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Miles Donahue: Stranger in Paradise: Standards Vol I

Dan McClenaghan By

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You've got to give the guy extra credit for sheer nerve, simultaneously offering up four CDs of great American Songbook classics. But trumpeter/saxophonist Miles Donahue doesn't need anybody's credit. The four discs stand on their own—collectively or separately.

Stranger in Paradise, Volume I opens up with Irving Berlin's "Always," with a bonus: vocals by Robin McElhatten (now going by Robin McKelle). Donahue hadn't planned on using a vocalist on the four discs, but a friend suggested he go see Robin McKelle perform in a Boston area bar one night. Miles was so taken with her that he recruited her to do a total of twelve songs for the project, three per disc. More on her later.

Miles Donahue is a rare instrumentalist who doubles on reeds and trumpet, and an even rarer one who does it successfully. But repeated listens of the set suggests his strength may be the alto sax. The songs are done fairly reverently, but when Miles solos, he really gets into the music with a stunningly creative intensity, taking the theme of the melody to places you didn't know existed. And when he's joined by like-minded tenorist Jerry Bergonzi ("People Will Say We're in Love"), magic happens.

That's Miles Donahue the instrumentalist. But Donahue is also a talented arranger. These songs are all time-polished gems—"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "I Love Paris" (another McElhatten vocal), the title tune, Gershwin's "Embraceable You," etc. All quartet or quintet pieces, but Donahue brings a sparkle to them with his arranging skills and his use of—on this disc—four different pianists.

Now, Robin McElhatten (Robin McKelle): Expressive phrasing and an ability to wrap her voice around the nuances of a beautiful melody and make it her own. She's been compared to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and no argument here. Throw in a bit of Barbara Streisand and a helping of originality. Her take on Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" is as fine a rendition as you'll hear, with sweetly sour taste coming through in the contrast between the vocal tones and the alto sax solo. Her scatting skills on are on show here, and they are formidible; you can see where those Ella comparisons come from. In fact, the only quibble I have with CD is that I don't hear her scat enough.

Eight great classics, given a new polish by Miles Donahue and crew; with an inspired new vocalist sitting in on three tunes.

Visit Miles Donahue and Robin McElhatten on the web.


Track Listing: Always, Golden Earrings, Smoke Gets in You Eyes, I Love Paris, Stranger in Paradise, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Embraceabel You, People Will Say We're in Love

Personnel: Miles Donahue--trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax; Ben Cook, Fred Hersch, Alain Mallet, Kevin Hays-- piano; Bob KaufmanGeorge SchullerJamey Hadda--drums; John Lockwood, Jay Anderson--bass; Jerry Bergonzi--tenor sax; Roger Kimball--cello

Title: Stranger in Paradise: Standards Vol I | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Amerigo Records

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