It amazes me that a singer of Nathan Gunn's caliber has taken eight years to follow up on his promising 1999 debut recital disc, American Anthem. In the meantime, he has conquered the world's opera stages in roles as diverse as Guglielmo in Mozart's "Così fan tutte" and Clyde Griffiths in Tobias Picker's adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy". On his 2007 recital release, Gunn seems intent on showcasing himself as a throwback to an earlier time when stalwart singers like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae dominated the type of musical the Hollywood studios have long since forsaken. I don't blame him since his program represents some beautiful, off-the-beaten-path music in a decidedly intimate setting. With his matinee idol looks and strapping physique (used to great advantage in elaborate productions of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" and Sergei Prokofiev's "War and Peace"), Gunn is quite a presence onstage, and his challenge has always been to match that on recordings. Here he succeeds.
The versatile baritone deliberately scales back his sizable voice to fit the warmer contours of these meticulously selected songs. Even though he is quite accomplished in the opera world, there is not a single aria to be heard on this disc. Instead, songs from the likes of Sting (a heartfelt take on "The Secret Marriage" from 1987's Nothing Like the Sun), Billy Joel (the touching "And So It Goes" from 1989's Storm Front), and Tom Waits (the madrigal-like "The Briar and the Rose" and the lithe, rolling waltz of "Innocent When You Dream"), are included here. From his folk-oriented first disc, Gunn returns to the works of composer Gene Scheer for three exceptional compositions - the melodramatic "Say Anything", the cabaret chestnut "Jam Tart", and the comparatively swoon-worthy title tune. Broadway baby Kristin Chenoweth makes a surprisingly supple and compatible duet partner on the snappy and all-too-brief jewel, "It Feels Like Home", by John Bucchino.
Ben Moore, who contributed heavily to soprano Deborah Voight's debut recital disc in 2005, provides the sweeping music for three pieces - the profoundly somber "When You Are Old and Gray" set to a poem by William Butler Yeats and two set to poems by James Joyce, the haunting "In the Dark Pine-Wood" and the quietly majestic "This Heart That Flutters". Gunn's singing is likely at its purest on Joseph Thalken's two unadorned ballads, "Time", written with Barry Kleinbort, and the brief concluding track, "I Have Loved Hours at Sea", written with Sara Teasdale. The singer is at his most uninhibited and animated on Charles Hart and David Cullen's über-romantic "The Dance of Love" and at his relaxed on the cheery Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Burke classic, "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", an unabashedly romantic tribute to his wife. Overall, this may not show off Gunn's vocal talent to its fullest extent, but it does show how comfortable he is in the popular genre without the contrivance one would expect from such an ambitious crossover effort.