Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

In the Key of B:
Boom! at Birdland the Callaway way
Big Band Bonanza by Bwarie

With blasts from past musical eras, here are two brisk, bright albums that also take some time to lay back for thoughtful ballad changes of pace. On Boom!—as in baby boomers—sisters Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway revisit the 1960s and '70s pop hits of their youth. Then, youthful energy from a Jersey Boys star, Joseph Leo Bwarie, looking back several decades for tunes to refresh, including a few with Broadway origins.

LIZ CALLAWAY & ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY
BOOM!: LIVE AT BIRDLAND

PS Classics

As the song in Hairspray says, "Welcome to the '60s." For sisters Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, who've both logged time in Broadway shows, it is a "welcome back" as they revisit and reclaim not only the pop/rock and roll/folk music from the 1960s and early '70s, but their personal memories of growing up in that time. They sing—marvelously, jumping into each style with style of their own—solo and together, and each provides back-up or harmonies when the other takes the lead vocal. The fond nostalgia informs not only the landmark song choices and singer-songwriters (the Beatles, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, etc.) but also the chatty, chummy patter and attitudes captured in this live recording. Getting a taste of how these two striking singers from the same DNA and household grew to have somewhat different musical tastes and were influenced and informed by their favorites is interesting. Their personalities come through, as does their respect and a bit of teasing towards each other and some of the passing trends of the times. They linger on some of the meatier material and zip through what some might call fluff or even cheesy bits of the past. The concert, which I saw and thoroughly enjoyed at two other venues prior to this recent recording in front of an audience at Birdland in Manhattan, retains its simple joys, simply sensational vocal energies, and thankfully not over-simplified musical sensibilities.

The arrangements, mostly by Liz's usual musical director/pianist Alex Rybeck in collaboration with one or both of the Callaways, find a balance between aping elements of the familiar original versions and bringing them into the new century. On that topic: The guitar, of course, was prominent on many records from the era recalled, and there's no guitar here. It's just a trio of piano, bass and drums, with Rybeck and bassist Jered Egan adding back-up vocals, too, and drummer Ron Tierno ably keeping the beat.

The Beat Goes On is the title of a prior CD by Liz, also taking on material from this period, and a few of the titles are warmly repeated here for her solos (a cozy trip "Downtown" and the lamentingly reflective Jimmy Webb medley of "Didn't We?" and just the same small section of "MacArthur Park" Liza Minnelli did in the same two-song medley once upon another album and decade). Also brought back for this concert is a highlight from Liz' recent CD Passage of Time: the sisters' moving duet version, with rich harmony singing, of "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," Carly Simon's heartbreak breakthrough hit. With its unsettling open-eyed look at marriage as an institution or trap, it also stands out as reflecting its questioning times. Jacob Brackman's lyric, set to Simon's haunting melody, fearing a future like others have had ("Their children hate them for the things they're not/ They hate themselves for what they are" and "Soon you'll cage me on your shelf") is searing and soaring. Ann continues in a serious vein, taking the piano bench herself, for Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," her phrasing drinking in the intoxicating attraction discussed in the lyric and making a case for Mitchell material to be appendixed to the older Great American Songbook of lasting standards. This seems to be a trend over the last few years, with more and more cabaret and jazz vocalists taking on her work without succumbing to imitation of her old records and unique sound. Ann briefly dons her songwriter hat to add a little material to Bob Dylan's classic litany of indicting questions, "Blowin' in the Wind." Looking back with bittersweet hindsight is directly addressed with duets of "The Way We Were" and "Yesterday," one of three pages from the Beatles' songbook. Bouncy songs from 1960s' girl groups or Motown groups are conspicuously absent, but the Motown label gets a nine-song/almost nine-minute nod with a Stevie Wonder hit medley.

Patter on live recordings gives a sense of "being there," but is all too rarely sharp or entertaining on frequent repeat plays. The Callaways must have gotten that memo years ago, because, like their previous live recording, Sibling Revelry, the talk here counts. With some economy of verbiage, but still conversational, they talk about the colors of childhood bedroom d├ęcor and bedspreads, and the many colors of music across their years and ears. The talk reveals their humor, relationship, and gives context to their view of the material that was the soundtrack to their teen and pre-teen years. A cluster of uber-catchy can't-get-'em-out-of-your-head AM radio hits they recall singing along to in the back seat of their family car on trips make a medley, including a bit of the egregious mind-numbing "Sugar Sugar" by the (fictional) group on an animated TV series born from the comic books (The Archies). They have Big Attitude fun with Nancy Sinatra's signature hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," though the tough-talkin' chick pose loses some of its kick as a listening-only experience. (A photo of them cross-legged in white, high-heeled boots, dark glasses and period outfits is included in the booklet to give you an idea of this extra sparkle in this show which, along with their Sibling Revelry duo act, they will this fall, beginning in their home state of Illinois.)

Throughout this well-sung, well-played album, which occasionally is frustrating for those who might want more reinvention instead of convention and memory lane button-pushing, there are warm and cozy reminders of another time. Most numbers are carefully locked in their place and time, recollection-ready. As one of the song titles directly states, "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" (Liz's solo of this also reminds me of her no-cast-album-made stint in The Look of Love, the short-lived Broadway revue of hits by Bacharach and David).

After making a point of their different musical faves and flavors, Ann and Liz end the concert with a track from a seminal album of the time, Carole King's Tapestry, with sibling reverence and support, "You've Got a Friend."

JOSEPH LEO BWARIE
NOTHIN' BUT LOVE

Red Bannister Productions

A 13-track look back at yesterdays ends with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"—a hit for The Shirelles in 1960, the year its co-writers Carole King and Gerry Goffin were married—and it makes a point about the durability of the selections on Joseph Leo Bwarie's buoyant and boyish big band CD. The song became a part of King's album, one of the all-time best selling recordings. In between, other cover versions made the Billboard charts a few times, including a #24 positioning in 1968 by The Four Seasons. Mr. Bwarie has been playing the role of that group's lead singer, Frankie Valli, and a first guess might be that his solo album would draw more from that group or the 1960s/early '70s boom of memorable pop songs. No, he reaches back further, including much material that graced Broadway productions: from the 1920s, Irving Berlin's lament "What'll I Do?" and Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields's "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"; from the 1930s, Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love with Love" from The Boys from Syracuse and Cole Porter's "Night and Day" from The Gay Divorce; from the 1940s, Finian's Rainbow's "Old Devil Moon"; from the dawn of the 1950s, "I've Never Been in Love Before" from Guys and Dolls; from the beginning of the 1960s, Bye Bye Birdie's "A Lot of Livin' to Do." He even adds his own fun extra lyrics to the latter selection. And the present and past collide cutely with a song recorded by contemporary R&B artist Rihanna, "Umbrella," going retro brassy, alternating in a medley with Irving Berlin's old shy courtly courting song, "A Fella with an Umbrella." The combination with the assertive recent piece makes for an odd couple, but an oddly charming one.

This CD is a lot of fun. It sparkles. Although lyrics are not explored in the deepest ways, with the big-band ethos and bang and sweep, that does not appear to be the agenda. Although sincerity comes through on the ballads, even lingering in dreamy sentimentality, it's more broad strokes than nuanced drama. Joseph may touch your heart, but won't break it into smithereens. Melodies' legato qualities are respected, rather than turning them into choppy ruminations or long stops at the philosophy filling station to pump out perspective.

A large orchestra with some big league players, hardly the norm for debut CDs nowadays, shares the spotlight and provides much of the aural pleasure. The up-tempos swing agreeably, and the lovey-dovey stuff is lovely instead of overly syrupy. The singer's very youthful sound comes off as an asset, and the old songs don't sound creaky or need-to-be-retired in these back-to-basics, basically uncomplicated arrangements. There is zest in his singing. There is also a blessed lack of smarm and smug brashness that can infect some younger male singers.

A few of the tracks feel a bit long, with about half nearing or surpassing the four-minute mark. However, one notable quality is that they have strong, satisfying endings without indulgence in much overkill for build. There's an ease and comfort. Veteran Charles Calello, whose resume includes settings for Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Laura Nyro, as well as several albums by The Four Seasons and Frankie Valli's solo work, is arranger, conductor, orchestrator and producer. More than three dozen players are in the orchestra, with a large string section. They successfully make "Stand by Me," the standard of soulfulness, into a slam-bam swinger. Another grand master of music, Bucky Pizzarelli, brings his tasty guitar to spice up "Frenesi" where the slightly tentative singer ventures south of the border to do some of it en español. This is one of several tracks where the arranger gives credit where credit is due, to earlier arrangements of an old song (in this and another case, the late, great Don Costa).

Although we've had many resistible sound-alike efforts by younger singers trying on the clothes of the old songs and their musical forefather vocalists, this one is well done, well produced and enthusiastically rendered by Joseph Leo Bwarie. As a line in "Frenesi" (which translated, according to the song, means "please love me") goes, "So how was I to resist?" The past need not be dusty or sacred territory.


- Rob Lester


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