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Music Review: Johnny Mathis – People/The Impossible Dream

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With the back-to-back releases of People and The Impossible Dream in 1969, Johnny Mathis aimed squarely at proving himself via the pedigree of '60s pop tunes and largely succeeded. The two records find Mathis “in the zone,” cranking out big notes from his upper registry, soaring alongside orchestrations and arrangements with ease.

Thanks to Collectors’ Choice, these two releases are available in a newly-released two-disc set.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these releases is just how cool Mathis is. He’s never showy, preferring instead to linger slightly over the notes and grow with the music’s natural force. In today’s day and age of ostentatious performers with incessant runs and vocal acrobatics, Mathis might come across as a bit bland. He is anything but.

Take how he tackles “Sunny,” the opening track from People. The Bobby Hebb tune is transformed into an affecting ballad with Mathis allowing his voice to coast through some long notes. His sensitive approach is magical.

With the title track from People, he eases into Barbra Streisand’s breakthrough song with velvety-smooth release. He hangs back, showing moderation while offering a radiant, tall vocal pattern.

Another highlight from People is “Laura,” a delicious slice of film noir with a haunting Don Costa arrangement based on David Raksin’s score.

The Impossible Dream features the title track in all its rousing glory. Mathis avoids cheesiness thanks in large part to his interplay with the backing orchestra, riding high on waves of strings and horns, sending the song from Man of La Mancha into classic territory.

There are some surprises with this record, too. Mathis takes on “Strangers in the Night,” but wisely slows down the pace so as to not echo Sinatra’s version. He plays it as a romantic ballad, creating a perfect mood for sipping martinis by the fireplace.

“Eleanor Rigby” is an interesting performance. Guided by minimalistic (and strange) instrumentation, Mathis sings in clear-cut fashion and is offset by backing vocals that provide faint punctuation. The song doesn’t quite work, with Mathis’ style not particularly lending itself to the piece. It still stands as a fascinating selection, though, and showcases Mathis’ ability to pick interesting work.

With liner notes by James Ritz, this two-CD set from Collectors’ Choice is a must-have for any Johnny Mathis fan. It highlights a unique segment of his career, presenting an accomplished singer with a desire to try just about anything.

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