Sound Advice Reviews
Remember?: Liza, Live, in the '70s?
Here for your listening pleasure: two albums with female vocalists, each with 17 tracks: one old, one new. We have a 1974 red-hot live recorded document by a super nova and a recently recorded cool, laidback studio album from a cabaret/jazz favorite.
It was 1974 and it was winter. And it was at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, long before it became long-term home to lycra-clad ladies of Mamma Mia! or the "now and forever" furry felines. The venue opened its doors for a few weeks for a concert by a performer who'd made her Broadway debut almost a decade earlier, though she was still in her twenties. Just a couple of years after fully cementing superstar status with the film of Cabaret, Liza Minnelli had already won Oscar, Grammy and Tony Awards, and she got another Tony for the concert captured on the recording Live at the Winter Garden, now on CD for the first time. And there are three bonus tracks (like the numbers preserved on vinyl, the material was culled from various nights during that run).
The liner notes and publicity material tell me that the vinyl album I've had and enjoyed for years had been pulled from circulation back in the day because of "rights issues." Well, now that the rights are cleared and the dust has cleared from memoryand we have the perspective of history and knowing the numerous live recordings of Liza (before and after 1974)how does this one stack up for fans who already have a stack of the diva's discs? It sounds splendid: masterfuland remastered, the sound clear, capturing the energy and electricity. Washing over a listener (as subtly, perhaps, as Niagara Falls) is that mix of bubbling-over exuberance and more controlled, focused, savvy show biz drama and joy that mark Minnelli at her bravura best.
Bob Fosse directed, as he had recently done for the aforementioned iconic movie and the Liza with a Z concert in whose mold this follows, down to the achingly intense Charles Aznavour-composed dramatic highlights, the funky and strutting dance numbers with back-up singer-dancers, the respites reflective and introspective when perched on a stool. Likewise, there are autobiographical bits in song or patter, and the crowd-galvanizing surefire carpe diem of (of course, but not at all off-course) a strong and vibrant version of "Cabaret."
There's an explosive sense of "event" from the anticipation-building overture, although only two of its five Liza signature tunes penned by Kander & Ebb are heard as vocals later on the recording. But there's plenty to be heard from that songwriting team with special material tailored for the lady: Included are a philosophizing about a plan to be living life fully, without the blahs and the burdens ("I'm One of the Smart Ones") and a comical lament about viewing those gals touted to closely resemble her ("Exactly Like Me"). These are delivered with panache and persona-particular star-defining style, establishing down-to-earth zest for life without losing a single sequin of the glittery aura of celebrity. Late in the concert, there's a warmly delivered ballad blending of two vows of romantic devotion and support by these writers whose work is so crucial to making Minnelli Minnelli ("Anywhere You Are" and "I Believe You"). And, with a spoken intro about her Broadway debut as the title character in Flora, the Red Menace (the script is also credited to Ebb), there's a nicely calibrated and wistful rendition of her favorite team's "A Quiet Thing" and she singles this out as her "favorite song."
The previously unreleased bonus tracks, which are programmed on the disc as the last three selections, are interesting without being revelations or "toppers." All in "sincere mode," rather than another dose of razzle dazzle, they find Liza phrasing more for "acting" and audience communication/connection than for pure musical values of the melody lines here and there. Stevie Wonder's ardent "You and I" captures some of its fervent conviction, though it doesn't quite get nailed in a full-steam-ahead way. As is the case with a few songs in the main body of the concert from the vinyl record, the bonus material is not all unique to the Minnelli recorded canon: Many years after this concert, she got around to the old chestnut "It Had to Be You" on her all-ballad studio CD, Gently.
The last item here is "My Shining Hour," a standard she had recorded on her second solo long-playing record, in the 1960s. Here it is, appropriately, slowly unfurled as an encore as if drinking in the rapturously-received night. ("I don't have any more charts," she insists as she offers to sing one more number with just the accompaniment of piano instead of the 28-piece orchestra present). Although the packaging credits and song list don't note it, the performance of this Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer gem has Liza singing an insert of a section of "Yes," another life-affirming Kander & Ebb number (from their 70 Girls 70 and sung in full as the opener on Liza with a Z). Despite whatever quibbles or overlaps, with its sparkling sound quality and the capturing of a performer in her "shining hour" prime, Minnelli fans will want to say "Yes" to purchasing this fine representation of rewardingly varied sides of the communicative and charismatic entertainer.
It's easy to love Easy to Remember, jazzy Jane Scheckter's newest CD, with famous standards we well remember (like the one by Rodgers & Hart that gives this cozy album its title and another by the same team, the everlasting "Where or When") and some old numbers you might not so easily remember, as they're less often trotted out by singers over the years, but they are welcome as rarer refreshment or memory-refreshers. In this latter category are some charm songs: the cute "Accidents Will Happen" (Jimmy Van Heusen & Johnny Burke), "Along with Me" from Harold Rome's score to Call Me Mister and Hold Onto Your Hats's "Don't Let It Get You Down" ("Love Is a Lovely Thing") by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg (advocating an eyes-wide-open, hope-for-the-best approach to a romantic possibility: "What if it doesn't last forever?/ Better a little now than never").
Deceptively casual, but rather decidedly confident, Jane sounds darned carefree and pleased as punch to be singing with a terrific band on these darlingly cheery selections and on zippy material like the disc-opening crowing "The Best Thing for You" (" ... would be me") from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. But when she settles in for a lush ballad such as "I'm Glad There Is You," she can be as heartfelt as the next tender gal singer, though a lean, clean, no-nonsense directness and hip and "grown-up" sensibility throughout the proceedings easily prevents the love songs from getting mired in sentimentality, even on an idealistic lyric of devotion, dewy-eyed gazing not being her style. OK, maybe there are a few drops of dew, but there's no goo when she proceeds to woo or wonder wistfully.
So very swinging are she and the band, anchored by the melodically intelligent, sensitive, creative and very present Tedd Firth, now a major league pianist in great demand, whom Jane latched onto early on in cabaret engagements where I caught her years ago. There's a sense of musical back-and-forth conversation or mood-setting/subtext layers with the singer and these players, who include the top-drawer playersfeaturing guitarist supreme Bucky Pizzarelli, sax sensation Harry Allen, the bright cornet of Warren Vaché, violin virtuoso Aaron Weinstein, joining subtle drummer Peter Grant and return partner bassist Jay Leonhart (from prior albums, going back to 1987, she mentions in her page of printed thanks).
Everyone's on the same page here, giving old songs some fresh life without resorting to glib gimmickry. It's the kind of album that reveals more insights and corners of musical pleasures with welcomed repeat plays. That's the kind of experience I've had with it: a CD that I played with pleasure before its March release and quite a few times since, coming back to again now for a lovely June with Jane.
There's so much to feast on herea snuggly crooning duet on "I Didn't Know About You" with velvet-voiced Tony DeSare and a little prize of a song called "Stuck in a Dream with Me" with thoughtfully cautionary lyrics by K. Lawrence Dunham ("Careful now, stop leading me on ... unless ...") and melody by John Proulx (whom I know as an excellent singer-jazz pianist/recording artist). There are two different versions of "Will You Still Be Mine" (Matt Dennis & Tom Adair's decades-old list song of things ephemeral or not), with one getting added updated lyrics by Bob Feinberg (Jane's husband), name-dropping pop culture figures such as Donald Trump and Justin Bieber. The band is especially effective building the bliss and commenting between phrases here, especially Mr. Weinstein who soars with joy. Also winning points is the appreciated habit of including the introductory verses of some of the classics.
Although she is now living in Massachusetts, you would have found Jane Scheckter reprising her Irving Berlin show this week if you happened to also be at the private villa where she was plying her chansons in Cap d'Antibes in France (sounds like a très bien gig), but I've marked my local calendar for the first afternoon of August (easy to remember!) when she'll land in New York City for the long-running Midday Jazz series at St. Peter's Church in midtown, with a few of these musicians scheduled. Sounds good to meas does this rewarding album that never "tries too hard" but succeeds very easily, as pros often do. And it's juicy.