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Erin Dickins: Rediscovering Repertoire

Nick Catalano By

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One of the great challenges for any established recording vocalist is finding material. Often, even the best arrangements fall short if the composition is a tired standard that has been recorded to death. Success in this area is rare, so when a debut CD contains one thoughtfully performed obscure gem after another, it is time to sit up and take notice.

This is surely the case with Nice Girls (Champagne, 2011), the debut solo album from Erin Dickins, a founding member of The Manhattan Transfer. The CD includes "Loads of Love" (Richard Rodgers), "I Must Have that Man"( Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh), "Walkin With Your Barefeet On" (Jesse Fredrick), "Stayin' is the Only Way to Go" (Anthony Smith et al.), and "Take Your Time" (Gene Pistilli). Dickins performs these rarely heard tunes with aplomb and taste, and making the songs sound both fresh and familiar.

The CDs title comes from a tune by Bobby Troup "Nice Girls Don't Stay For Breakfast,"and includes a swinging group of musicians: pianist Rob Mounsey; drummer Ray Marchica; trumpeters Barry Danielian, John Fumo and Jesse Fredrick; saxophonists Lawrence Feldman, John Lissauer and Bob Sheppard; guitarists Bruce Watson and Bob Mann; accordionist Brian Simms; and redoubtable New York bassist David Finck. Film and television composer Jesse Fredrick produced the affair, plays guitar, sings background vocals and performs "Can't We be Friends" as a duet with Dickins.

Dickins comes from an artistic family. Her mother, a former Rockettes dancer at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, hired an opera singer to give the nine-year old Dickins vocal lessons. Her father was a jazz pianist. Once things got going professionally for Dickins, her musical associations read like a who's who in the music business, including Leonard Cohen, Bette Midler, James Taylor, The Talking Heads, James Brown, Barry Manilow, Jaco Pastorius and Ashford & Simpson.

In addition to her prescient phrasing and lyrical subtlety, one of Dickins' singular achievements on the CD is her choice of repertoire. Her research was uncanny, and is evidenced by her unearthing of the Julie London recording of "Nice Girls Don't Stay For Breakfast" and the Billie Holiday version of "I Must Have That Man." This exploration into the past should serve as a template for others who seek to bring originality and freshness to vocal recordings.

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