The vague-at-best "One of These Days ..." became a calendar reality for the original
cast album of The Capeman, which sat on the shelf for almost a decade. That's
almost new compared to the 1972 Diana Ross album being issued for the first time.
Turning from Ross to Russ, veteran pianist Russ Kassoff has finally realized his goal of
putting out his own album. Ditto for singer Gail Becker who's been performing in clubs.
In each case, better late than never. And never give up hope.
Good things come to those who wait and the actual original cast album of The Capeman is here to hear. You still can't buy it as a physical disc it in a store, however (some things don't change) - you can only download at iTunes.
A quick synopsis if you forgot or never knew the story: violence involving gang warfare in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in the late 1950s, young Puerto Rican characters fighting poverty and prejudice, there are fatal stabbings, the police appear ... (No, you haven't stumbled into the West Side Storyline; this is based on the true story of a celebrated case.)
The Capeman opened in January 1998 and ran for just 68 performances. The book was by Derek Walcott who collaborated on the lyrics with the composer, popular music star Paul Simon. An intriguing and highly listenable album was released at the time with Simon doing most of the lead vocals, plus a few tracks featuring cast members. The 13-track, 55-minute earlier album gives a fair representative sample of the score, featuring much of the strongest musical material and the Spanish and pop flavor [in 2004, the CD was reissued with an unreleased song and two demo tracks]. There's a certain emotional distance in having the composer singing most of the selected songs in his sensitive and sympathetic voice; though bittersweet, the prior CD is prettier and the cast album is grittier.
Heard in full, sung by the cast, Capeman is a powerful experience, the bleakness and in-your-face gutsiness and four-letter words leavened (not weakened) by the attractive musicality. Additionally, opportunities for vulnerability are offered by the material, with a talented company capitalizing on this. Though many of the songs are catchy or dramatic, little here could be considered traditional Broadway or razzamatazz. Two men who also carved careers as successful pop singers, Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, play the title character as a teen and grown man, respectively. The plaintive quality in Marc Anthony's voice humanizes the outwardly tough character, while Ruben Blades presents an effectively subdued older version. There is rich singing by female cast members Ednita Nazario, a major asset, heartbreakingly noble as the mother; Sara Ramirez (who later came to Broadway attention in such shows as Spamalot), sounding lovely in a straightforwardly sung ingenue-voiced role; Cass Morgan; and Natascia Diaz (in this year's revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive ...). One track, "Trailways Bus," is the Paul Simon vocal with Sara Ramirez from the earlier album.
The orchestra sounds sensational; though there is instrumental variety in accompaniment, Latin percussion, guitar and mandolin prominently featured. It is fascinating to hear the score in full, although some songs will invite more repeated playing for pleasure while others are more functional as plot and dramatic impact. The whole being more than the sum of the parts is definitely the principle here.
Contemplating the social issues raised and the impact a longer run might have had, it seems a shame anew that success wasn't found for this gripping story of the member of a street gang called The Vampires. Though hardly an overall "feel good" journey, theater fans who appreciate an unapologetically serious musical will be rewarded, as will the patience of those who liked it on Broadway years ago and have been waiting.
Listening to this Diana Ross album is a little like finding something in the attic that is vaguely familiar, but that you never knew had been packed away, if you even knew it existed. This long-buried treasure consists of all previously unreleased tracks; however, there are some songs that were issued in other studio and live versions. Those familiar with the soundtrack of Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film wherein the singer portrayed Billie Holiday, and a few live albums know other Ross takes of a few from the Holiday repertoire. Recordings of "Smile" and "Little Girl Blue" were on other solo albums as well.
The helpful and interesting liner notes trace the known history and theory behind the shelving of the project, which was meant as a companion piece to the aforementioned movie soundtrack. Some are simply alternate takes or experiments in finding the right tone for the film. Diana sounds especially relaxed on most cuts, luxuriating in the presence of fine jazz musicians in groupings big and small. Lost to time are the proper credits for who played on what track, but it's known that "Easy Living" and others feature some who had also played with Billie Holiday, and all are conducted and produced by regular Ross recording right-hand man Gil Askey.
The casual, untroubled interpretation of Porgy and Bess' "I Loves You, Porgy" is at odds with its lyric, but most of the cuts show thought and musicianship. The singer's light, smooth and creamy vocals are easy on the ear, and the arrangements are mostly sophisticated. The path taken is not the melodramatic side of the road for these potentially theatrical songs, it's a smoother one, letting the musicians pave the way toward calm. It's mostly mellow with a few perkier changes of pace like Cole Porter's famously saucy "Let's Do It." Diana had dipped her toes into non-rock musical waters in her earlier days with The Supremes, with standards in their nightclub act and albums devoted to Rodgers & Hart, the score of Funny Girl and country music, but sounds more at ease here. It's a sweet experience to hear her croon her way through "I Can't Get Started with You" and "But Beautiful."
It may be difficult to hear these cuts with the ears and perspective of the early 1970s, before so many pop-rock singers had taken a shot at singing standards. Heard for the first time this year, these 35-year-old recordings don't seem quaint or covered in dust or mothballs, and the sound quality is warm and very clear. The album doesn't come off as a stunning missing link, but these long-lost tracks are worthy of the welcome mat if not quite the red carpet treatment.
For a couple of decades or so, making his own album has been on pianist Russ Kassoff's to-do list. As he indicates in the liner notes, he always thought he'd do it someday. Someday has come with Somewhere. Over his career, Russ has been kept busy accompanying stars like Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli (long associations with both) and Ute Lemper, as well as many other singers like Debbie Gravitte, Chris Connor and Martha Lorin, playing in the pit for Broadway shows, touring with other jazz players, arranging, conducting, composing, etc. Last year, he arranged, played on and produced two albums, well reviewed in this column, for singers Catherine Dupuis and Jasper Kump. A song he wrote with lyricist Deirdre Broderick, "You Are All the World to Me" appears on both those albums and on this purely instrumental album, too. Russ is joined by Martin Wind on bass on this especially tender track, the only one done as a duo. On the others, it's either just the pianist or these two musicians joined by drummer Tim Horner.
Four original tunes, which show range and variety in composition style, are on the set list of this very satisfying album, along with eight familiar titles, mostly from stage and movie musicals. The trio's biggest showpiece is a celebratory and athletic workout on the Gershwins' "Oh, Lady Be Good" which runs over eight minutes but doesn't run out of energy. It's exploratory and playful, but like all the versions of standards on the CD, shows respect for the melody line and the song's essence. This long track, however, finds the three skilled musicians most liberally using their artistic license. Russ' fondness for melodies also comes through in his arrangements with brief quotes for effect. They range from the show tune sublime to the ridiculously random: "Ol' Man River" to the TV theme from "The Flintstones."
As far as other picks from musical theater writers' songbags, the album's title song is the West Side Story perennial and is pretty laidback and contemplative, compared to the fervent feel it often has in vocal versions. Two Irving Berlin choices are livelier: "The Best Thing for You" and "It Only Happens When I Dance with You." I find the CD to be one that holds up very well with repeated listenings. The material and tempi are nicely varied, and the musicians are all in top form. New Yorkers can catch Russ in town tonight and tomorrow (August 4th and 5th) at The Knickerbocker in Greenwich Village. More information is at www.RussKassoff.com and, while the CD is already for sale at some stores and online (at Amazon and CDBaby, wider distribution will come next month. It's an excellent example of the kind of CD that can please jazz fans and is very accessible to music lovers whose first "language" is not jazz. There is technical skill on display as well as a lot of genuine emotion that comes through. Bravo!
UNDER THE RADAR
After singing for 15 years or so, often sticking close to home in the Chicago area, here's someone else making a belated recording debut.
Not having frequented Chicago's cabaret scene where Gail Becker has performed solo and as part of the trio 3 Girls 3, I was unfamiliar with the sound of this singer until her solo album came my way. After a first listen, I investigated a bit and wasn't surprised to see she has also some theater work on her resume, as she makes strong acting choices on some cuts. On others, more of a jazz vibe is set. Though she can play it cool in such an environment, a bent for drama and sensitivity may be more her natural instinct. The album is varied not only in musical style, but attitude as well.
Gail doesn't have an especially pure sounding voice, and soprano "prettiness" is not what is on display here. It's more about communication and making an emotional point. In slower tempi where musical values are in the spotlight and legato singing is called for, she is not playing to her strengths. "Lazy Afternoon" finds both Gail and pianist Paul Mutzabaugh sounding tentative and less than sure of their musical footing. Mutzabaugh is far better on his other two cuts: the title song (Bob Dorough/ Fran Landesman) and the opener, "The Friendliest Thing." The latter is the sexy number (well, it's about sex) by Ervin Drake from his Broadway score What Makes Sammy Run?, and both also feature tasty work by sax player Eric Koppa (Gail's husband) and effective drumming from Mike Caskey. They also present Gail in fine form, sounding confident and in charge. The pianist on the other eight selections is Jon Steinhagen who has flair and wrote the slam-bang upbeat album-ender, "Set the Table with Heirloom China."
One of Gail's cabaret shows is a tribute to the wonderful musical comedy star Betty Hutton. Two selections here are from the Frank Loesser score for Hutton's 1947 film The Perils of Pauline. "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble," the comic piece about insomnia due to an upstairs neighbor who plays his piano all night, is fun and funny with its frantic frustration and fuming. The ballad "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" sounds rushed for the most part, but I'd be eager to hear more of Gail's Hutton repertoire.
A couple of interesting choices: "How Did I End Up Here?" from the Off-Broadway musical Romance, Romance gives Gail a nice opportunity for more complex characterization. I also enjoyed the sultry carpe diem-themed "You Gotta Taste All the Fruit," which has an interesting history (written for but cut from the Broadway musical Something More, it ended up in the odd film Myra Breckinridge sung by Mae West). In addition to the clips at CD Baby, Gail's website lets you sample three songs not on the CD, at her site - in case, like me, you "gotta taste all the fruit" being offered by this lady.
These four CDs may have had long gestation processes, but here they are. All in good time.