CDs offering the work of three very different songwriters are examined this week, interpreted by very different kinds of singing.
KLEA BLACKHURST & BILLY STRITCH:
If Hoagy Carmichael were still around, he'd probably be writing a note of thanks for this wonderful new collection of his compositions (lyrics mostly by others). A few of his serious ballads are tenderly done, but they are the change-of-pacers. Look for gloom elsewhere. There's highly enjoyable, lighter stuff here which is welcome because, as new albums (and shows) of standards weigh in, the musical world is often ballad heavy.
If Billy Stritch were a baseball player, you'd say he's batting a thousand so far this year, with this, his third greatly gratifying album appearance on the market. It follows his solo CD tribute to Mel Tormé and Sunday in New York, a second recorded pair-up with Christine Ebersole. Billy seems to know how to create sparks and make 'em fly as accompanist/arranger and duet partner (earlier recordings have featured him in ongoing, long-standing musical marriages with Liza Minnelli and Marilyn Maye, and his own beginnings as one-third of a trio). Dreaming of a Song is another dream team; the dynamo on the distaff side this time is the ever-delightfully refreshing Klea Blackhurst, whose snazzy previous CDs explored the songs of Vernon Duke and the trademark songs of her idol, Ethel Merman. This is another hit as they get cozy with a cross-section of the Carmichael canon.
The duo has performed the material in clubs in recent times, so they're in home territory for this home run. With 20 tracks, more than half with a running time of two and a half minutes or less, and only five over three minutes in length, it's a bang-bang-bang rompno fuss, no fat on the bones, no lingering over phrases or repeating a chorus for the sake of doing so, no long instrumental solos. The other musicians are Stritch-familiar: doing subtle work is skilled Mike Berkowitz who is now Liza Minnelli's drummer, has beat a path to Broadway pits and heads the Gene Krupa tribute band. And the ace bass player is Steve Doyle, who's becoming one ubiquitous presence in New York cabaret, including the weekly Birdland Cast Party open mics where Billy tickles the ivories when not trotting the globe. They don't get much chance to shine on these short tracks but this is a teamwork gig, with a focus on vocals, not a jazz instrumentalist showcase.
You may associate Indiana-born Carmichael partly with some folksy, laidback material that evokes hammocks and lemonade-sipping, especially if you know his easygoing persona/charm through his own recordings and film appearances. That's not the ambience here. It is missed a bit. "Lazy River" is anything but lazy (Klea hauls out her ukulele on this one to swell effect). Likewise, "Two Sleepy People" is taken at a medium tempo, hardly sleepy, but comically endearing as they toss off the lines in Frank Loesser's lyric. The zippiest tracks are some of the most rewarding. In "Billy-a-Dick" and "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief" (both with Paul Francis Webster's words) and "My Resistance is Low" (Harold Adamson), their egg-each-other-on spunk and pleasure in each other's company is the musical equivalent of two giddy little kids playing in a sandbox or splashing each other in the pool.
On the mature side, "The Nearness of You" (4:15)a nicely done, sincere vocal solo for Kleais one of the primary chances to slow down and thoroughly and luxuriously explore. Billy's lovely and loving solo of the mega classic "Star Dust" (a phrase from its lyric provides the album title) is also on the more relaxed side, a coffee break from the caffeinated bouncers. Showing some of his mellow Mel Tormé influence here, this much-recorded warhorse gets a warm ride, and the performance has grace. Another number Klea sits out is one of five Johnny Mercer lyrics, the rarely done (and very well done here) "The Old Music Master" ... which leads me to conclude by saying that the music mastered here is a real treat on all counts.
Setting various texts and poems with moods ranging from dreamy-romantic to sorrowful to the reverence of the Latin Mass, composer Tom Herman has found the dream of a muse for his musicBroadway's Rebecca Luker. The CD begins with a sprightly tune for the kid-friendly Edward Lear tale of the inter-species marriage of "The Owl and the Pussycat" before going into more serious material, with some pieces that could be classified as art songs. The often-surprising melody lines are variously tender and intimate or soaringly joyful or meditative. Versatile Rebecca Luker truly serves the material. Happily, the wide-ranging melodies with some shimmering ascents and elastic lines also become a showcase for her strong and glorious, clear soprano voice. Her chameleon-like performance proves her to be comfortably at home with each piece. Her strengths include projecting a sense of awe in both the Mass and various love-struck romantic ruminations. Rhapsodically, "Recuerdo" relishes a rush of memories of a heady night for two lovers, one of the five poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Not all is sweetness and light. Addressed subjects include grieving and loss, both for specific people and times gone by. Though they confront sorrow, the musical choices and interpretation keep the sad subject matter in a thoughtful mode, rather than drowning in melodramatic mawkish misery. There's a classical elegance here that makes feelings float rather than spurt. The long-lined legato approach with a high voice sometimes has the music and voice demand a listener's initial attention more so than the words. The album title stating this is music for voice perhaps justifies this. There is no question, however, that agendas for mood-setting and broad strokes are definitely achieved, even if some specific images that are painted in the words are swept along in the wave of music. These assert themselves more with repeated listenings and by following the full texts provided in the booklet (which also characterizes each piece succinctly in liner notes by the composer). Accompaniment does not distract or diffuse, as it is kept minimalistic. Recital style, there is just piano for the firsts 12 tracks (well done by Brian Zeger for eight and Joseph Thalken for the cluster of four short Millay poems). The Sanctus features Grant Wenaus on piano and adds the cello of Clay Ruede, a great asset not just for variety but for his fine work.
Especially effective and evocative is "I, Icarus" (text by Alden Nowlan), where the speaker recalls, "I lay on my bed and willed myself to fly." Without resorting to telegraphing or cliché, composer Herman makes musical choices to illustrate the poem's images of flight and the repeated words "above," "higher" and "slowly" to tell the story and give it also an attitude of determined convincingness and a longing for a long-ago time.
Taking up more than one-third of the album's playing time (49:43), The Sanctus from the Mass is in five movements, just using the few lines over and over, so it's in its own category. It's a matter of glorying in the glory (of the Lord and the Heaven-sent music and lovely, lithe Luker vocal sounds that swell and soar).
Recording classical music and a reverential approach is not a new feather in the singer's cap: she has lent her voice to a series of Aria albums that use her soprano's ethereal quality. Here it's the brightness and clarity and directness of the approach that are front and center. Still, listeners who are strictly Broadway fans and tend not to be musical genre-jumpers may not be as willing to make the leap to the art song and religious territory. But many admirers of Rebecca Luker's gleaming and warm soprano should find the same qualities they've enjoyed on her many cast albums.
As for composer Tom Herman, who is new to me, I enjoy his talents on display here and am interested to hear a musical he has on tap, Jack's Back. One piece here has his own words, "Birthday Horoscope for B.R." and that shows sensitivity, too, like his affectionate attention to other words he sets. His other career is as a massage therapist (you may have seen him play one in the 2006 comic film Borat), and Music for Voice, indeed, with its soothing sounds and sure-handed musicality is like a massage for the ear and brain. There's much to relax toand be moved byhere, when musical masseuse meets marvelous chanteuse.
UNDER THE RADAR
JEREMY SCHONFELD & VARIOUS ARTISTS
His songs are vibrant and vigorous and packed with emotion, often seething with it. Jeremy Schonfeld, who writes both music and lyrics and plays keyboards on 37 Notebooks, works in a pop-rock style with some theatricality. Four of these songs come from the annual A Train Plays, whose scores and scripts are required to be written on a single ride along Manhattan's longest subway route and turned in at the last stop. ("Do You Want My Life?", a bleak lament and explosion of rage, actually refers to riding the subway among other woes, and there's a convincing, empathetic performance by Julia Murney with an intensely wailing tenor sax by Todd Anderson accenting the angst. Some of the characters here face fears and some face facts and some are just "in your face."
Many of the numbers tend to build and build, sometimes peaking very early as I hear things, making the second half of a track anti-climactic. This is exacerbated by the writing in a pop style where lyrics of one chorus and the hooks are repeated quite a lot. So, the endings lack the kind of payoff, twist or surprise theatre songs often have. Still, the hooks are often catchy and there is some relief from the repetition aspect with some arrangements and vocal performances having more of an ebb and flow, a chance to use the power of a pause, rather than an ever-more-churning musical tornado. However, those whose favorite form is the no-holds-barred pop/theatre power ballad opening the vocal floodgates will likely welcome the tornado.
The amiable and rather commercial "Try" is sung with an attractive country feel by Tony Award winner Jarrod Emick, who appeared in the writer's musical Drift two years ago in the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival. Adam Pascal's committed performance of the post-Hurricane Katrina "Song for New Orleans," a commissioned work, captures the national regret and shame from the tragedy, with unblinking accusatory lines about "how we turned our backs and looked the other way" and "ain't it amazing nobody pays much attention after the media storm blows by." Also a plea for help, it ends with an endorsement of hope. Shoshana Bean does nicely with the anthem of encouragement, "House of Love," joined by the voices of the Broadway Dreams Gospel Choir. (Part of the CD's proceeds go to the Broadway Dreams "boot camp" training program for young people.)
A few of the most satisfying tracks on the album are those with Jeremy Schonfeld's own singing. He projects an "unstudied" honesty and integrity that add to the draw of two songs about songwriting: the modesty of "Storyteller" (also heard on his earlier double CD, Blue Skies and All) and the title song. His duet with Lauren Kennedy, "I Was Meant for You," is a sweet and simple romance whose lyric feels partly like a throwback to an earlier era ("I was meant for you/ Nobody else in this world will do") but with more perspective ("If a spark can leave you dreaming, then the courage never dies").
Time to leave until the next press of the 'play' button ... Coming soon: we'll have some passing remarks on Passing Strange and other things passing our way.