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BWW CD Review: THE SWING SET Gives Jim Caruso Room To Play

When Caruso takes the time to stand on his own for a few sets, it's worth a listen.

BWW CD Review: THE SWING SET Gives Jim Caruso Room To PlayJim Caruso is always with someone else. His work as the host of Birdland's Jim Caruso's Cast Party requires him to be surrounded by people for hours at a time. He has spent years performing with Billy Stritch, with the Wiseguys, with Klea Blackhurst, with Liza Minnelli... Jim Caruso is rarely alone. But Jim Caruso is his own man. Jim Caruso is his own entertainer. Though audiences may have the rare occasion to see Jim Caruso on his own, using his own artistic voice, doing his own thing, make no mistake about it: Jim Caruso is an entity unto himself.

That is why it is such a pleasure to get to spend some time with Jim Caruso playing on THE SWING SET.

Mr. Caruso has spent his life in show business working the jazz rooms and nightclubs, so swing music is a natural place for him to go when in the recording studio. The crooner Caruso has an affinity for all things upbeat, peppy, and happy - it would not, in fact, be a far stretch of the imagination to wonder if Jim Caruso is ever unhappy. Oh, of course he is, but it doesn't happen when he is at work: Jim Caruso is like a ball of sunshine rolled up with an espresso and a martini, and who doesn't love all those things? From his opening number "I've Got My Fingers Crossed" to the final song "Heart's Desire" Mr. Caruso makes it clear that he is happy in his work and that his artistic mission statement is to make others happy through that work. Even when he slows it down a little for "I Love a Violin" you can hear the smile that was on his face when he recorded the sexy, slinky first half of the song (yeah he picks up the beat - it is, after all, "I Love A Violin"). Working closely with musical director/arranger Aaron Weinstein (clearly supporting on violin), Caruso explores the different facets of swing music. Whether the treatments stay buoyant ("I'm Shootin' High") or get languid ("Manhattan") Caruso and co. are here to show the listener that there is more to the swing genre than Benny Goodman, that there are shadings and colors to be created for audiences that go beyond that which we think of when we hear the term "swing music".

Speaking of the "and co." in Caruso and co, it would be unimaginable for Jim to go to the playground without his playmates, so he generously (for them and for the listener) invites some to join in the fun. The tracks featuring The Stritch Brothers, Stephanie J. Block, Billy Stritch, Bucky Pizzarelli & Warren Vaché are wonderful additions to an already enjoyable album, but the guest artist standouts are a fabulously zippy "Gotta Be This Or That" with Michael Feinstein and a stunning "Avalon" with Hilary Cole and Mr. Stritch - they are the tracks that made this writer hit the back button on the CD player more than once. If the choice to record "If I Only Had a Brain" seems a bit trivial, at least Mr. Caruso goes to the trouble of finding something new to say with it, in that unmistakable Caruso way, and the Pizzarelli/Vaché inclusion is, most assuredly, one worth a listen. When Jim Caruso invites friends over to play, he takes no chances - he goes right to quality. As much as these playdates with the playmates enhance the entire musical journey that is THE SWING SET, though, the bottom line is that this is a Jim Caruso album, and the super-social host with the most is more than well-equipped to handle things on his own, a point that Jim makes crystal clear with back-to-back numbers that anchor the CD, a first-class recording of "Flexible" and this writer's personal favorite on the album, a "Squeeze Me" worthy of one of the Rat Packers. Now there's a daydream for you: a Rat Pack show starring Caruso, Stritch, Darius de Haas, Benny Benack III, and Nicolas King - Santa, get on that, please?

Jim Caruso released his first album in 2000 and then waited over a decade to do this second CD, and that's too long. Producer Michael Croiter deserves a debt of thanks, not only for getting Jim back into the studio but for capturing his particular brand of artistry so succinctly; after all, Jim Caruso is a very visual performer who, in concert, makes hilarious throw-away comments and faces, and when working in audible files, a producer needs to work a little harder to capture the Caruso cheek, and Croiter did that. The Swing Set is a meticulous documentation of Jim Caruso, of his style, his work, his friendships, and his point of view.

Hopefully, fans won't have to wait another eleven years for the next album. We're at nine years now, Jim, so get cracking.

Jim Caruso The Swing Set is a 2011 release on the Yellow Sound label and is available on all streaming platforms.

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From This Author Stephen Mosher