delivers with her youthful tanginess mixes recent and older Southern gospel and CCM faves (MercyMe, the Gaithers, Cindy Cruse) and public domain gems  ("Just As I Am," "Joyful, Joyful," "Poor Wayfaring Stranger"), with inspirational pieces that aren't necessarily God-specific. Dianne Warren's "Borrowed Angels" figures into that last camp and gives Chenoweth a share of quality treacle to balance more adventurous fare. Among those adventures is a take on "Stranger" that sounds to be reprising the jazz/contry fusion of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons." A rural feel flits throughout the set, from a cover of the Trisha Yearwood hit "The Song Remembers When" to the use of steel guitar accents on "It Will Be Me" and "Abide In Me." Cruse's "Power" is my pick for club remixable anthem of the record, but hey, nobody paid attention to my idea for Patti (a role model for Chenoweth) either. 

Chenoweth's goofy sense of humor comes to the fore on the closing "Taylor, the Latte Boy." The story-song about a barrista who shows his love by adding extra foam, etc. to our heroine's Starbuck's order could be the basis for a Tony-winning musical, and Chenoweth shows just enough bemusement on the number that's slowly growing on me. 

(For those who think Chenoweth a hottie, among whom you can count me, seek the recent issue of  Blender wherein she lists her favorite albums and dolls up in dead-on mimickry of Dusty Springfiel's on the Dusty In Memphis cover. Cool gal, that Kristin.) 

 From '80's contemporary Christian mainstay/'70's one-hit wonder Debby Boone one might expect something as glossy as Haskell's and Chenoweth's offerings;thankfully, she defies expectations with a straight-up jazz album. Sadly, the occasion for Reflections Of Rosemary is the passing of Boonie's mother-in-law, legendary jazz belle Rosemary Clooney.

Happily, Boone's sweetness of tone works about as well Clooney's sass. Daughter-in-law saw fit not to cover what's arguably most famous, and most kitsch, hit, "Come On A My House." Boone does herself and the repertoire she picked proud all the same.

Her sunny artistic disposition works as well on the happier "Blue Skies" as much as it does on darker entries by Hank Williams, Sr. ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") and Duke Ellington ("Blue Indigo"). The latter work for Boone because she reads not so much despair into the songs as the anticipation of more blue skies when her despondency lets up. 

Leave it to Boone to also find a song with gospel subtext among Clooney's set lists. "The Music That Makes Me Dance" infers the Maker of divine music as much as the tight small traditional combo work accompanying her. Speaking of the players, she numbers such high-profile jazzbos as tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and John Pizzarelli on guitar among her accomplices on an album that does wonders to negate the lingering aftertaste of "You Light Up My Life." 

Boone's jazz is authentic enough to get her booked into a piano bar on the Chicago date of her tour behind Reflections. Alas, I can't make it, so anyone reading this who did, let a brother know how it went, yes?

Boone's foray may be a stretch for contemporary Christian radio. Haskell and Chenoweth, however, could be adding class to an often-moribund format even as you take this in. With my ears peeled to the right stations, here's hoping.
Jamie Lee Rake       7/12/2005


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