Listening to Hearts & Minds, it occurred to me that Susannah McCorkle very well might inherit the mantle of Champion of the Great American Songbook currently worn by Tony Bennett. Like Mr. Bennett, Ms. McCorkle believes that the standard repertoire is a living, breathing and, most importantly, ever expanding body of music that has something profound to say to adults in the 21st Century, and on Hearts & Minds, she makes a convincing argument for that position.
Hearts & Minds is Ms. McCorkle’s most focused recording in years. The CD is something of a meditation on the state of human nature at the cusp of the millennium, but without any of the pretentious, cynical gloominess that description might imply. The album explores our struggle to make human connections amid the crazy conflicts of life in the modern age. The smartly chosen and intelligently sequenced material consists of a judicious mix of well-known standards, obscure older songs and obscure new songs.
Ms. McCorkle has never bought into the ironic deconstruction approach to Standards used by other modern singers. Instead, she sings these great songs with such warmth, heart and insight that she makes them seem fresh and new again. She surprises on "For All We Know" and "It Could Happen to You" by singing the ultra-obscure verses to both songs. “Love is Here to Stay," is, frankly, near the top of my list of tunes on which to impose a good 15-year moratorium. Yet, Ms. McCorkle, riding a tightly swinging rhythm section, makes the song sound improbably appealing.
Hearts & Minds works through an absorbing series of contrasts. Dave Frishberg's witty "What Did I Forget?" captures the frenetic pace of real life and Ivan Lins' "Evolution" ponders the consequences of that self-absorption. A gorgeous "I Can Dream, Can't I?" expresses the pain of unrequited love and "Haunted Heart" expresses the pain of lost love. However, "Down," a terrific new song by Simon Wallace and the great cult lyricist Fran Landesman, suggests that maybe we are really going through all that suffering because we want to.
Ms. McCorkle adroitly negotiates these changes in mood and material with the able assistance of the musicians. Dick Oatt's lyrical tenor saxophone is an especially welcome presence throughout the CD. Pianist and arranger Alan Farnham's contributions are remarkable. He leads two different rhythm sections and gives each a distinctive voice. He also supports Ms. McCorkle at every turn and their duet on Wallace & Landesman's "Scars" strikes the album's most disturbing emotional chord.
Track Listing: I Can Dream, Can
Personnel: Susannah McCorkle, vocals; Allen Farnham, piano, arranger and musical director; Dick Oatts, tenor saxophone; Paul Meyers, acoustic and electric guitars; Steve Gilmore, bass; Dennis Irwin, bass; Tim Horner, drums; Vanderlei Pereira, drums; Thiago DeMello, percussion.