A Way With Words  ★★★★

Though not a household name, Carroll Coates’ tunes have been sung by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae, Mel Torme, Cleo Laine and others. They’re sturdily built love songs, characterized by gentility, female wiles vs. male stoicism, clever word-play and soft-pedaled emotion. They smack of a more sophisticated and civil time and place, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Karen Marguth is a capable California singer with a sparkle to her sound—think of Blossom Dearie, but an octave lower and with a fuller timbre. She interprets two discs worth of Coates in fine instrumental settings graced by alto saxophonist Richie Cole and trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. The arrangements—either by pianist Jason Wanner or seemingly by committee—frame her well.

Marguth sings expressively without calling attention to herself, which is a neat trick. She has honey in her low-to-medium-dynamic voice, and she swings subtly: a hint of melisma here, a drawn-out last syllable there. The vocal phrasing is fairly close to the beat, and her diction is crystal clear. The sublime tag chorus to “Later For Love,” a bright waltz, has some sumptuous scat-and-alto chasing. It’s over much too soon.

Cole is quite a singer himself. Whether soloing or playing obligatos, he’s full of melodious invention. Castellanos’s soft-edged flugel horn gives dimension to the ballads “Better To Have Loved” and “It’s Time”; his incisive muted trumpet injects tang to “Afterglow.”

—Kirk Silsbee