It's hard for me not to feel a little guilty for liking "The Shadow of Your Smile," a sentimental little number from a 1965 film called The Sandpiper. It falls under the heading of "songs I like solely because my Mom played them a million times" - as opposed to, say, "California Dreamin'," which I'd love even if Mom hadn't worn out the 8-track on it.
If "Shadow" is a guilty pleasure, it's doubly so on Nature Boy (Verve), the new standards album from Aaron Neville. The gentle, string-backed arrangement has the fluoride aroma of a dentist's office, and something about the melody is a bit too reminiscent of that damned "fabric of our lives" ad he should never have done for Cotton (TM), the Plant that Needs a PR Campaign.
Still: It's about time Neville made a record of standards, and many of the tracks are guilt-free, if a little more polished and tasteful than they really need to be. "Summertime," the opening track, bounces on a reggae-inflected bass line; "Nature Boy" creeps around with an accordion line as shy and mysterious as its title character; and the restrained orchestration of "Our Love is Here to Stay" would do Tony Bennett proud. Neville warbles in a tenor so distinctive that the music scene would be poorer without him - one might hope for him to tackle riskier stuff sometime, but at least with standards the unchallenging arrangements make sense.
Jimmy Scott typically limits his risk-taking to the material he chooses, not their execution; recent years have seen him covering Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan and the Talking Heads, often to good effect. There's not much odd on his new Moonglow (Milestone), but the fragile-voiced singer does take on "Since I Fell For You," a lovably self-pitying number that became a standard after Lenny Welch hit #5 with it in 1963. His famously pained wail, made permanently old-ladyish by a childhood disease, suits the song's lyrics like no other: "Lo-o-ove brings such misery and pain / I know I'll never be the same / since I fell for you."
Though he sings mostly original compositions, Matt Munisteri happily embraces a kind of old-fashioned tunesmithery that went out with Tin Pan Alley. A bluegrass banjo player and jazz guitarist (who played on Jimmy Scott's Holding Back the Years, if you're looking for more connective tissue here), he now fronts a band called Brock Mumford, whose debut Love Story (Old Cow) proves that Munisteri hungers for the three-minute pop song more than most jazzmen. A line like "From days before the Pharaohs / Love's hurled its poison arrows..." could serve as the intro to scores of tunes by Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, et al, and it kicks off this batch of endearing antique tunes about courtin' and signifyin' - songs in a style old enough to be claimed by jazz lovers and so-called-alternative country or folk fans.
The bop generation loved its pop standards less, or at least didn't mind mucking them up. On Dexter Gordon's Our Man In Paris, just reissued as part of Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder series, the saxophonist slaps all the moroseness out of "Willow Weep for Me." Stretching it to nearly nine minutes, he invests the ballad with what one writer at the time called "gruff lyricism" - his muscular, unsentimental tone ignoring the tune's melodramatic lyrics. An unreleased bonus track, "Like Someone In Love," is a good deal more sympathetic to the composer's intent, with that old softy Bud Powell leading the band on piano.
The king of torn-apart tunes, Thelonious Monk, sees another batch of four great reissues out this month on Columbia. On the legendary Solo Monk, he has his way with "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," making it sound less foolish than skewered: two-thirds of the way through, he jumps back, slows down, and modulates so often you might think he won't make it to the end - and in fact, he does let the final notes taper off into space without resolution. As always, though, there's a method to Monk's madness; it's just that this is more about playing a song than about the song itself. Now if only Aaron Neville would try that once or twice with that crazy instrument of his. •