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Listening to Oxford singer Jennifer Antkowiak’s “Here to Stay,” recorded with the Tom LaMark Orchestra, it’s hard not feel as though she’s been ripped straight from the heyday of big band and jazz, even if not all the songs on the album are native to that era. She’s a talented singer, certainly, with impeccable phrasing and an immense amount of technical skill, but really, there are flashes of a ’40s brightness in her singing that are arresting. It’s the sort of feeling that’s difficult to parrot — you either have it or you don’t.
The vocals remain near-flawless throughout the album, and Antkowiak capitalizes on that feeling of time displacement to great effect, particularly on the opening number, a rendition of James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s 1945 song, “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” When Antkowiak sings a line such as “pardon the grammar, but ain’t life grand,” it encapsulates the best of what she brings to a song: a verbal wit, and an ability to capture a feeling that both rings of innocence and is indelibly adult. That’s a distinctly ’40s type of feeling, and difficult to deliver without sounding saccharine.
Antkowiak delivers the contradiction, but sometimes that quality works against her — unsurprisingly, on songs that were written later, and which are laden with more intrinsic sentimentality. Her style accentuates the treacly qualities of Dan Fogleberg’s “Leader of the Band” and Melissa Manchester and Karen Taylor-Good’s “A Mother’s Prayer,” two songs already deeply enmeshed in the easy listening oeuvre. Antkowiak’s voice is pretty here, but as there are no real levels for her to work with, the effect is kind of an uninteresting wash.
Thankfully, though, the album’s lows are mostly unobtrusive, and its highs make them more than forgivable. After “Aren’t You Glad,” she changes up American jazz for mambo with Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltran Ruiz’s 1953 song, “Sway,” to which she brings the necessary heat to the Latin sounds.
“Sway” also serves as a good showcase for the band, which is exceptionally talented and solid on every song, but also a bit backgrounded in favor of the vocals. When you can pull your attention away from Antkowiak long enough to consciously listen to the music, it becomes clear how exceptional the musicians are – particularly the horns on this track, and the saxophone that leads off the next song, Joe McCoy’s bluesy 1936 classic, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” – another song on which Antkowiak sizzles. But when she gets back to the lighter fare of Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This A Lovely Day,” it becomes clear where she’s strongest: When she’s tapping into a sense of joy.
Perhaps the strongest moment on the album comes from her rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” a rich, multilayered song which well-suits her vocal dexterity and allows her to bring both sweetness and some emotional resonance. She also delivers a solid version of Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” although it reads a bit too-pretty if you’re enamored of Eartha Kitt’s more-assertive 1953 version, which highlights a major pitfall of an album that’s entirely standards and covers: The listener is always comparing the singer to someone else.
Sometimes, that works in the singer’s favor, other times it’s a detriment, even if there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the rendition. These are songs that, as the album title states, are here to stay, and in that, they have both power and handicaps for any singer who tackles them.
The album winds down with lovely covers of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Stop Lovin’ That Man,” and Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” – which was made famous by the movie “Casabalanca” – before finishing with Giacomo Puccini’s "O Mio Babbino Varo."
Admittedly, it feels a tad odd ending on a bit of opera after an album of mostly jazz standards, but as an endpiece to a showcase of Antkowiak’s vocal abilities, it works nicely. The song shows off her skill and range, and transports the listener to a different era for a moment, demonstrating the timelessness of all these songs, and why they’re still so accessible today.
By Victor D. Infante
Telegram & Gazette Staff