Jim Caruso – The Swing Set

Jim Caruso – The Swing Set

The Swing Set, a new album from six-time MAC Award winner Jim Caruso, is due out January 11th, marking the singer’s first release on the Yellow Sound Label. Caruso, known to most as New York’s master party giver, is bringing his bash to listeners everywhere with The Swing Set, a collection of wryly re-imagined standards and eye-popping new tunes, featuring some of the biggest names in jazz and theater. The urbane baritone is joined by Michael Feinstein (“Gotta Be This Or That”), guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli (“If I Only Had A Brain”), pianist/singer Billy Stritch (“Avalon” and “Heart’s Desire”), jazz vocalist Hilary Kole (“Avalon”), Broadway leading lady Stephanie J. Block (“The Doodlin’ Song”), jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein (“l Love A Violin”), and others in a smart, sophisticated romp through the Great American Songbook. The recording has been produced by Michael Croiter and Aaron Weinstein, with musical direction and arrangements by Mr. Weinstein. Jim Caruso made his Broadway debut alongside Liza Minnelli in the Tony Award-winning smash hit Liza’s At The Palace!, singing, dancing and celebrating the music and arrangements of the late, great Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers. For his nightclub work, Caruso has won six MAC and two BackStage Bistro Awards for his sold-out New York shows at Birdland, the Algonquin Hotel, and Arci’s Place; as well as runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Atlanta, Palm Beach and London. He sang with the New York Pops in an all-star tribute to Kander & Ebb at Carnegie Hall, and returned to “The Hall” in a tribute to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, hosted by Michael Feinstein. Jim and his vocal trio, Wiseguys, were invited to sing at President Clinton’s First State Dinner at the White House, and celebrated Bing Crosby in concert at Carnegie Hall with Rosemary Clooney. He guest-hosted “Broadway On Broadway 2000” in Times Square for a crowd of 100,000 theater fans, hosted the 2000 MAC Awards at Town Hall in Manhattan and has co-hosted the Drama Desk Awards webcasts for four years. For the past eight years, he has hosted a Monday night showbiz bash called “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party,” which was honored with a New York Nightlife Award, as was his continuing Broadway at Birdland concert series.

THE SWING SET by REX REED The word that always comes to mind when I hear Jim Caruso sing is “joy.” He spreads it around like marmalade. I’ve heard him do it onstage, in intimate night clubs, and around the piano on party nights at Liza Minnelli’s. And there is plenty of it on The Swing Set. This is a good thing, because there isn’t much of it anywhere else these days. He’s been practicing. Back in the day, when he was young and desperate and green as grass, he played fish restaurants in Dallas, accompanied by his own mother on piano in a popular act called “Son of a Bitch.” With minimal encouragement, his Mom retired from show business, but Jim was just getting started. After forming a trio called Wiseguys, he toured the saloon circuit from coast to coast, appearing in clubs both high-end and low, before moving to New York in 1990. He produced a talk show with lead-lashes evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and survived. He sang Bing Crosby songs with Rosemary Clooney at Carnegie Hall. Through his friend, fellow Texan and pianist-without-peer Billy Stritch, he met Liza Minnelli and joined her on her own world tour–singing, dancing, and celebrating the rhythmic genius of her godmother, the legendary Kay Thompson. (One of Kay’s most famous creations, the finger-snapping “I Love a Violin,” has been exuberantly refurbished for posterity on this collection with the jazzy fiddling of a wunderkind named Aaron Weinstein, a one-man orchestra who wrote all of the arrangements. Don’t miss it. Or him.) In 2004, the light bulb went on above his pointed little head and Jim came up with the idea of establishing a beachhead where bold-face names could rub elbows with vivacious wannabes, inviting every show-tune fanatic in New York to get up and sing along with the best musicians in town. The result is called Cast Party, a weekly event that has revolutionized life after dark every Monday night and turned the famous jazz club, Birdland, into the watering hole of choice for everybody who is anybody—and everybody who isn’t. From a germ of an idea in the head of Jim Caruso, Cast Party turned into a modern-day institution. If you’re over 50, think Toots Shor’s, or Lindy’s without the cheesecake. Among the guests who have checked their inhibitions at the door are Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Melissa Manchester, Marilyn Maye, and Jon Bon Jovi. The unofficial theme song for these occasions is “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing.” That’s what everybody does. If Jim’s own eagerly awaited CD output has been rare, it is not surprising. These are perilous times for the Great American Songbook and he doesn’t have the luxury of a regular recording contract to keep them alive. Neither does Eydie Gorme. But like cream, talent always rises to the top of the churn. This is what happens here, on a journey aptly titled The Swing Set, capturing the fun and entertainment value of a night at Cast Party, while recruiting a passenger list that includes some of the finest first-cabin singers and musicians in the business. Like a spontaneous private phone call from a voice you don’t mind hearing at 4 a.m., they support, comment, joke, cajole, caress, and give him wings. From the charm and laid-back appeal of Cy Coleman’s “The Doodlin’ Song” (a staple in the Blossom Dearie catalogue, lassoed here by Jim and Stephanie J. Block, who played Liza on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman’s Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) to the jazz flavors of Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” and Duke Ellington’s “Squeeze Me,” to the sublime, heartbreaking Dave Frishberg – Alan Broadbent collaboration “Heart’s Desire,” the eclectic menu is as surprising as it is delicious. For laughs, who would ever think of Martin Mull as the composer of slick shtick like “Flexible?” The sense of joy makes even familiar tunes seem fresh. I’m besotted with the penthouse-after-midnight piano chords of Cast Party regular Tedd Firth on “Manhattan,” Aaron’s swanky arrangement for Jim, Billy Stritch and Hilary Kole on “Avalon,” inspired by an old dust-gathering record by Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como and Caterina Valente, and Jim’s relaxed way with a ballad perfectly demonstrated by the Scarecrow’s wistful “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz (that’s the sublime Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and Rosemary Clooney’s long-time sideman Warren Vache on cornet). The ginger-snappy duet with Michael Feinstein on “Gotta Be This Or That” is just the sort of thing you only hear when two imaginative musical minds move toward a common goal and meet somewhere in the marvelous middle. There’s more, as Mae West used to say, clutching her anatomy, but you’ll find out when you peruse the personnel. The main thing to remember is that Jim Caruso can get under the skin of blasé ballads, brushing timeless standards with fresh strokes, or hit the ground running on up-tempo jazz classics. He’s both smart and casual, modern as an i-Pod, yet his elegant demeanor would not be out of place at a staff meeting on Mad Men. No histrionics or cabaret corn here. He can be flip and tender at the same time. Above all, he is always inventive. In an angst-riddled, hip-hop world, his voice goes down like a root beer float. His taste for music and the musicians who play it inspires applause. I marvel at his inexhaustible energy, his passion for every aspect of what used to be Tin Pan Alley. He’s savvy and hip and funny as a frog hopping through honey. There is no chair with his name on it in Limbo. He observes the tertiary roads of show business like a pilgrim googling Map Quest. He is not just a multi-tasking performer, but also a fan. On The Swing Set, he sets out the welcome mat to his own unique world. You never know who will step across with you, but you’ll all feel like you’ve come in from the rain, happy to reach home and hearth at last. Sufferers of Attention Deficit Disorder may want to move on. No Valium here.

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