And now ... live and in person!
Two of the main selections this week were recorded live and have that in-person chemistry, applause and in-the-moment feel where anything can happen. The third is a recording based on a nightclub act and, though recorded in a studio, has plenty of energy and presence. It's certainly full of life, as is our extra added attraction, our "Under The Radar" selection which has a bright, youthful energy of its own. Let's begin with a live recording which, despite a lack of talk between numbers, has an involved audience with performers who connects and clicks with the material.
If you are a jazz-resister, you might be steering clear of Tierney Sutton ... but you'll be missing a lot. With a supple, attractive voice and plenty of musical smarts, this lady takes a song for a joyride. Clearly relishing both music and lyrics, she freshens them rather than twisting them inside out. Listen to her her hanging on to the lyrics of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" as if she doesn't want to let them go, repeating words and stretching them out. She's loving the Harold Arlen melody as much as the Ted Koehler words, bringing a listener's attention to how well they suit each other. She appears to be comfortable in any tempo and every tempo change as she and her great band explore each tune. I recommend this guided tour.
Tierney has released six albums since 1998. For me, she was an acquired taste. When I first heard some of her early cuts, I thought she was good but not especially distinctive. The more I listen, the more and more I'm a fan. This collection has 16 songs, mostly from Broadway shows and film musicals of the Golden Age. Three Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, effectively grouped together near the middle of the CD, show three different strengths. "People Will Say We're In Love" shows experimentation with subtle twists and turns in phrasing. She takes "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top" for a speed-limit-defying road trip that's just pure fun. Then she plays it straight with Carousel's ballad, "If I Loved You."
Singing sincerely and with no frills, Tierney proves she can be a from-the-heart and vulnerable presenter of a love song. She can also be quite disarming when she puts aside her jazzbird tricks of the trade. The Marilyn and Alan Bergman lyric matched to Michel Legrand's melody in, "On My Way To You," is a simple storytelling opportunity as is "Two For The Road," by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse (that grown-up love song seems to bring out the best in anyone who sings it).
Three Irving Berlin standards are also present. A casual listen might make you think "Cheek to Cheek" is all about having a holiday with the melody. Then you notice that she's not cavalier with the words at all, but brings them out: in the line "the cares that hung around me through the week," the tempo slows and the words are staccato, even labored, like those lingering woes. Then, as the sentence continues, stating that they "seem to vanish," the tempo instantly becomes sprightly. That's paying attention to lyrics! But the song is about dancing, so ... it moves. On the same subject, "Let's Face The Music and Dance" keeps the top-notch musicians on their toes and will get you tapping yours. "Blue Skies" is not simply a celebration; there's some reflection.
The fact that this was recorded live underscores Tierney's command and fearlessness, as well as the tightness of the band. The players are Trey Henry and Kevin Axt (both playing bass), Ray Brinker on drums (spotlighted nicely) and the exceptional pianist Christian Jacob. All arrangements are credited to the full band. Live albums sometimes have sound quality or balance problems - not here. The packaging tells us the recording was done with the new Direct Stream Digital recording system. The spot was the New York City club Birdland (where she'll return at the end of this month). Album producer Elaine Martone gets the thank-you card.
I smile when in the lyric to "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" Tierney hesitates/stutters on the phrase "I love you" as she sings " ... all day long you only stutter/and your poor tongue just will not utter the words 'I love you.'" It might make you smile, too. Although she undeniably prefers a carte-blanche approach to material, I don't find her work self-indulgent at the expense of the songs. The goal seems to be to bring out the strength of each composition. Her mission seems clear and strong, just like her voice.
I'm sorry to report that Linda Purl's second album is, for the most part, a frustrating disappointment. I'd rather liked her previous album Alone Together, a cozy 1998 studio album of standards and pop songs. A mostly low-key outing, she sounded warm and relaxed as she purred and crooned the romantic tunes, even bringing some more adult "class" to a couple of lightweight old pop tunes. So what happened? She's working with the same two main arrangers: her pianist Ron Abel and Rick Knutsen. Is the problem that this is a live album and she's at some disadvantage because of that? Or is it just this particular engagement or location? She's certainly performed live in the intervening years, as evidenced by one track on each of several CDs from songwriter tributes in California's S.T.A.G.E. concert series. She has appeared in musicals, including on Broadway in 2001's short-lived musical, The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, playing Tom's Aunt Polly (one of her numbers from that show, "This Time Tomorrow," is included on this CD; it's a pretty song and she sounds more than fine).
When Linda sings gently and within her comfortable range, it's a pleasing sound. Too often here, she recklessly makes vocal leaps into treacherous territory and she doesn't always "land" successfully. There are numerous moments when her voice sounds shrill or just plain odd. When she goes for high notes or attempts rangy melodies, I find myself questioning her pitch and control. "Midnight Sun" and "You've Changed" are certainly challenging melodies that would trip up many a singer without the most honed jazz skills. The late master arranger Peter Matz wrote the splendid chart for "Midnight Sun" and I can appreciate that she would want to to try it.
The recording was done over two nights at a Nevada theatre run by Desi Arnaz, Jr., who produced the concert and recording. He also joins her on percussion for two numbers and one vocal duet, plus some friendly but long and not very entertaining banter. (I could have lived without the preservation of his comments about the air conditioning and the color of his sneakers.) Although it's not mentioned in their chat or the spoken and written thanks, they were married for a couple of years in the 1980s. Their vocal duet about lifelong commitment is a pretty traditional pledge, "Forever's All We Know." This is another little-known theater song from the actress' resume, from a musical version of Camille, written by musical director Abel and Chuck Steffan. The team also wrote "Where Do I Find Love," one of the belted numbers. Abel also joins her vocally a couple of times in a smoky, gruff voice which contrasts more than complements.
Although the song listing neglects to mention it, "I'll Be Seeing You" interpolates the Schwartz/Dietz song "I See Your Face Before Me," which is a good idea and makes the song more dramatic. Two Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standards are here: the album's title song and "Come Rain Or Come Shine." Linda has energy, but the phrasing and arrangements sound tired and derivative. Much more interesting is the final cut, "Sweet Beginnings" by Hugh McElyea. It's a pensive, positive piece from a musical version of Pretty Baby.
Throughout the album, there's a lot of chat, gushing thanks and laughter from the performer which could have been trimmed and Linda would still come across as a gracious, down-to-earth person. Another strike against the album is the "cheese factor" of a synthesizer in the band, overused in the accompaniment which otherwise consists of just piano, bass, drums and Desi's percussion. With the right material and arrangements emphasizing her strengths, I'd look forward to another effort from this lady, hoping that this concert's opening number proves true: "The Best is Yet To Come."
She's perky, she's plucky, and she's loaded with personality. Klea Blackhurst is a real old-fashioned entertainer, kind of a throwback to vaudeville. She has energy and bright-light spirits, inducing smiles with her sheer force of good will. With her animated manner and witty repartee, she is best appreciated in person, but her discs are a fun listen, too.
Klea burst on the New York City cabaret scene with a show about her idol, Ethel Merman (the show, Everything The Traffic Will Allow, was recorded and released in 2001). Although the material in her second album doesn't take advantage of her brashness and humor as much, it's still a breezy, worthwhile spin. This time, her subject is composer Vernon Duke. She says she was attracted to exploring his canon because he wrote many songs, some well known, but never had a hit Broadway show. When his centennial came around in 2003, she chose him as her new focus.
Klea is sunshine personified, and sparkly songs with sparkly arrangements suit her best. She has a fine partner in Michael Rice, who matches her sprightliness with nostalgic yet bouncy musical settings. Even in a thoughtful ballad, such as the title song, an optimism comes through. Ira Gershwin's lyric to "I Can't Get Started" never seemed less gloomy, and she's quite convincing in songs like the opening mood-establisher "Not A Care In The World" or "Poor As A Churchmouse." The more famous songs include "Taking A Chance On Love" (from Duke's most successful show, Cabin In The Sky) and "April In Paris," but it's the little-known gems that come off best. The four main lyricists represented are Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, John Latouche and Howard Dietz, among the cream of the crop.
The four songs with Dietz' lyrics stand out. Sadie Thompson had originally been slated to star Ethel Merman, who quit, which must have piqued Klea's interest, being a confessed Mermaniac. "Sailing At Midnight" is smooth sailing in Klea's hands. I'd be tempted to say that Dietz' lyric to "Indefinable Charm" could have been written about this performer, except that her charm is almost definable: she has a sense of joy that comes through with everything she does, a love for the craft of the songs that translates into crafty communication skills.
UNDER THE RADAR
This week's candidate for our lesser-known item worth noting comes from theater folk but it's aimed at the children's market. However, no proof of age is necessary to enjoy its charms.
PEAS AND HONEY
With tracks titles like "Peppermint Dreams," "Sweet And Low," and "The Sugarplum Tree," you can be assured of a fix for your sweet tooth. This is a children's album that features a child singer as well as some Broadway musicians taking a holiday from the pits of shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Rent, Spelling Bee and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Musician Randy Cohen has joined forces with theater performers Jennifer and Mark Montague to create some diverting music for the younger set. Jennifer and Randy create songs from the work of such poets as Tennyson, Eugene Field and my personal favorite, Anonymous. Embellishing with music, a few sound effects and more words, they have come up with a warm and fuzzy CD with no apologies for its old-fashioned (let's say "timeless") feel. Enough producers of kiddie fare try to make their product "contemporary" with loud, cheaply done, watered-down rock sounds. It's encouraging to know that some people believe children will respond to poems and interpretations that are cute without being calculated.
I can't say that this is a crossover album that will necessarily envelop adults in its spell. It really is more of a "family" album that doesn't try for the non-parent audience, though it may touch the kid inside you.
Jennifer has a very appealing vocal quality, energetic yet soothing, and certainly youthful. I don't know if she is trying for the girlish innocence of a Disney movie heroine sound, but she has a bit of a "Little Mermaid" quality swimming through her voice. It doesn't come off as self-conscious or forced, however. Her husband Mark does less of the singing but has ebullience of his own throughout. He is never tripped up by the structures and patterns of poems; he makes them stories that just happen to rhyme, with keyboard accompaniment that keeps things moving but never competes. He takes on the lengthiest piece, the old story of "Dick Whittington And His Cat."
Five-year-old Maeve, Mark and Jennifer's daughter, recites a few of the mini-poems (including the one that gives the album its title) and chimes in to sing with her mom on one song, "My Own Fairy," adding a child's natural (not trained or "show bizzy") voice to the proceedings. The music is likably accessible throughout, simple but not simplistic. With a healthy dose of comforting sounds and lullabies, it would make a good bedtime album.
Peas and Honey is woefully short, just over 23 minutes, which hardly makes it a bargain. I'm told there are more albums in the planning stages, so I hope they'll be more generous in the future. Mark and Jennifer also have a son who might appear as well once he's old enough, and maybe their theatrical friends will find a way to bring some of the musical theater tradition to future releases. The album is available through their website www.SweetStreetRecords.com and www.CDBaby.com (you can sample it at both sites) and is finding its way into some stores. Pleasant dreams!
Please check back each Thursday or, if you take a summer vacation, I hope you'll click on the "Past Columns" link on top of the page and catch up with what you've missed. There's a lot to listen to and I hope some of the recommendations "click" with you and I'll be listening for you ...