Sound Advice Reviews
Vocals: a Top 10 from '10
Also see Rob's list of top cast/score albums of 2010
Here's a look back at personal favorites among singers' 2010 releases submitted for review to TalkinBroadway. As with the previous column surveying last year's cast albums, these are not in order of preference.
Renaissance man Sam Daviscomposer, pianist, orchestrator (and performer on one track, the sly "The Cookie Boy")gets a shimmering showcase with Love on a Summer Afternoon. It works on many levels. The striking versatility among these Davis melodies evidences a composer with a broad musical and emotional palette at his disposal, and they are fleshed out delicately or dramatically with detail in the playing and orchestrations. Because some are intimate character portraits or story songs and some are very literate and unabashedly romantic rushes of feelings and images, the lyrics impress mightily, too. Lyricists are Mark Waldrop, Sean Hartley, Randy Buck and Georgia Stitt, and there's also a setting of a Langston Hughes poem, "I Dream a World." Be prepared to cry or sigh on a regular basis with these tales of love and longing, regrets and relished memories. Performances are especially thoughtful, nuanced and involved, with crystallized characterizations in many cases. Singers include such musical theatre gentlemen as David Hyde Pierce, Jason Danieley, Bobby Steggert, Michael Arden and Gavin Creel, with Philip Chaffin gracing the title serene title song. There's plenty of life-affirming material and melody lines that are gentle or vibrant and full of unexpected and rewarding twists and turns.
In the long line of live albums celebrating the Broadway songs of a particular calendar year from The Town Hall's Broadway by the Year concert series, this one looking back at the year 1978 stands out as having some terrific performances. Unlike the concerts surveying years deeper in the past, it's not so much about "Wow, what a great year that was/ must've been!" as it wasn't a year with a lot of hit book shows; two of the successes were simply revues recycling the yellowing songbooks of writers Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. Songs here are perhaps easier to appreciate out of context. Each of the character pieces from Working is self-contained, with a touching performance dignifying the contributions of "The Mason" by Carolee Carmello, and Lari White's humanizing the anonymous human cog in a machine doing "Millwork." Each of these women also shines in Ballroom's numbers written for the widow seeking a new chapter in her life. There's plenty of room for showy, fun numbers from the aforementioned revues (Mary Bond Davis and Chuck Cooper getting sassy with Waller and NYC cabaret performer Lennie Watts raucously hilarious with "I'm a Great Big Baby" heard in Eubie!). There are more slices of ham from On the Twentieth Century with Christine Pedi and Nancy Opel. The score to the short-lived Charles Strouse/ Lee Adams Broadway musical called A Broadway Musical opens The Broadway Musicals of 1978 with its title song for the company, followed by a sneer at the necessary evil of "Lawyers" making a strong case for the comic talents of Bryan Batt, who also directed the evening. Its drama and razzle dazzle are well captured here, along with the astute commentary by host/creator Scott Siegel and sturdy work by Ross Patterson and his "Little Big Band."
In love with well-crafted songs, some seldom recorded, Joyce Breach's latest in a series of tasteful albums sung gently but with mature understanding is another gem. Musical theatre fans will happily note that some of those gems are mined from the scores of shows less often approached, like Take Me Along, Celebration and two from I Had a Ball. In her approach avoiding showiness or self-serving tricks, Joyce's lack of fanfare has won her fans among those who prize the tender-loving-care approach to material. Her ease with intonation and consistently warm tone are a pleasure for the ears, but the affection and connection to the lyrics make this more than just the aural equivalent of comfort food. With the engaged and deft pianist-arranger Jon Weber and other musicians such as the veteran guitarist Gene Bertoncini, the accompaniment is graceful, too.
They don't come much more intense than British singer Barb Jungr. She welcomes and embraces and explores all emotions, never hesitant with the heavy or heated. Go along for the ride and it's a riveting joint catharsis. Lyrics and images seem to expand at her command as they are sung passionately or with a muted, brooding fervency. I admire her commitment and am pulled in, in person or on disc. Her latest album finds her finding new depths and dramas in some pop songs from Bruce Springsteen's "The River" drowning in lamentation to the Motown hit "This Old Heart of Mine" slowing dance its heartbeat from danceable shrugging to heart-wrenching confessional. Her voice is hypnotic and the persona projected is vulnerable with a hero's tenacity lurking. Arrangements are done in collaboration with musical director Simon Wallace and become theatrically musical landscapes, setting and sustaining moods, churning chords or arrestingly spare moments accenting fragility of pauses for reflection. Rather than depending on the easy pull of a pity party, the characterizations and stories more often become experiences for listeners to identify with the struggles and realizations. And if you know the original versions, the re-invention and deconstruction can be a revelation.
The subtitle Duets doesn't mean vocal combinations. The revolving door of partners for the duets with singer Hilary Kole brings in in a series of top pianists. The lush-voiced lady's interpretive skills have grown a great deal over the last several years, and this album is ample proof of that. A bunch of classic songs, classy singer whose voice was always lovely, and some true giants of the piano world combine to make for particularly rich listening. Michel Legrand is the only visitor to accompany her on a melody he also composed: "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" Hilary seems to relish the music as well as the lyric's litany of questions by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Mike Renzi accompanies for a yearning but elegant take on Stephen Sondheim's "I Remember" and the CD is simply track after track of emotive interplay and interpretative finery. It's consistently interesting to compare the distinct styles and approaches of so many pianists and the feel they bring to the material, even though most are standards ("Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "Lush Life," "But Beautiful"). There is one number where the pianist joins Hilary in song when Kole meets Cole: singer-pianist Freddy Cole, joining her for a satisfying mutual admiration society with "It's Always You."
When you're not the first to go to bat with a tribute album to a composer or artist, the trick is to still sound fresh, especially when the song titles are many of "the usual suspects" of higher-profile associations. As he's done with past salutes to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Richard Rodgers and the Beatles, vocalist-guitarist John Pizzarelli succeeds by bringing fresh energy, affection and strong musicianship. Though he leans mostly on well-covered fare like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," he is not intimidated by and hasn't slavishly imitated others in respectful but alive-with-thought lyric readings and his well-established masterful guitar work. Taking on another classic, the jangly "Perdido," gets an influx of zest with new lyrics by his musical and marriage partner Jessica Molaskey who joins in deliciously with vocals on this one track, along with jazz star vocalist Kurt Elling. Brass on several tracks, arranged by one of the giants in the fieldDon Sebeskyand jazz violinist sensation Aaron Weinstein add to the list of attractions, as does dad and fellow guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli as a guest. And we have fine work as usual from brother and bassist Martin Pizzarelli, pianist Larry Fuller and drummer Tony Tedesco, regular bandmates. No music seems to have the potential to sound stale or pale with these folks around. Ellingtonia is alive and well and well handled all around here in this return round to our winners' circleand the recent work by John (and Jessica) and the band got them another repeat win, too, for the January 31 Nightlife Awards, with young Mr. Weinstein garnering a special debut award.
In the third collection of his material, Scott Alan has more heart-on-the-sleeve (or is it heart in the throat?) songs. Tender advocate for living life to its fullest, the subject matter laid on the musical table in open-eyed fashion demonstrates that all is fair (or fairly complicated) in love and war. Characters in these theater-ready songs sung by musical theater artists are unsettled or long to settle down (as in "Nothing More" sung with clear-eyed decisiveness by Christopher Sieber about choosing creating a family over chasing fame). Bobby Steggert is magnetic and sympathetic in the saga of a young soldier going off to war "Over the Mountains" and facing some not-so-bulletproof psychological offenses. His castmate from the revival of Ragtime, Christiane Noll, finds just the right, restrained balance of perspective and rue with her elegant singing of specific memory associations or analogies ("as the sweetest chord to play" ... "as the sun upon my face ...") in "I Remember."
Emotions soar and pour out at full force on many tracks. Especially powerful is "Taking Back My Life," a whirlpool of sorrow and release, and ultimately an anthem for anyone overcoming major struggles who is determined to triumph again. Raw in its emotion as sung in non-diva powerhouse style by a sensational Patina Miller, star of the musical Sister Act, it is a knockout. While wiping away tears and recovering during silence after this number, listed as the final track, listeners will find a hidden unnamed track about the importance of hope. It's one of many touching moments on the dozensorry, baker's dozenof direct songs. But there are lighter moments, too, such as appealing Laura Osnes capturing youthful joy with "Easy" and Nikki Renee Daniels blossoming with bliss with the simply stated "Love, Love, Love."
Kudos to Jesse Vargas for his unifying work as arranger, conductor, orchestrator, keyboard player and co-producer with the songwriter. Many of these are songs with big emotions sung in a big way and it's gratifying that they get a large orchestra to accommodate that bigness. The lesson that "less is more" also seems to be on the radar as not everything gets the grand treatment; some simple, sparer approaches are here and are very effective, too. This album is notable not only as a third scrapbook volume of a writer unafraid to celebrate life and confront demons at the risk of being called oversensitive by the jaded curmudgeons among us. It's also a great platform for some exciting and theatrical singers, among them Darius de Haas whose gorgeous high-toned voice sends chills with the purity of his singing on "Take Me Away." The album often took me away to that rarified place where craft coincides with bone-deep emotion and it seems like the same thing. Nice work!
DARIUS DE HAAS
It's really very simple: Darius de Haas has the kind of voice that can seemingly cut through glass and can be just as smooth. It's a beautiful instrument, perhaps best appreciated in spare surroundings where it can pierce the air and float in it, ringingly, and get under your skin. He's accompanied by the non-showy piano of Steven Blier (New York Festival of Song). It's been way too long a wait since his previous solo album (2002's Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn), but in the interim we've been often reminded of the de Haas class and command from his tracks on theatre-related albums such as The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, the Actors Fund Hair concert recording, and those from The Town Hall Broadway Unplugged series. His is always a welcome sound. Here, things are kept pretty simple. If at first the song list seems to rely on some old standards so very frequently covered, and if I confess that the treatments are really rather straightforward, that's of no major worry. Anything and any way he sings, it's at least a pleasure and at best exquisite.
In other settings, Darius can provide thrills with frillsembellishing notes, and going for melisma and soulful wailing but on Quiet Please, he pleases quite often in a less showy way. He uses the power of his voice judiciously. Although he has a way with a lyric by finding its heart, at least on a first hearing I was struck by how his distinctive voice envelops the melodies. And what great melodies! There are four dips in the rich pool of Gershwin, two stops for Duke Ellington standbys, two melodies by Richard Rodgers and two from Adam Guettel's work, Saturn Returns. In a generous program of 17 songs, there are no misses, but some stand out. Songs of yearning for beauty are an ideal fit as his voice has a natural yearning quality and an intrinsic beauty; thus, Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" soars with its pleading tone and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "I Have Dreamed" builds desire gloriously. "In a Sentimental Mood" is a sweet, elegant drift on a cloud that instantly creates that sweetly sentimental mood and keeps it going. All this innocence is abandoned for a rare male version of the once-banned-from-the-airwaves Cole Porter saga of "Love for Sale." Although the album won't make you hear most of the songs in new ways, and break new ground, the back-to-basics approach is fine for such a golden voice and a pianist more than up for the task.
Those on the lookout for overlooked pieces by writers from the musical theatrenot the cute, esoteric, obscure oddities or small inconsequential moments that are nice and sweet tidbits, but big, grandly emotional numbershave a treat with this album. Tenor Kevin Odekirk, whose resumé includes Les Misèrables' Broadway run and Kristina, is the theatrical singer presenting these often dramatic pieces that suit him. Not all are from the theatre and there are only 10 tracks in all, but this is a splendid album.
The vocalist can sing with quietly focused, in-your-ear breathy sincerity or, when the situation calls for it, unleash vocal power and sustain a big triumphant note. Most of all, it's earnestness and sincerity that come through in his approach and sound. This important release from LML Music is especially notable, too, for the presence of a truly big orchestral sound with a bed of strings and some extravagant orchestrations suitable for soaring and triumphant climaxes on some tracks that take full advantage of this.
The album opens winningly: "Can You Imagine That?" with sweetness and awe that builds and builds in excitement to a satisfying ending. It's one of two numbers from Stephen Schwartz's musical about the life of Hans Christian Andersen (the other, a huge production, is "On Wings of a Swan"). Not all songs are truly disc-debuts and thus unheard or unheard of: "Strangers Once Again" (John Bucchino/Lindy Robbins) was recorded on CDs by two vocalists (Andrea Marcovicci and Joan Ryan, another LML artist) back in the mid-1990s and "Multitudes of Amys," cut from Company has been heard on a few other CDs. But they are admirably done here, as Kevin tiptoes with a fluttering heart on the former and sails through the whirlwind of rushed images on the latter. And the devoted scourers of orphan songs may know others.
Along with the lyrics, brief introductory comments for each song give their history. For example, there is the story from songwriter Jason Robert Brown about "I Take It Back," which was in and quickly out of the troubled stage version of Urban Cowboy. It has the likably feisty, fierce, forceful grit the writer gets into songs so well for restless characters. Although on other tracks, Kevin more often sounds closer to a callow youth or elegant art song performer, he adapts his style and sounds quite the contemporary angry young man for this biting piece. A contrasting Brown mood comes with a cut number from 13, the shy guy's wish to connect with a popular girl at school, "My Name Is Archie," sung with vulnerability and ache without cloying sentimentality. Georgia Stitt (who happens to be Brown's wife, but a gifted composer who's done some very fine work) is also twice represented: once with the setting of a moving "Sonnet" about war by a long-ago soldier killed in battle and the other a collaboration with Sam Davis, "If I Could." The CD ends with singer Odekirk's own song, "Where You Go," a thoughtful and throbbing piece with a sense of drama tinged with regret, explained somewhat cryptically in the booklet.
But there's no mystery about why this CD deserves to be heard: it's interesting material sung with conviction and sumptuously produced.
Bob Dylan, shake hands with the jazz world and get set for beauty and intelligence. It comes via some mesmerizing and satisfying work by singer Janet Planet and her band. I fell in love with their very insightful, adventurous and often mesmerizing takes on the arguably unlikely material during three recent engagements in New York City at the Metropolitan Room and Feinstein's at Loews Regency. This fascinating 2010 work presents the eclectic singer with the gorgeous tone and focused presentation, previously applied marvelously on disc to standards, jazz treasures and more with a new and risky challenge. Happily, if surprisingly, the Dylan songs survive the transfusion and thrive. Away from the limited increasingly gruff-mumble voice of their creator and not sounding trapped in a confining 1960s folk-rock style (all songs are from the '60s), they are comfortably adopted and adapted by their new owners with best kind of sense of entitlement.
Some cuts may be more accessible than others at first listen, if only because Dylan can be dense and wordy and even enigmatic, and there's no desire to dumb it down. Nor do they just take the easy road of picking songs that have proven to be embraced wider audiences in cover versions. But there are some of those, with things like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" but that one gets a deeper, more considered and melancholy reading than we've heard before on the line "It don't matter anyhow." And "Like a Rolling Stone" could be simply harsh and rhetorical in lesser hands but when Janet Planet sings the line "How does it feel?" she sounds truly and lovingly concerned. "Just Like a Woman" approached from a female point of view finds more below the surface, too. Words are treated with utmost care; nothing is casual in these and the description "missed opportunities" can't apply. And while songs as interpreted here open up new possibilities for explored drama and complexities, musical values are not sacrificed. The impressively controlled and very attractive voice is immensely soothing in its effect but never bland in its prettiness. That said, much is low-key and gets into a mellow (not mushy) groove, but there's still a very appropriate restlessness woven through many selections.
The moody, evocative arrangements are collaborations by the singer with either of the talented Toms she's worked with for decades: guitarist Tom Theabo, who is on all tracks, or sax player/ keyboardist and husband Tom Washatka who plays on just two. The band also has two players each sharing duties on bass and percussion. I keep returning to this album and find shadings to appreciate --- always a strong reason to include a CD in a year's "Best Of" list. It invites repeat plays, whether it's the addictively odd feel-good rhythms to the quirky "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" or the hope and longing in "I Shall Be Released." And I can't help but hope that more shall be released soon, since the album clearly titles this as Volume 1. The songwriter's old album with The Band called Planet Waves seems like the fated place to look? Meanwhile, I can't get enough of this long-toiling Wisconsin-based singer who sounds forever young with her crystalline voice and active musical imagination.