* * * BARRY MANILOW, "Swing Street," Arista. On his latest album, Manilow returns to the mythical jazz-club setting of his 1984 hit "2:00 AM Paradise Cafe." Only this time, he gets there six hours earlier, in time for the dance-floor action. So while "Paradise Cafe" was dominated by smoky, late-night saloon songs, here there's more variety. Side 1, which is set at 8 p.m., features playful, high-stepping swing and mambo pieces, while Side 2, set at midnight, features ballads. This clever gimmick brings a better sense of balance to the album, which is the basis for Manilow's upcoming TV special, "Big Fun on Swing Street!"
As on "Paradise Cafe," Manilow works well with a wide array of guest musicians. Kid Creole & the Coconuts sing on the Latin swing piece, "Hey Mambo," and the vocal trio Full Swing is featured on the aptly titled "Big Fun." Other cuts feature such noted jazz figures as Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Diane Schuur and Tom Scott. Manilow wrote most of the songs, but also includes three standards from the jazz/big-band era. His approach to these classics is a little too reverential and rehearsed. He seems more relaxed on his own songs, including the autobiographical "Brooklyn Blues," which is his current single.
This diversion into jazz-shaded music has been good for Manilow. He brings a restrained, understated approach to the music, and avoids his familiar pop formula of big, crashing hooks and choruses. Manilow's goal now should be to bring that looser, fresher, less-structured approach to his regular pop recordings.