Come rain or come shine, the skies are always brighter when a Harold Arlen melody is in the air. And what a feast is being provided throughout this year, his centennial: live concert events, theatre productions, press coverage, and CD releases of recordings both new and old. Arlen's first and lasting musical influence is what he heard growing up in a temple as the son of a cantor in Buffalo, New York State's capital of snow. Taking classical piano lessons, he was bored at the keyboard and was much more attracted to the jazz music of the day - the roaring '20s. When fame came, this turned into mutual admiration: jazz singers and players have always been attracted to his melodies, and he welcomed fresh interpretations.
Arlen first pursued the goal of being a singer, and recorded over the years. Those interested in how the composer presented his own songs will want to seek out a recently issued collection on the Living Era label, Harold Arlen Sings Sweet And Hot . The recordings span the years 1924-1954 with some of the accompaniment by name bands. The CD includes a few of Arlen's little-known songs (and even a couple he didn't write). He has a stronger, surer singing voice than most of our famous songwriters. Since we can't discuss every recording with Arlen songs here, this one is mentioned for historic reasons (and charm value). The composer recorded again later in the 1950s, and in the 1960s came Harold Sings Arlen (With Friend), the friend being Barbra Streisand. Miss Streisand, who is one of the Honorary Chairs of the Centennial, won her first singing job auditioning with the composer's "A Sleepin' Bee," found on her debut solo album which had liner notes by Mr. Arlen himself. The tune was introduced in the charming musical House Of Flowers. Also currently available are solo vocal tributes from past years by Ella Fitzgerald, Diahann Carroll, Richard Rodney Bennett, KT Sullivan, Lee Wiley, Eileen Farrell, Julie Wilson, Maureen McGovern, Rosemary Clooney and Audrey Lavine. Those by Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee are now out of print. Numerous "various artists" collections are around; two of these were released in conjunction with the centennial and are reviewed at the end of this column.
The year-long celebration is being effectively spearheaded with familial affection by saxophonist Sam Arlen. His own album, titled (what else?) Arlen Plays Arlen was reviewed with much applause by Talkin' Broadway last year and is worth being reminded of in case it escaped your attention. One listen and you'll know talent and love are in the heir. Respectful but fresh arrangements are by Richie Iacona, who also conducts and plays piano on most tracks (keeping it in the family, occasional piano chores are handled by Sam's wife Joan, also instrumental - no pun intended, I promise - in planning the anniversary events).
Sam Arlen also makes a strong impression playing on one track of Tom Wopat's CD. The song, "So Long, Big Time," from 1963, with a lyric by Dory Langdon (Dory Previn), is also on Arlen Plays Arlen. Wopat began 2005 touring in an Arlen concert with Faith Prince and jazz singers Loston Harris and Barbara Morrison. Though his first few albums were country-flavored, he has since appeared in musical theatre, most notably opposite Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. His CD from the year 2000, the enjoyable In The Still Of The Night, was mostly standards and opened with Arlen's first song written for the movies, "Let's Fall In Love."
Although this CD was recorded before the tour, and all in three days (with the musicians - not singing to pre-recorded tracks), Wopat sounds very comfortable and at home with the material. He appears relaxed, maybe a little too relaxed here and there; the jazz arrangements have a loose, laid back, after-hours flavor which can allow a singer to take it a little too easy. This is not to say that he is not invested in the material, for he is. However, the languid approach works better when "it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me..." in "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)" and with "Hit the Road to Dreamland," which can be a nice jazz lullaby (or a hot swinger). On the lively side, rather than choosing one Oz character's lyrics in "If I Only Had a Brain," Wopat has the nerve (or brain) and enough heart to sing all three of Yip Harburg's sets of lyrics.
Throughout, the musicians have generous opportunities to play, and there are some fine players, with piano/arrangement duties shared by a pensive Gil Goldstein (who does shine on "Come Rain Or Come Shine") and super-talented Tedd Firth who, for good reason, is becoming the accompanist/musical director of choice for New York cabaret-jazz singers. Also effective is Mike Mainieri playing vibes on a few tracks, adding classy - but never showy - accents.
A tip of the cowboy hat to Tom for including little-known gems from films: the album's title song (words by Ira Gershwin) and "Look Who's Been Dreaming," with a dreamy lyric by Dorothy Fields, whose centennial is also celebrated this year.
The name "Arlen" has recently been added to the resume of Tony Award winner/dramatic actress/author/teacher/night club singer/mother/soap opera star/diva Tonya Pinkins. She sang one Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune in a S.T.A.G.E. concert (recorded on LML) and offers six more of their collaborations on her enjoyable new CD. Her one-woman Arlen concert (with Sam Arlen on sax), part of the official centennial, used some of the songs heard here, and others. This set was recorded live at Joe's Pub, like her only other solo album.
Miss Pinkins played the Pearl Bailey role in the "Encores!" concert production of House Of Flowers and here she sings two of that show's numbers. I point this out not just because it's an interesting sidelight and each is a highlight, but both of these titles ("I Never Has Seen Snow" and "Don't Like Goodbyes") are left off the list of songs on the back. Also left out are the names of the lyricists; there are no liner notes. In a game of mix-and-match, the introductory verse of "Over The Rainbow," which was not sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz, has been borrowed to lead into "Come Rain or Come Shine," which never had a verse of its own. The rest of "Over The Rainbow" is crooned in the closing moments. I dare you to find an Arlen tribute show without it; it would be like Christmas without a tree. Or the road to Oz without those yellow bricks.
Freddie Bryant plays hot guitar and Peter Donovan does interesting figures on the bass. The arrangements? Well, they don't all bring out the best in the songs or the singer, but they do have variety despite using only four players; some are traditional and simple (not in the good way), others more modern and sultry. The other two musicians are drummer John Clancy and Kimberly Grigsby, pianist/musical director.
The versatile Tonya Pinkins can sing in several different ways, although on this recording, she doesn't make the rafters ring quite the way she has in her stage roles (Jelly's Last Jam, Play On! and her recent triumph Caroline, Or Change - to which she makes a cute, maybe irresistible reference because her opening song has the word "Caroline" in the lyric). As you may have heard or read, her private life has had its "Stormy Weather" and she channels it (my editor won't let me make a pun about The Weather Channel) by being pretty darn torchy with that lament as well as "The Man That Got Away," and the eloquent, elegant "I Wonder What Became of Me." Contrastingly, and appropriately, there's a very pure, high, "legit" voice for the sweeter love ballads. And the lady can have fun and swing, too. It's all quite entertaining.
On to the matter of the patter: I won't speak highly of the speaking parts preserved, as they add little to the pleasure. Nowhere, in the material included on the disc, does she impart any information about the songs or songwriters, nor does she reveal how or why she relates to the material. The names of the writers are never uttered, not even Arlen's. There are a few generic comments about love songs (the performance took place close to Valentine's Day) and, near the end, endless thank-yous to everyone - I mean everyone - involved. So, if you go to Joe's Pub, you'll know the names of the waitresses.
All in all, this is a star turn by a musical theatre force to be reckoned with, with plenty of pleasure and "pow."
Despite having chosen Arlen songs with primarily sad lyrics, Anne Burnell's CD is not one of those collections of laments which "cry" out to be listened to with a pint of whiskey and a quart of self-pity. She does not wallow in melodrama, and the light, jazzy arrangements keep things sunny enough, despite the foreboding musical weather forecast: "Stormy Weather," "Ill Wind" and "Come Rain Or Come Shine." She seems to be "Happy With The Blues," a 1961 tune with a lyric by Peggy Lee (it also served as the title of a biography of Harold Arlen - sadly, his biographer Edward Jablonski died about a year before the centennial kicked off). Known as Anne Pringle before her marriage to pianist Mark Burnell, who plays solidly on the CD and co-produced it with her, the singer is based in Chicago.
Ms. Burnell has a likeable, sincere, unpretentious quality but does not always sound comfortable and in the center of the note. It's odd, because when she's on target, she is fine and in sync with the big picture of the arrangement and the musicians. She phrases naturally and easily, rarely losing the story of the lyric, even when she and the players are also going for a jazz lick. Count Basie Band alumnus Bob Ojeda provides the tasteful arrangements and is a major asset, featured in trumpet solos. More variety in vocal and instrumental colors and tempi would have been welcome. "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe" is more thoughtfully done than some of the others, and wins favor by including the verse, and is one of three tracks with the welcome, prominent addition of solo violin. The band is strong here, but his CD can't be wholeheartedly recommended, even though its heart is clearly in the right place.
Once upon a time, The Wizard of Oz forever touched your heart, unless you grew up on another planet very far over the rainbow or you are a man made of tin and didn't have one. Twenty years after the film's 1939 release, bandleader Shorty Rogers decided to go back to the Emerald City and revisit its score - he came, he saw, he conquered. Why? To quote one of the lyrics unheard but implied in this instrumental outing: "because of the wonderful things he does."
Rogers (1924-1994), who had played with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, was an inventive arranger with an ear for musical adventure and fun. Fun is the operative word here. Who would think to rethink "We're Off to See the Wizard" as a high-energy, wild Latin dance extravaganza (you'll have to believe me; it works, even if it only lasts for a minute and a half before "Over The Rainbow" gets duly respected, albeit with a few new hues added). A special treat is the inclusion of "The Jitterbug," the dance number that was cut from the movie because it was felt that a reference to a then-current dance craze would lock the film in its time. "The Merry Old Land Of Oz" never sounded merrier, with solos from several of the merrymakers, the jazz "Giants" who included pianist Pete Jolly and guitarist Barney Kessel, as well as trumpeter Rogers himself. "If I Only Had a Brain" also shows the fertile mind of the man and "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" could indeed wake the dead, and they'd be grateful.
Five other Arlen standards fill out the album, a bit more reserved, but still very original, with fine solo and ensemble work from the top-notch players. More "serious" versatility is shown, without sacrificing any of the overwhelming sense of joy. The charming original cover with paper cut-out figures of the Oz characters has been kept, and the new liner notes put the album in perspective, talking about Arlen's appreciation of jazz reinterpretations of his work as well as other (later) recordings by the bandleader. The notes are by the always-informative and interesting critic/author Will Friedwald, who also wrote the background information for the two jazz compilations described below. This album, originally on RCA, sounds clean and clear, thanks to the wonderful wizards at DRG (the reissue producer is Dan O'Leary).
For anyone who likes Arlen songs but isn't a full-fledged jazz fan, fear not. This is very accessible big band/pop stuff, if you're a little hesitant about the "J" word. And if you are even a tiny bit more adventurous, keep reading.
From "Hooray For Love" to its tongue-in-cheek opposite, "Down With Love," this compilation of major jazz singing stars with classic Arlen songs would serve as a perfect introduction to either the composer's canon or to great jazz singers. There is nothing too far out or abstract here, so you won't go wrong if you want the melody stated without too many liberties and sharp turns, and you like the lyrics respected. All but two of the 16 recordings are from the years 1952-1964. The exceptions are from 1998 but fit in just fine: "Let's Fall In Love" with Diana Krall and Abbey Lincoln's charming "If I Only Had A Brain" (she includes the introductory verse not used in the movie, recorded by very few except one of the centennial's chairmen, Michael Feinstein, on his MGM album). There are two selections from Ella Fitzgerald's opus,The Harold Arlen Songbook. These are all top-drawer cuts, and featured are such illustrious instrumentalists and arranger/conductors as Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Cannonball Adderley, Quincy Jones, Billy May, Ray Brown, Woody Herman, and, yes, Shorty Rogers.
The liner notes include brief comments on each song by Sam Arlen, who made the choices from Verve's vast catalogue. Granted, the song title selection is far from adventurous and looks pretty much like any Arlen compilation put out in past years. But who can complain when the sound is so good and you have glorious singers in their glorious prime? Morgana King's "It's Only a Paper Moon" is addictive yet simple, and the Count Basie Band swinging behind both Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Williams on vocals provides bountiful joy and high energy. Listening to this kind of all-star tip of the iceberg can only make you crave more, which is what you get on the next and last item reviewed here.
This one is a 2-CD set, with one CD of vocals and the other devoted exclusively to instrumentals. The latter allows the listener to focus on the melodic lines (after all, Arlen composed music and only on extremely rare occasions ventured into writing lyrics). More liberties are taken here, with more room for improvisation. Some people are allergic to that, but this collection is not a case of carte blanche. The featured instruments are varied, so there are adventures with masters of guitar, sax, piano and trumpet. A few of the cuts allow for leisurely explorations of melodies, as half of the dozen are over five minutes long. Like the Verve set, the selections are all previously issued on solo albums, but here there are more representative of recordings made in recent decades, including our own. There are also vintage tracks from the 1950s and 1960s.
Three singers from the Verve collection also appear here: Abbey Lincoln, Sarah Vaughan, and Mel Torme. Torme is heard accompanied only by George Shearing on piano in the exquisite heartbreaker "Last Night When We Were Young," and Shearing solos on "For Every Man There's A Woman" in another pensive moment. Other instrumentalists represented are such greats as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
Five of the eleven vocals feature lyrics by frequent Arlen collaborator Johnny Mercer, with whom Arlen wrote two Broadway shows, St. Louis Woman and Saratoga and various movie songs. Two of the more recently recorded examples of film souvenirs are Monica Mancini's a capella, multi-tracked "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive" and Nnenna Freelon's luxurious slow glide through "My Shining Hour."
By and large, these albums cover the greatest hits of the darlin' Arlen songs; "Over the Rainbow" appears on every one and several others of "the usual suspects" are chosen again and again, such as "Get Happy" and others mentioned above. But there remains buried treasure to be unearthed and sung, too; hopefully, the spotlight on Arlen's anniversary will also allow some deeper digging. Producer Ben Bagley's Revisited series of albums brought to light many little-known and previously unrecorded gems by Arlen and other major songwriters. But where are the many long-unheard tunes from films and Cotton Club revues, etc.?
For more information about the life and music of Harold Arlen, please visit the Official Harold Arlen Website at www.haroldarlen.com. To learn about the Centennial celebrating Harold Arlen's 100th birthday including a calendar of events, go to www.HaroldArlen2005.com. There are plenty of reasons to "get happy."