Although Homage is his fourth CD in just a few years, singer Julian Yeo and his band (led by the terrific pianist-arranger Jesse Gelber) are always in homage mode, evoking the early decades of the 20th century. It began with their first CD, which instantly reminded me of old-time crooning stylists like Rudy Vallee and the early-career Bing Crosby. Indeed, they are two of the vocalist heroes and heroines singled out for this set of homages matching one singer to one song. Though ostensibly a set of salutes to singers, curiously, the numbers chosen are not religiously their major trademark songs. For example, for "The Shadow of Your Smile," Karen Carpenter of the brother-sister team Carpenters is not the first person to come to mind. And "You Go to My Head" might not be on the shortest of short lists for Judy Garland signature songs. As stated in the liner notes, the intention is not to channel each one's style, sound or musical arrangement. Julian remains Julian, which, for the uninitiated, means a certain slyness that can be very appealing, tempered with modesty and minimalism, and a dollop of insouciance, rather than any semblance of high drama, big-voiced singing or grandstanding.
For me, this is his best effort since his debut, due to the mix of different tempi and material and the cool arrangements that have more vigor and variety. The five-piece band is in the groove without an overdose of dozing lounge-iness. His prior release was more one color, as suggested by the title Deep Purple Dreams, intentionally mysterious and slo-mo musical takes. This is more engaging and Julian has a knack for making novelty songs like "Tico Tico" tickle the ear, never tacky and tiresome as such fare can be when others lay on the cute coyness or crank out more caffeine upon already percolating rhythms. He just makes them impish, simpler playthings, not over-selling them. As he sings on the track following that, "Give Me the Simple Life." And when a song has tenderness built in, he lets it speak—or sing—for itself, as in the blissful bubble-fragility of the awe in "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."
Australian-raised Julian Yeo shows a knack for international material here on a few selections and some Brazilian bossa nova classics ("So Nice" is exactly that). His own accent, somewhat of a stumbling block for clarity and diction when he began, has become much less of an issue but the charm that comes from it remains. His recordings rarely are commanding drama and visceral or roller coaster rides. That's not his scene and not his style. Nor is radical re-inventing. They remain generally laidback and become room-ambient-friendly, easy-to-take and easygoing and easy to keep company with. That's different from background music that blends in and is just subliminally-present entertainment.
Much here captures the ear and brings the shadow of a smile as we revisit even more timeless tunes that have been around ... how long? Well, as one number title has it so accurately, "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, circa world War II). And with singers like Julian around to keep the musical home fires burning, albeit at a low flame, they'll be around for a long, long time to come.
- Rob Lester