Jim Speake: Sweet Life

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Jim Speake

Sweet Life

(Vera Susan Productions)

January 31, 2016

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Jim-Speake-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212Cabaret singer Jim Speake has a promising theme for his new CD, Sweet Life: songs about life and wanderlust in which all roads eventually back lead home.

Surrounded by a smart creative team and great arrangements, he and his musical partners have put together a potpourri of songs that reflect a life.

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In fact, one of the album’s finer cuts is an overlooked beauty from Barnum called “The Colors of My Life.” As the story song unfolds, colors flow like a rainbow and tidbits of a life unwind.

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And, it all comes from the heart. Based on that alone, this album ranks with some of the better to come along in a while. The reason: truth. One of the best qualities a singer can have is being a truth-teller. Speake knows his strengths and constraints. This is not a cutesy show-off singer. Nor would he be a threat to Bocelli. Instead, he is an intelligent, vocally warm gentleman capable of turning in an ingratiating delivery on songs that have real meaning to life—and to him. Those results rank him up there in a crowded field of singers (many of whom just sing for the applause). Period.

In terms of honesty and musical production, this is a well-crafted album. Among the standout cuts are homespun readings of “It Amazes Me” (Coleman/Leigh), “Crazy for You” (Bettis/Lind) and “It Might Be You” (Grusin/the Bergmans). These cuts are well-told tales that have meaning. Speake’s simple, sometimes overzealous, delivery makes them effective. He sings from his heart and that is what matters here. This is most evident on the album’s best cut, “You Don’t Know Me” (Walker/Arnold). With Peter Calo’s gently haunting guitar, Speake wistfully offers this in a confessional mien as an ode to a lonely heart. Maintaining a steady narrative of longing, he treats this with loving care and tenderly wraps himself inside the lyric in a way that is compelling. This cut alone is the best example of his honesty that shines on the CD. Neil Sedaka’s “A Lonely Christmas in New York” and Peter Allen/Dean Pitchford’s “Not the Boy Next Door” are treats that are handled well. “Here’s to Life” (Butler/Molinary) ties up this collage of sweet songs by an honest storyteller who is in touch with himself.

Sweet Life marks a ten-year collaboration with Lennie Watts (Artistic Director/arrangements) and Steven Ray Watkins (Musical Director/piano/arrangements). Collectively, they have put out a CD to be proud of. The rest of the team consists of some exceptional musicians, including the aforementioned Calo, Donna Kelly (drums), Matt Scharfglass (bass), Kevin Kuhn (guitar/banjo), Bud Burridge (trumpet), Ken Dybisz (sax), Yoed Nir (cello), Dave Fields (steel guitar). Tom Kochan provided the orchestrations and Paul Rolnick produced the CD.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.