Sound Advice Reviews
The Top Top Ten Vocal CDs of 2013
In our annual looks at album releases by vocalists, some always stand out as the ones that wear well as repeat listening experiences. When artist and material connect and something rings true, the spark is one we want to experience again. This year, there were some fortunate matches of artists to material, and some rewarding discoveries of long-lost songs.
A return visitor to our Top Ten list, each successive (and successful) solo release shows him getting into songs with more relish, rather than just gracing them with his attractively robust vocal instrument. Philip Chaffin (whose "day job" is co-running the PS Classics record company) is at ease and eager to please here. The lyrics of long-careered Dorothy Fields bring a bounty of choices, and the numbers chosen are a satisfying mix of the standards, the little-known (such as the title song), and those we don't hear often enough, but are glad to have recalled, like "Remind Me," which opens this set. By turns buoyant or openly ardent, with a dash of humor, everything works. Arrangements respect the material and genre, with fresh ideas, never too stuffy or bland. It's old-school, not old hat.
On this tribute to André Previn, Michael Feinstein is joined by the composer at the piano. The collaboration does not start and end there, as the liner notes explain the give-and-take in choosing songs and their treatments. This mostly hushed affair of real intimacy (featuring David Finck on bass) has sublime chemistry making it another standout from the terrifically prolific Feinstein. Previn is a Renaissance man of music to be sure and the two men maketo borrow the name of a musical score with Johnny Mercer, sampled heregood companions. Jazz has played an important role in the Previn output, as have films, and those chapters of his history are here. From the underexposed gem "Just for Now" to the bravura of the well-known "You're Gonna Hear from Me" (Michael's second crack at it in recent times) to the curiosities of Valley of the Dolls(!), there's much to drink in. And songs from abandoned projects, such as a musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips are especially intriguing and yearningly performed.
Some discs cuddle up to my ear. Some make my mouth turn into a grin. Some make me sigh contentedly, knowing immediately that the initial engagement will lead to a longer relationship of welcome auditory company. Nina Hennessey's CD does all the above. The lady smiling on the cover seems to have a smile in her voice. She's been in many shows on and off Broadway (recently the revival of Bye Bye Birdie) and includes some theatre songs which she makes her own. For example, she takes "A Quiet Thing" from Flora the Red Menace and invests it with serenity and mature appreciation rather than being overwhelmed with hushed awe. So, it makes sense for the melody to move and have a more rhythmic feel. When she gets to the line "But I don't hear the drums and I don't hear the band," the accompaniment has disappeared. Happily, we otherwise hear the drums and band playing smart and cozy teamwork; the drummer is "A" list Ray Marchica (conveniently co-producer and husband) and the band includes simpatico and superb players: Don Rebic (keyboards, musical director), Jeff Ganz (bass) and Sean Harkness (guitar). Like much of the album, it's cozy and hip, sensitive without sappiness.
It sounds simplistic, but With a Song feels like it's meant as a record for listening. Too many discs come off as showcases for voice, transfers of grand performances things that might have worked well in live concert settings but don't translate to the recording medium. Nina knows how to get a feel, a groove, going and bring the listener in. A sense of joyful playfulness, girlish without being gushy, informs her sound and style. Her approach and affect reminds me a lot of some wonderful recordings by Diahann Carroll, a longtime favorite. Implied winks and whispery words work wonders. She can coo, croon, and swing. The microphone seems to love some voices; here's one such voice.
The album is bookended by melodies of Vincent Youmans. It opens with "Sometimes I'm Happy," establishing her taking it bright and breezy, as a somewhat coy kitten among cool cats of jazz. The last track is the one winking at the album title, or vice-versa: "Without a Song." Shorn of its corn and formality cum humbleness, "I'll never know what makes the rain to fall" and all the "trouble and woe," it feels surprisingly contemporary. And it ends big with vocal heft. Appealing, eclectic song choices show a comfort zone that's as wide as the ray of bright sunshine the album projects.
If Jerome Kern were writing today, I suspect that as new shows took shape, he and his producer would be on their cell phones crying "Get me Rebecca Luker!" Her ideal soprano voice and the unfettered optimism she has always projected make her and Kern's sweetly lilting or soaring melodies a heavenly match. Post-ingenue, her work has shown more personalized, pensive renditions. A broad spectrum of the Kern-u-copia of the melodist's work is at hand here, collaborations with many different lyricists represented. There are the soaring and sincere ballads, contented or torchy, of course. These are convincing and glowing. A mischievousness informs the comical numbers, such as the laugh-out-loud "My Husband's First Wife." With deft musical direction by Joseph Thalken, this sumptuous setbased on a rapturously-received cabaret set at 54 Belowis entertaining and endearing. It brings ample evidence of two of musical theatre's national treasures: Mr. Kern and Ms. Luker.
Her trademark bubbly personality seems ageless; Faith Prince knows who she is on stage and what works. Revisiting some of her musical theatre roles and others, her live act shows one sweet, smart cookie (with nuts). Telling tales about the ups and downs of show biz are more colorful than the run-of-the-mill. We hear how she was stuck in an IBM industrial show and they wouldn't let her out of her contract to create the lead in Little Shop of Horrors, leading into two treats from that score. This show is fun, with such items as "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" with musical director Alex Rybeck merrily joining in (he also co-wrote the apt "Bless Your Heart" ending with Ira Gasman). Like the best clowns, Faith can break our hearts, too ("But the World Goes 'Round") or warm them by underscoring the importance of family and priorities. One of the most appealing of the many live albums in recent years, this one's patter is worth hearing and lets us get to know the star. And her voice sounds terrific, belting "Shy" or bursting with frustration doing the "Crossword Puzzle."
Twenty-two unknown Noël Coward songs on disc? Pop open the champagne! Our host is longtime Coward maven, Steve Ross. Playing piano for himself and his guests (sopranos Jeanne Lehman, Lisa Riegel and, less prominently, the inimitable actor Edward Hibbert) as they sing together or separately, it's a parlor evening from the past. Presentational and nimble, the somewhat formal performances crisply put the music and lyrics in the spotlight, sounding they just stepped out of the past, winking only when it feels inevitable. Although this was not recorded in concert, Steve plays narrator anyway ("Please give a warm digital welcome to my next guest ..."). The included spoken introductions give concise histories and perspective that isn't slavishly worshipful, pointing out influences on early songs. Several have collaborators and aren't typical of Coward, but some notable Noëlisms emerge in those for which he provided his own melodies. Songs for unproduced shows and discarded numbers abound. For those of us with a soft spot for operetta with lines like "This is the moment, the wonderful moment / The moment for which we were born" will be in heaven with that number, "Heavenly Moment." The CD is full of such moments.
SANDY STEWART & BILL CHARLAP
The exquisite veteran singer Sandy Stewart again teams up with her star jazz pianist son, Bill Charlap, for a recital of mostly marvelous minimalism. That is, it's mostly oh-so-slow, quiet gossamer ballads. Bravissimo pianissimo!! It's hypnotic to the point that you find yourself holding your breath, hanging on every word as pauses are used artfully and some notes are held onto a bit longer as if the two are hesitant to let go of the emotion so well shaded. Nobody does "Intimate" like this and makes it so breathtakingly dramatic without risking becoming one-trick ponies taking us the same old ride. The delicacy of the vocal sound and the dignity brought even to seemingly lighthearted, paper-thin numbers makes everything thoughtful and classy. Nothing is tossed off casually, although this most fleet of pianists is often laying back and giving very spare accompaniment to let Mom and the song get full attention, line by line by line. Although he gives himself more freedom on the mid-song instrumental passages, he never breaks the spell or showboats.
Not everything is tip-toe tender and hushed. There's some light, joyful swing with "The Best Thing for You" from Irving Berlin's score to Call Me Madam that is charmingly assertive without waking the neighbors. And there are a couple of nice surprises when a gentle, heartfelt introductory verse shifts into the chorus and brightens up. The CD is full of subtle and emphatic choices of stressing words and phrases. Pain and hope both linger heavily in the air in "Where Do You Start?" as the Johnny Mandel/Marilyn & Alan Bergman modern standard progresses from despair to catharsis to a sense of closure. One interesting choice is eliminating the last line to the intro of Rodgers & Hart's "Where Or When": Without including the dismissal of déjà vu experiences as just "the tricks your mind can play," it's taken more seriously as metaphysical wonderment. Fans of this marvelous vocalist, who prize the relatively few albums she's made, will note that she recorded three of these numbers in the 1990s.
The mother/son kind of musical conversation and support is quite something to behold as they seem to breathe together, react to one another, and shadow each other. Lyrics and musical "comments" seem very much in the moment. Wistfulness and the sense of prizing moments (or deep wounds in the sad sections) are potent. And the music lingers in the air, with an emotional echo that truly is Something to Remember fondly.
The next best thing to having been to a marvelous party with Noël Coward and Cole Porter on either side of you might just be Noël and Cole the CD. The two celebrated wits who could whittle down romance or place it on a pedestal both lived for 73 years, often living it up or writing about those who did. What a bounty to have a lovingly arranged and performed CD where, without forcing the issue by overdoing it, their overlapping sensibilities and song topics snuggle up to each other.
Arranged by David Loud and orchestrated by Jason Carr, this is a real feast and a romp. You know you're in for something a little different when the usually relentlessly perky Porter pep rally, "Another Op'nin', Another Show," begins the proceedings, taken at a slow and deliberate pace. Then it's combined with Coward's sarcastic "Why Must the Show Go On" and, yes, then they are combined in this full company number. And then, happily the show does go on for a good chunk of time well spent. In another ensemble piece, Carr is like a kid let loose in a candy store with "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" using chosen solo instruments to suggest certain animals and nationalities in the list song. Included are some of the Porter original and Coward's updated own additional lines referencing Porter himself and such stars as Marlene Dietrich (who "can't quite do it").
Many of the writers' better-known pieces are on display, given top renditions by strong theatre singers, who've already made their marks with PS Classics' cast albums, including studio cast recreations, in recent years. With six singers for all but ensemble numbers, they concentrate on being Team Coward or Team Porter, which makes the grab-bag of songs feel a bit more cohesive. Barbara Walsh has a field day of merry mockery with Coward's "I've Been to a Marvelous Party" as the multi-chorus tale is spread out over three tracks, making it a continuing saga. She bites into the song, gleefully dismissing the fools and their follies. Euan Morton is impish in his Coward cavorting, bringing an understated strength to "London Pride" and doing a male take on being "Mad About the Boy" in a three-character divvying-up of the traditionally female cast of love-struck characters mooning over a movie idol. Philip Chaffin gets a couple of the more ardent Porter ballads and plays their heartstrings to crescendi. With some straightforward ballad work, Sara Jean Ford and Elizabeth Stanley have their voices virtually dance along with melodic lines with glimmering moments. Matthew Scott (one of Euan's co-stars in Sondheim on Sondheim) makes an impressive "young leading man" impact, giving his numbers heart and an appealingly gutsy sound that's also pretty and nicely rounded.
Featuring some of the most accessible numbers from the work of the masters, this album can serve as an introductory overview for the uninitiated and a welcome revisit for fans, who'll find nice colors in these new coats of paint to the twin houses.
Hooray for the theatrical recycling efforts of Original Cast Records, headed by producer Bruce Yeko, satisfying our curiosity about the Broadway shows that never were and the songs that were cut from hit musicals. Reasons are sometimes lost to history and it takes a leap of faith to imagine that something's missing out of context, but what a fun time browsing through an imagined attic where such things exist. This fifth volume of Lost Broadway and More concentrates on material written by composer Jule Styne and the lyric-writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, together or with other collaborators.
With relish, the singers here jump into the material full speed ahead. And if they don't convince you that these numbers could have been standards or hits in their day, they "sell" them with panache. With Jule Styne, we can expect jaunty melodies and Comden and Green seemed to never be at a loss of rhymed glib verbiage. Some of the material here is bouncy, with the flair and flavor of vaudeville, with the very occasional stop for a ballad or reflective moment; Carrie Johnson on the wistful "Little Lost Dream" brings a rewarding serious turn with lush sounds, but the whole album (and series) makes these little lost songs a dream come true for Broadway tune hunters.
Sole musician Michael Lavine is at the keyboard and his crisp playing helps spread the joy and make the unfamiliar ready for easy consumption. Michael's cheery, clear singing is smile-inducing and enlivens a couple of attractive duets. First, there's a wait-for-the-bright-side number cut from Hallelujah, Baby! called "When the Weather's Better" where he's joined amiably by the sunny Nyna Nelson, a welcome addition to this sort of recording repertory company. On "So Far So Good," cut from Two on the Aisle, Elizabeth Loyacano is his likeably boisterous partner (and she does a running bit with him throughout the album, recreating the audition sequences by hopeless cases, which are from Say, Darling!). Brooke Moriber registers powerfully and is grand fun romping through two numbers sharing a rollicking Styne melody (from two different projects). The comic tour de force, "Misunderstood" (closed-on-the-road Bonanza Bound), is a hoot with Tom Hewitt hamming it up wonderfully, raging lines like "I'm an artist!!"
Especially interesting are the Funny Girl pieces: Christine Pedi clowning and singing in dialect with asides, gliding through "I Did It on Roller Skates"; the could-have-been title song neatly done by Leslie Kritzer (who did the show at Paper Mill Playhouse); and "Temporary Arrangement," which was temporarily cut and then restored to the score. That happened when vocalist Johnny Desmond took over the male lead and here, in a nice historic bit of casting, it's nimbly taken on by Desmond's grandson, John Jeffrey Martin. The torch is passed and the songs live on.