If music be the food of love, here's a feast of "love" music. We have the belated cast album of LoveMusik and more "love music": a few CDs with "Love" in the title and the Christmas music of Ms. Darlene Love. Plus, for the love of Christmas, the debut CD by Phil Crosby, Jr., grandson of the iconic singer very associated with the season, Bing.
Funny how a show can be experienced so differently watching the full production versus listening to its cast album. What seemed unsettling, cold, distant and frustrating about LoveMusik on Broadway is largely absent in my enjoyment of the Ghostlight Records recording of the now-closed show, some months later. The story of the personal and professional relationship of Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, using his music with lyrics by a dozen different men, works very well on disc. It seems an unfair complaint to be disappointed that the interesting and sweepingly theatrical voices of stars Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy obscured by the thick German accents and thin voices appropriate to the characters they are playing (Weill, not a polished, rich singer as existing demo recordings reveal, and Lenya, who in her younger days sang in a high way without the gravitas or gravel her later work revealed), but we can hear the stars' fuller range of vocal power elsewhere and admire their characterizations here.
With 27 tracks, starting with the stars' duet of "Speak Low" to their reprised anti-romantic "I Don't Love You" to its set pieces revolving around weddings, there's a lot of love - and lot of resistance to traditional love in LoveMusik. Contributions from cast members Judith Blazer, Ann Morrison, David Pittu, Rachel Ulanet, John Scherer and others are vital and very expertly brought together, adding bigger-voiced and brighter singing. They add comedy and musical comedy flash and more moments of bite and pathos. Though some numbers are used on stage as examples of performance from their actual shows, reconstituting the other songs from various musicals into the biographical narrative works surprisingly well. What could be a silly song cue to shoehorn a famous piece like "September Song" or "It Never Was You" making this an example of the vilified genre, das jukebox musikal, doesn't play that way. Artistic license is granted when integrity rules the day.
As an album-listening experience, this is an excellent example of a cast recording judiciously using bits of dialogue to connect segments to successfully tell a story fluidly and set up numbers. As performed here, the heaviness and harshness that can come with the territory with some Weill is mostly replaced by a bittersweet quality and an intimate mood. It's quite remarkable. The orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are a major factor. Though a wide variety of the composer's work is used, representing a full spectrum of styles over the years, there's no cut-and-paste patchwork feel. It's a less aggressive and less melodramatic, more subtly emotional and sometimes more playful approach than some of these songs often have. Tunick's treatments, well handled by conductor Nicholas Archer (also the pianist), bring out much warmth and eccentricity. The strings are achingly beautiful at times and not saccharine or overdone.
Bringing us a living room-friendly (or Ipod-friendly) world of Kurt Weill close-up is another superb achievement for album producer Joel Moss and Ghostlight's executive producer Kurt Deutsch. The unusual love story and love letters of LoveMusik work - and is recreated for the recording with love and care.
A touch of Kurt Weill provides one of the better tracks on the latest release from singer Yvonne Roome as she projects the older-but-wiser hindsight of "September Song." Taking Maxwell Anderson's lyrics with seriousness without drowning in regret or jadedness, she sounds like a woman who's gained perspective on the past and is valuing the present "as the days dwindle down to a precious few." A song from a similar perspective is also on hand, "Young and Foolish" from Plain and Fancy, but its bittersweet glance back gets extra sweetening from a brighter tempo than we're accustomed to and the insertion of back-up vocals cooing echoes of the key word "foolish!" and such. I'm rarely a fan of pop-style background voices inserting such things between lines on a classic ballad; it can be distracting or dopey, cheapening the sentiment, especially when the lead singer is playing it straighter. More troublesome, though, is some awkwardness and uneasiness with some musical phrases and leaps. There's a general velvety depth and richness in the basic vocal sound and persona, and I like these qualities, but with the execution of some of this love music there's trouble in paradise.
Jeff Olmstead, the writer of the included "You Never Know," arranged, produced and sings those background vocals. He also plays all the instruments, with the exception of one track: a kind of cute, catchy pop song that works quite well, "I Don't Wanna Know." It's written by Brian Gari (who adds his guitar and more background vocals for it), who also wrote and co-arranged a song that is part of the album's highlight, its longest track. It's a two-parter; the standard "Willow Weep for Me" is combined with his "How Well Did You Know Ann?" A brief note explains that the old ballad credited to Ann Ronnell and dedicated to George Gershwin is the subject of rumor: some feel the melody was really written by Gershwin. It works.
It's hard to know how seriously to take a version of the opera Carmen's "Habanera" with its warning to beware a "kiss of fire" (the lyrics are attributed to Ruth and Thomas Martin). The usually stately "Some Enchanted Evening" works surprisingly well, done briskly and lightly - a nice change of pace (literally). Two other Rodgers tunes, with Hart lyrics are on hand: "I Could Write a Book" (I'm even beginning to like the goofy back-up vocals there) and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," also treated easily, breezily, and a little cheesily, with a dearth of rich romantic feel. Roome for Love might have made room for a couple of love songs taken more seriously.
For her second album, Karen Egert has a bunch of very good tunes (standards, saloon songs, three bits of Brazil by Jobim) and a bunch of very good musicians. She has John Pizzarelli on guitar plus Linc Millman (bass) Harry Allen (sax) and a couple of Tonys: Tony Monte on piano and Tony Tedesco drumming. Bucky Pizzarelli is guest guitarist on "I Keep. Going Back to Joe's" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," both bringing lilt to the lonely laments. Karen's phrasing is natural and rather fresh, with diction that is clear but unforced. In such expert instrumental jazz hands, there's much to love listening to, though I keep wishing for more guitar in the mix. I content myself with John's guitar being front and center with a dreamy ballad version of "You Go to My Head," and Cole Porter's "All of You" which begins innocently and simply and adds more sass, sax and sex as things build and starts to sizzle.
This is one of those albums that I like and appreciate more each time I hear it. It seemed distractingly overly girlish-cutesy at times the first couple of times I heard it some time back. Coming back to it this week, I find it more just generally warm and fuzzy and comfy, in the best way possible. I still find Karen a bit tentative with with some of the jazzier elements, tiptoeing somewhat, and her sad songs resist full immersion into the depths of sorrow. They're a lighter shade of blue, but that's OK for now. I sense she's still developing and growing. Her self-written "Could You Be Mine" is warm and wistful, with a traditional structure; on the meatier side, it's good to have another version of the strong recent song "I Can't Make You Love Me," best known by the Bonnie Raitt version. "I Remember You" is not very memorable, with no particular character or point of view; sounding merely content with happy thoughts shortchanges the potential in the Johnny Mercer lyric. On the plus side, cozy Karen has a gentle, pretty voice and a respectful approach to the standards, sung with affection. To quote one of the samba song titles here, her sound and affect are "So Nice."
The course of true love doesn't run smooth, and it isn't all smooth sailing on Tom Grounds' collection of love songs, Love for Sale. When he's good, he's very good, but ... well, this latest album is rather uneven with some unfortunate misses when he pushes his voice and strains for a note. There's more good news than bad and a couple of tracks that are just OK, rather undistinguished compared to some really outstanding work in singing and storytelling.
The Texas-based cabaret singer, who's done a bit of performing in New York cabarets, has a prior full-length CD and a Christmas EP. He sings here with the jazzy Buddy Shanahan Trio, and the album features brief and enjoyable instrumental tracks called "martini music" alternating with the vocal selections. Virtually all of the songs are from musical theatre. A medley of "Mean to Me" and "What'll I Do," where the vocalist does his best singing and acting, is head and shoulders far above anything else. It's believably vulnerable, involving, and heartrending. A notable story-song called "Dog Passages" is also very effective, looking back at pets who've come and gone as a gay man ages and reflects on his human relationships, too. It's from the revue Too Old for the Chorus, written by Mark Winkler and Shelly Markham. Two cheery Frank Loesser numbers are also standouts, both featuring appealing collaborations with other singers: the cute "Been a Long Day" (How to Succeed in Business ...) with Linda K. Leonard and Todd Hart, then Hart and Gary Floyd male-bonding with Tom as most happy fellas "Standing on the Corner."
The problems come on a few tracks that overreach for the ultra-ardent or ultra-jazzy, and it's jarring and unfortunate. But there are welcome successful realizations, like a smooth and open-hearted "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" and the comedic lament about a bedmate who's still there, unwanted, with expectations "The Morning After" (a Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich gem). You'll hear a sincerity and earnestness that come through and a basically very pretty tenor sound when Grounds stays on solid ground.
Replacing our usual "Under the Radar" column this week, instead of a look at the shouldn't-be-overlooked, we go not under the radar but ....
UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE
She's spent the last couple of years as Motormouth Maybelle on Broadway in Hairspray, and it's great to have a new CD - and one so invigorating - from rock and roll veteran Darlene Love. She's full of spunk - and occasionally a bit of funk - in this mix of blues, soul and rock. Her association with happy holiday music dates back to her contributions to one of the most memorable pop Christmas albums, 1963's A Christmas Gift to You, produced by Phil Spector. She doesn't reprise those songs but does look back at some yuletide rock and soul songs from later decades, including solid versions of hits by artists from Charles Brown to James Brown. On some tracks there are background vocals are by Ula Hedwig and the late Patti Darcy Jones, both of whom were in the cast of Leader of the Pack with Darlene. Cissy Houston joins in on the movingly sung "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," the relevant-as-ever plea for peace by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The voice has just enough roughness and vibrato to make it interestingly characterful, but a defy-the-years sunny youthfulness remains. The upbeat, party-perfect tracks are a joy, but there's depth, too. "2000 Miles" by Chrissie Hynde lets Darlene sing at a slower, relaxed tempo that gives her time to paint a sensitive picture and let us enjoy her phrasing and more mature reflective side. Other highlights include the uncluttered and moving "Night of Peace" (Seth Glassman/ Jan Pulsford) and an open-hearted, carefree "Thanks for Christmas," credited here and elsewhere as being written by Balthazar, Kaspar and Melchior - substituting the names of the Three Wise Men for the real writer, Andy Partridge of the group XTC who introduced it.
Seven musicians are credited, most playing more than one instrument, and there's a happily loose and lively feel about things in general. Darlene will appear in a holiday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 17.
PHIL CROSBY, JR.
Speaking of love ... I've fallen in love with Phil Crosby, Jr.'s debut CD, Time for Christmas. It's only natural that a curiosity factor partially brought me to his ingratiating and cool Yule work. After all, he's the grandson of the legend Bing Crosby, whose work I've long loved. Among his own musical credits, Phil has done a tribute show, doing the Bing thing, and indeed there are some similarities in sound, style and sensibility. But Phil has his own hip and cool way. He's great fun to listen to and his charm is instant and wears well.
I first heard Phil croon a tune, one introduced by Bing ("True Love"), on an EP called Just Like Heaven by a wonderful singer, Nicole Dillenberg. Here, his duets are with attractive-voiced Nica Brooke on a playful "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and a smooth "Silver Bells." Phil seems quite as ease and easygoing in approach with the repertoire. His laidback persona doesn't result in blandness and he avoids the trap of relaxation coming off too offhand or diffident. It feels likes an active choice to pull back and glide. The often inventively zippy and snazzy arrangements infused with jazzy, punchy rhythms complement rather than compete or overshadow. The album's title song was written by John Daversa, the CD's creative arranger-orchestrator-producer who is featured on trumpet especially effectively on the warmly phrased "White Christmas" (one of the more straightforward and sentimental treatments, with nice writing for strings on this and elsewhere, too). Some of the writing ideas in the arrangements and in their execution, like a lot of the singing, are as clean and crisp as a newly-formed icicle.
There are a few surprises here. On first play-through, when the sixth cut begins, you might think there is a misprint on the track list: that wailing sax intro and strong rhythm can't be leading us into "O Holy Night," can it? Well, yes, and somehow it works, taking the reverent hymn into the land of jazz with no road to ruin, nor a sacrilegious error. On the other hand, Phil is sincerity itself on a traditional and understated "Silent Night" with the just-right piano of Adam Benjamin front and center.
Like a Christmas morning with lots of presents you dig, it's hard to pick a favorite here, but I'm partial to the nifty retro treatment for a perky-tempoed romp through Meredith Willson's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" that recreates the sound of an old record, scratches and all, the vocal sounding vintage as if sung into a megaphone. I'm always ready for a repeat of the non-fluffy, focused "Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let It Snow," which has a seductive and addictive arrangement: let it play, let it play, let it play.
Much as this CD pleases, I'm eager to hear where else the singer can and will go: his background and interests have led him to explore various musical styles and he plays a couple of instruments. This may just be the tip of the iceberg, but I'm happy with a good tip.
So ends the "love" fest. Let's take a rest ... til next Thursday.