Sound Advice Reviews
Time for Tributes to the "Timeless" ...
On a new CD, with one soprano and one pianist as tour guides, we go as far back as 1837 but concentrate on material from the 1920s. The next decade supplies the earliest samples of Frank Loesser's songs in an eclectic collection of reissued recordings. Lastly, a vocalist with his "Retro Jazz Band" whose pastime is channeling stylings of the past has an Homage to some favorite singers and songs from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Listening to the jam-packed treasure chest of Timeless Tunes, which begins with 1902's "In the Good Old Summer Time," in the good new summer time of 2010 reminds me of both the simplicity and richness of old songs. Its usual jauntiness is jettisoned in favor of a slowed-down stroll to evoke a slower-paced era, as if one is relishing the memories gently emerging to be embraced. It works! Singer KT Sullivan is clearly in love with them, savoring the words and melodies and images and sensibilities, not winking or condescending. She wears these musical garments not like an intrigued but tentative fan would don them for a costume party, but like someone who is attired in some of her own favorite vestments. In fact, they fit so well that a few might have been designed for her, had she been a performer in those bygone days. They're well-tailored to her here with piano accompaniment and arrangements by the talented kindred spirit Jon Weber.
Many of these exhibits from the days of yore feel like museum pieces in the best sense of that term: no excuses for or eschewing of the sentimentality or romanticism. Snarkiness is not in their vocabulary, although they have fun with sprightlier ditties. Wisely, and crucially, they make a decision to not gild the lily when songs as written tend to the florid side; rather, they keep those as bare-boned so the inarguable sincerity and innocence come to the fore. Examples are "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" and "Shine On, Harvest Moon," each of which is part of a medley and, because of that, are done with a short-but-sweet-but-effective approach. A mash-up of three songs with George Gershwin melodies ("Somebody Loves Me," "Do It Again," "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise") seems rather a rushed jumble. The ultimate rush crush is the playful cramming of 29 songs from '29 into one medley with a shared word in the lyrics giving an excuse/opportunity to jump ship and land in a new song till the next such opportunity. They're off and running and have much fun with this challenge of a musical relay race of mostly famous numbers.
Gems from stage musicals are among the selections. Kern and Hammerstein are represented effectively with Sweet Adeline's most tortured of torch songs, "Why Was I Born?," and Show Boat's "Ol' Man River." The latter, not the usual fare for a soprano, is in good hands with this one; KT treats it with dignity and pathos. Kern's song with Anne Caldwell, "Once in a Blue Moon," which seems to get recorded only about that often, is treated with thoughtful tenderness, making a case for it to join the ranks of standards. Noel Coward's "If Love Were All" from Bitter Sweet starts out conversationally offhand, which has a payoff for the British stiff-upper-lip mindset, and then it builds emotionally and musically, including a set of lyrics not included in many pop recordings of this classic. It's full of interesting, knowing touches, such as varying the intensity of the voice so that "crying when I must" sounds disheartened and accepting, and the very next few words, "Laughing when I choose," seem robust and in charge. Jon takes a piano solo for the Schwartz/Dietz "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" and shows his formidable skills without just showing off. He invests the tune with some mixed emotions of the lyric's resignation but keeps a pulse and strong sense of movement. Like KT's glorious and convincing vocals on everything from Irish classics to two pieces from The Merry Widow, it's one more valentine and vote for the often underappreciated, under-attended-to, more yellowed pages from the ancestral song books.
There's room for saucy smile-invokers here, with KT's baby-voiced characterization very well done and amusing for "I Want to Be Bad" and Jon doing a quick (1:16) guest vocal in his light-hearted way with the charm song "I'm in the Market for You." However, it's the elegant, floating soprano tones of KTsuggesting wistfulness and some heartbreak when appropriatethat are the strongest of the strong suits on display.
It's all here: warmly spun tones, just the right amount of vibrato rationed, regal treatments of glorious material ... thoughtful and intelligent phrasing, lingering over key words, and sometimes letting the beauty of the melodic line ring. With over 50 songs covered in full or in various-sized samples, it is perhaps not surprising and definitely not a deal breaker that there are occasional notes or phrases that don't get as much loving care as one would want in a perfect world. But this world of music from another time does, indeed, feel timeless and is time well spent in the listening ... whether you are belatedly discovering an oldie or it's an old favorite.
In this year celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of songwriter Frank Loesser, Masterworks Broadway has released a collection of old, mostly familiar pop cover records of songs from this Broadway writer's own masterworks. His earlier work for films, with music by others, is well represented, too. Though the songs themselves may certainly fit our "timeless" category, many of these renditions are locked securely in the period in which they were recorded. Largely what we get are signposts of the recording studio styles and trends of particular periods, more homogenized, tailored for radio play, with commercial, safe arrangements with an eye on the pop charts for a hit and suggesting cozy at-home hi-fi record player listening. Loesser wrote for character with passion and pluck, subtlety or splash, and for those who like something more along the lines of moxy or meaty, this may be more marshmallow than is their taste. However, the songs are flexible and succeeded in the business with or without really trying, to paraphrase you-know-what late Loesser piece. There's a lot of sweetness and light and a bit of sass here (such as a duet by the irrepressible Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page taking liberties with the song and, by extension each other, so to speak, in the conversational flirt fest, "Baby, It's Cold Outside"). The song, which began as a number done just at parties for friends by Mr. and the first Mrs. Frank Loesser, brings some tart flavor after a mostly dreamy-sweet cluster of movie song material that begins the CD. (Tracks 11-18 are songs from stage musicals, and the album ends with the Boston Pops playing a generous and vibrant medley from the film Hans Christian Andersen.)
Some of the tracks were recorded close to the time when the song had just been introduced on stage or screen, and some were done years down the line. The contemporaneous may tend to hew closer to originals, with the passage of years allowing for the song to have gone through various interpretations and styles on the road to standard-hood, living outside its origins. Doris Day's "I've Never Been in Love Before" was recorded in the same year it was introduced in Guys and Dolls, 1950. The same musical's "Luck Be a Lady" is the most recent of the recordings here, from Barry Manilow's Broadway album with a lively Billy Byers arrangement. Johnny Mathis's two well-sung, sweeping tracks, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," from one of his Christmas albums, and "Joey, Joey, Joey," are more romantic and lush but nevertheless avoid those songs' deeper potential. It's a trade-off. A few tracks, such as the title number with Larry Clinton's orchestra and band singer Bea Wain, put the spotlight on the big band sound, involving more nostalgia for that chapter in music history than anything else. Shall we dance?
In addition to their breakout hit of "Standing on the Corner" from The Most Happy Fella, those fellas known as The Four Lads are on hand to do a five-song medley from Where's Charley?, clocking in at well over seven minutes, and it's a happy, vigorous affair, thoroughly enjoyable with buoyant harmony singing and spunk. Also on the roster are Sarah Vaughan, Vaughn Monroe, Helen Forrest and Dinah Shore. It's a pop music parade of memories, with necessarily just a small sampling of the heart and soul of Frank Loesser, mostly lite and sweetened.
Those less open-minded to cover versions that have more bounce and butter-spread feel than bite and brio may not be swayed by the swing and sway, and might not be "believers" in everything except "I Believe in You," a solo outing for How to Succeed ...'s original 1960s stage and screen cast member Michele Lee. For those of us who have a fondness for many of these pop stars and show tunes as show tunes, it isin some waysthe best of both worlds, or at least a worthy change of pace.
JULIAN YEO & HIS RETRO JAZZ BAND
Although Homage is his fourth CD in just a few years, singer Julian Yeo and his band (led by the terrific pianist-arranger Jesse Gelber) are always in homage mode, evoking the early decades of the 20th century. It began with their first CD, which instantly reminded me of old-time crooning stylists like Rudy Vallee and the early-career Bing Crosby. Indeed, they are two of the vocalist heroes and heroines singled out for this set of homages matching one singer to one song. Though ostensibly a set of salutes to singers, curiously, the numbers chosen are not religiously their major trademark songs. For example, for "The Shadow of Your Smile," Karen Carpenter of the brother-sister team Carpenters is not the first person to come to mind. And "You Go to My Head" might not be on the shortest of short lists for Judy Garland signature songs. As stated in the liner notes, the intention is not to channel each one's style, sound or musical arrangement. Julian remains Julian, which, for the uninitiated, means a certain slyness that can be very appealing, tempered with modesty and minimalism, and a dollop of insouciance, rather than any semblance of high drama, big-voiced singing or grandstanding.
For me, this is his best effort since his debut, due to the mix of different tempi and material and the cool arrangements that have more vigor and variety. The five-piece band is in the groove without an overdose of dozing lounge-iness. His prior release was more one color, as suggested by the title Deep Purple Dreams, intentionally mysterious and slo-mo musical takes. This is more engaging and Julian has a knack for making novelty songs like "Tico Tico" tickle the ear, never tacky and tiresome as such fare can be when others lay on the cute coyness or crank out more caffeine upon already percolating rhythms. He just makes them impish, simpler playthings, not over-selling them. As he sings on the track following that, "Give Me the Simple Life." And when a song has tenderness built in, he lets it speakor singfor itself, as in the blissful bubble-fragility of the awe in "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."
Australian-raised Julian Yeo shows a knack for international material here on a few selections and some Brazilian bossa nova classics ("So Nice" is exactly that). His own accent, somewhat of a stumbling block for clarity and diction when he began, has become much less of an issue but the charm that comes from it remains. His recordings rarely are commanding drama and visceral or roller coaster rides. That's not his scene and not his style. Nor is radical re-inventing. They remain generally laidback and become room-ambient-friendly, easy-to-take and easygoing and easy to keep company with. That's different from background music that blends in and is just subliminally-present entertainment.
Much here captures the ear and brings the shadow of a smile as we revisit even more timeless tunes that have been around ... how long? Well, as one number title has it so accurately, "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, circa world War II). And with singers like Julian around to keep the musical home fires burning, albeit at a low flame, they'll be around for a long, long time to come.
Next week: Speaking of timeless and yet timely, too, we'll cover the brand new cast album from Sondheim on Sondheim and more for these dog days of summer.