Angelic voices, heavenly harmonies, and a divine diva dominate this week's offerings. There's also a detour designed for devilish derision of the world of night club singers. But, first, want to feel like you're floating up to Heaven? Here's some music that will will almost make you feel "upwardly mobile" enough to do so.
To me, heaven on earth is a new song that synthesizes and absorbs the best of influences from the past, but has a freshness of its own. Johnny Rodgers' first album (in general release August 9) is full of them, and he wrote them all, alone and with others. The songs have elements of the smartest kinds of pop, folk, rock, cabaret and various hybrids of these categories, with a touch of Southern comfort. And when the melodic line occasionally brings his voice into the stratosphere of falsetto, it's the voice of an angel. It happens in this CD's title song, which is about the need to put the past ("that I can't seem to remember to forget") behind him. Its opening line, "I never claimed to be a wise man," seems reasonable coming from a very young writer but, whatever he may claim, the songs show lessons learned with a thoughtful, open heart.
Though not afraid to be sensitive and flat-out romantic, Rodgers is not weepy or whiny when sorrow rears its head. Sorrow is mostly in the past, and the songs are life affirming and hopeful. Not all is serious; some tracks find him leading a driving rhythm and sounding happy-go-lucky. (Recorded previews of these strengths can be heard on one track on PS Classics' The Maury Yeston Songbook and in a duet on Lee Lessack's just-released In Good Company, produced by Johnny and featuring his band.)
Johnny's songs are called memory "snapshots" in the liner notes, expanding on the metaphor of the album title. They can be sharp images, as in the most detailed story song, "In The End," subtitled "Song For My Father." However, most of the images are closer to impressionist painting than a photograph, as he's even better at evoking a mood and mind set with vocal colors, atmospheric touches and accents with various instruments: cello, samba whistle, ocean drum, trumpet and flugelhorn. The last two are courtesy of guest artist Randy Brecker. His core band of Joe Ravo (great and prominent guitar work), Brian Glassman on bass and Danny Mallon on drums is solid as a rock. Johnny is on keyboards and is effective when playing at any tempo, going to town on a couple of rollicking forays. I wish he'd taken the opportunity to solo on a ballad. Maybe next time.
The band gets a workout, with a New Orleans groove in "Miss Dixie" and the album-ending celebratory "Home To Mendocino." A sultry, tropical island feel is palpable on the seductively laidback "Midday Moon" as well as "She," with a lyric boasting the surprise of humor midway through. "Sweet Georgia Smile" is a lullaby, but one that moves and builds, yet is still as sweet as a Georgia peach. (However, it's about something sweeter, his true love who's named Georgia). Although the band is exciting and invigorating on this album, I suspect some will find "Sweet Georgia Smile" to be the highlight, and it's just Johnny and his piano. The song and the singing are that ingratiating.
Richard Barone is the album's producer and he co-wrote three of the numbers, including an appealing barrage of questions making up most of the lyric of "Is It the Way?" Lina Koutrakos collaborated on the words to the wisdom-drenched "One More Moment," with a love-triumphs-over-all message. Johnny and a writing partner named Brian Wilson (no, not the leader of The Beach Boys) came up with a fun love letter to Elvis Presley's home, "Movin' Into Graceland." These co-writers are among the CD's back-up vocalists.
These songs are the kind that stick with you either because they are thought-provoking or, in the case of the lighter, brighter ones, just plain old catchy. The energy and musical skill make this CD a long lasting breath of fresh air. Johnny has been attracting attention for the last few years on his own and as an accompanist for singers (Sally Mayes and Liza Minnelli to drop a couple of names). This is one case where the phrase "much anticipated album" on the press releases is very true, and the "worth waiting for" results exceed expectations.
In celebration of this new release, Johnny will be performing on August 15th at The Jazz Standard, with more appearances around the country. Details are available on his website, www.johnnyrodgers.com, where you can also hear some sound clips of this very highly recommended album. This is a musician who knows what he is doing with his writing and playing, and he sings with passion and compassion. The album is put together with great care and thoughtfulness, but there is nothing "slick" about it. Johnny Rodgers is the real deal.
That David Yazbek is a quirky guy. He's the composer-lyricist of two musical comedies: The Full Monty (whose tour starts up again on September 9) and this season's hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, still packing 'em in on Broadway. He may be in heaven financially, but he's still quite devilish at his website where he proclaims himself to be a "two-time Tony Award loser," with self-deprecating comments about his earlier career as a singer-songwriter just using the name Yazbek. All indications are that this is a man who doesn't take himself, or the world, too seriously. And that makes his songs delightfully eccentric and maddeningly enigmatic
I first encountered the name David Yazbek in the early 1990s as the writer of songs for the children's television show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?. His ditties for the show were smart-alecky and madcap. His singing was in the background, but he produced and played in the band. After these songs about world travel, bugs and bad eating habits, he put out three pop albums. The Yazbek output featured his music and lyrics, with him playing and singing. Three CDs isn't a large body of work to pull from to make a compilation, but it's been done.
The recordings are from 1996, 1998 and 2001. The bonus track is a sincere, affecting version of "Breeze Off the River" from the score of The Full Monty and it's the exception to the otherwise off-center breezy fare. The rest of this baker's dozen tunes of half-baked logic are mostly amusing and/or musically diverting, but don't expect anything Broadway. Not even Yazbekian Broadway. This is pop music. Some vocal sounds and hooks will remind you of some feel-good '60s rock, but it's not at all hard-driving or ear-splitting with screaming guitars. Certainly fans of Yazbek's Broadway scores will be curious, if they haven't heard his earlier work before. But, other than the Monty track, the only connections to Broadway are a line stating, "The prison has a view of Broadway" and the mention of a bus going down that fabled road. In these songs, he's going down the road of easy-to-take rock and roll with a sense of bemused detachment. It's paved with good intentions, this road, but it's neither the road to hell nor is it especially heavenly music, although both are mentioned in one downbeat lyric: "That's you. That's me./ That's everything heaven and hell were supposed to be." Mostly we're earthbound in subjects ranging from prejudice to ducks. Some of the lyrics are enigmatic, but I do like the duck song!
My personal favorite is the quaint "Cowgirls Go To Santo Domingo" about a salesman's long, lonely traveling. It's a wild melody distracting you from some sad lyrics. It's not the only time that happens. The lyrics feature many references to nature and weather, apparently favorite topics or obsessions: "Flowers in a bedside jar, fooled into living by plain water." Also interesting is "And the sun will never rise above me/ And the snow will make a snowman of me/ And the wind's the only thing that loves me." There are brief thunderstorms of anger and despair, but if you listen casually you could miss it, as the melodies and harmonies are mainly sunny.
David Yazbek's singing voice is attractive, although it's often layered over vocal track upon vocal track, plus all kinds of interesting but unlisted instruments. The liner notes consist of two sentences dedicating the album to the musicians he's worked with on his three albums, but only three are named: Chris Smylie, Dean Sharenow and Andy Partridge. Sharenow is listed as a percussionist on the bonus track which was recorded this past March. I was interested in some of the songs and this is certainly a trip off the beaten path, whether your path of choice is theatrical or the path of pop. It won't be for everyone.
For some very tasty leftovers, we've been served up a banquet of goodies previously unissued from a Bernadette Peters concert. In December of 1996, Bernadette Peters gave a one-night-only recital at Carnegie Hall and was in top form. Recorded and released as a solo CD in 1997, it sounded great, but not everything could fit on a single CD. "The Rest Of It" has now appeared - after a wait of eight long years since the first release.
Well, better eight than never. And, in case you're suspicious or wary, dismiss any thoughts that these tracks were withheld because they were weak performances or had problems of some kind. Many of the songs in the concert have studio versions available on her solo CDs and cast albums. Each volume has a lot that fit into that category, and a few numbers she hasn't recorded elsewhere. The earlier album was almost all Stephen Sondheim songs and this one has more of the "et cetera."
The Sondheim songs are all bunched together here. First is "(They Ask Me Why) I Believe In You," from an unproduced television play. In the liner notes she wrote herself, Bernadette says the song "hadn't ever been recorded" but Rebecca Luker's lovely vocal on Unsung Sondheim preceded the concert as did the composer's own piano duet with Herbie Hancock on Color And Light (both albums by various artists). That doesn't take away from the fact that Bernadette's version is very nicely done. Later she does "Later" from A Little Night Music, a surprising choice but a welcome one since it's hardly ever done out of context and was written for a specific kind of male character. She sang "With So Little To Be Sure Of" on the same stage in the concert version of Anyone Can Whistle and that was recorded, but as a duet. It's particularly well realized in this interpretation, highlighting both the realization of the ephemeral nature of time and the celebration of "a moment, a marvelous moment." This leads into "Children Will Listen," the cautionary tale she sang as The Witch in Into The Woods. It's rewarding to experience the thoughtfulness and in-the-moment presence evident in her phrasing with the songs she has lived with. That's also true of the numbers from her solo albums. Longtime fans and fanatics will note differences in interpretations and arrangements of the familiar material, especially a different musical dressing for "Faithless Love."
(Here's an interesting note: An advance copy was requested by a longtime fan, one of the American astronauts who just went into outer space, and wanted to hear it in the space shuttle up in the heavens. Talk about a new CD being launched - I'm sure the crew injoyed discovering the music of this disc on the shuttle Discovery.)
Bernadette is in great voice, and relaxed. The orchestra sounds sensational under the baton of the star's very longtime musical director, Marvin Laird. There's an overture which is a pleasure, but that's where you're reminded of what's not on this disc, as you hear melodies whetting your appetite for the vocal versions not found here. But better to have it rescued; no doubt many buyers have had those vocal tracks in their collection for years and have already made space for this missing relative. The accompanying patter setting up the songs has been kept and, though it provides no startling revelations or jokes, you get a typical sample of the lady's charm and graciousness which have endeared her to so many.
Bernadette's followers don't need me or anyone to encourage them to pick this up, but for the more casual admirer, I'll put my thumb up and recommend this as a very satisfying disc with not as many high-stakes grandstanding diva moments as you might guess. From "We're In The Money" (with its excursion into Pig-Latin, I kid you not) through the pop and show tunes, it excellently captures the excitement of a live event, standing up quite well as a self-contained listening experience without the earlier recording. If you never did get around to that one, it's called Sondheim, Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall and uses the same cover photo.
With the finale being a warm, straightforward version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (complete with an audience singalong reprise), you can think of it as an early yuletide wish this August, or a Christmas card that was lost in the mail for almost a decade. But now this heavenly music, to extend the theme, is finally out of Limbo. Appropriately enough to our column's title, too, it's on Angel Records.
UNDER THE RADAR
Every week, we tell you about a CD you may not have known about it. Our usual policy is to feature something I'm raving about and wholeheartedly recommending. This week, I'm trying a change of pace and letting you decide as I present the item at hand. I was looking forward to hearing this one, but find it puzzling that I am resisting its hard work to make me laugh in its depiction of musical Hell.
Humor is a very individual thing. What makes you laugh uproariously might not make someone else even smile. I loved the concept and title, Cabaret Hell. It strives to make fun of the worst aspects of cabaret entertainment, focusing on overdone traditions and misguided performers of limited musical skills pitch and taste. In other words, cabaret from Hell. If you've been in a dark, cramped "intimate night club" you know how claustrophobic it can feel and how long an hour can seem. Sometimes that two-drink minimum is a blessing. So, let me tell you about the approach here, which was indeed presented as a cabaret revue in New York City.
Cabaret Hell wants to do for cabaret what Forbidden Broadway does for musical theater, skewering its targets by performing in its style. Sample set-ups for songs or sketches:
Parodying bad performance by performing off-key and out of tempo to the extreme, with or without disastrous musical arrangements is tricky. It can be just painful or run out of steam. Many characterizations of tone-deaf, rhythm-challenged lounge lizards abound here. Long ago, such performers were parodied by the fine pop singer Jo Stafford and musician husband Paul Weston as the characters Jonathan and Darlene Edwards and I find that hilarious. These days, in the same way, singer Georga Osborne can do the same thing in her recreation of novelty singer Mrs. Miller. They find a way to make it more entertaining, perhaps because I know they are expert when playing it straight and find affection for their targets. To me, the tone in this act feels a little mean-spirited or corny without enough payoff to the set-ups. Perhaps it works better in person. I've been to bad cabaret, so I can relate, so why am I not laughing?
The material is written and performed by Tony Lang, Miriam Fond with pianist Woody Regan. I'd found some amusement in the CD of an earlier revue, Corkscrews, which had Lang and Fond singing. The lyrics and sketches were by Lang and the music was by Arthur Siegel, who was pianist and singer, too. The late Mr. Siegel's charm made a lot of that palatable. In Cabaret Hell, a few Siegel melodies are used, and they are the warmer moments. The show was recorded live at the cabaret Don't Tell Mama and the audience is heard laughing appreciatively. So, maybe my funny bone is broken.
The act is subtitled, "45 Minutes Of Torture." It includes two parodies of Stephen Sondheim. I think he gave us much more fun in Hell in The Frogs. I think I'll go back to that or to the heavenly music above.
Next week should bring some interesting music to preview. We'll be listening for you ... come Hell or high water.