Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Amazing Grace, vivacious VerPlanck, and velvety Vannatter
Reviews by Rob Lester

Once again, a musical that had a rather short run gets to have eternal life as a cast album, with an intriguing and robust souvenir of its score and message. This time, it's Amazing Grace, named for the stirring hymn and charting the journey of the man who wrote it. The second line of that song—"How sweet the sound!"—also describes the voices of two solo singers whose CDs are also reviewed this week. Both have truly graceful sounds and ways with material, showcasing ultra-smooth tones and classy approaches: serene Marlene VerPlanck and dreamy-voiced Dane Vannatter.

AMAZING GRACE
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

DMI Soundtracks

The arrival of spring, with its promise of renewal and the holiest week of the Christian calendar, seems an appropriate time to review the Broadway cast album of Amazing Grace, the tale of Britain's John Newton, writer of the famous hymn "Amazing Grace." The man who described himself therein as "a wretch" who "once was lost ... was blind" was a burdened fellow who had denied a belief in God until life-changing personal events resulted in an epiphany and the discarding of his former views, perspective, and involvement with slave trading. It's a dramatic and inspiring back-story leading up to conversion and complete turnaround and, although the musical takes some liberties with the facts, it's both engrossing and unsettling.

The show featured some impactful visual effects, and the album carries its own gravitas and theatricality with its bold strokes. Arguably, some are perhaps too bold, with intents and purposes being transparently telegraphed, earnestness and determination being blatantly reinforced with throbbingly percussive orchestral sounds urging things forward. The creative team can't be accused of confusing the audience with a button-pushing approach to songs whose goals are easily evident with uncluttered architectures.

Paths the dramatis personae and the listener are meant to follow to make and get each point are paved firmly. Josh Young, terrific as Newton, unquestionably will refuse to buckle to pressure in his swashbuckling quest to do what makes him feel "Truly Alive." Fervent and red-blooded, a brave sense of adventure pulses and builds through this first number as he heeds the call of the ocean, "Let me prove I am a man who can stand against the sea," this cry a far cry from the wistful and far less stormy "I'd Rather Be Sailing" in A New Brain or the cheerily uncomplicated "Blow High, Blow Low" off-to-sea chanty in Carousel. Not just the de rigueur "I want" character introduction piece, it's instead an "I must" moment, fierce and defiant. Fortunately, Mr. Young is so committed and strong of voice and spirit that even the full-steam-ahead blunt directness of the music, lyrics, and orchestration can't overwhelm or upstage him. He leads this and other charges like a heroic, undaunted (if sometimes misguided) knight going into battle. His leading man magnetism and the conflicted soul he conveys come through on disc, scoring the all-important but challenging goal when it comes to engendering a listener's sympathy for a sometimes unsympathetic character.

After a series of those times that try men's souls, Newton's transformation comes across as believable, step by step, aided by the successive mea culpa numbers whose lyrics foreshadow the hymn to come: "Testimony" ("In a moment of truth I can see what I am  ... God in His mercy has called me by name ... "); "I Will Remember" (singing of "the wounds I have caused" and vowing to "turn my hands to good"); "Nothing There to Love" ("I was such a lost and restless soul ... . You helped me see a vision of the man I could become").

While Young holds our attention and holds stage, he gets some solid support. Erin Mackey brings lovely tones as the steadfastly patient Mary, who believes in Newton's goodness and talents. Her own unselfishness and too-good-to-be-true persona—extending to her righteous stance speaking up against slavery in England—gets a break when she despairs and, thinking her beloved has died, questions God in the raging "Tell Me Why." Yes, it has a similar sensibility to Miss Saigon's also wrenching "Why, God, Why?," but is effective and searing. Tom Hewitt as Newton's stern father expresses his own hindsight-fueled hopes, while wondering about God's will in "A Chance for Me." While well delivered, its punch is less potent, as it not only suffers in comparison by being the very next track on the disc, but also because it is sung by a character the CD listener has only gotten to know in a small part of the opening song. Despite this, the skillful Hewitt pulls us in and makes the rendition more than a too-little/too-late realization and regret rant.

Laiona Michelle gets to shine—albeit briefly—with a balm and beacon of hope in "Daybreak" to encourage Mary. Chris Hoch as a somewhat foppish and foolish Major Gray doesn't quite manage to delineate all the shades of comic relief and satire that might come through in his romp about "Expectations" that seems more annoyingly self-congratulatory than amusing. But it is Chuck Cooper as Newton's slave, Thomas, who rewardingly gets the most thrilling and fully realized moment of all. In a stage turn that defines the dramatic showstopper, he takes the reins and rides "Nowhere Left to Run" from beginning to spine-tingling end. A mix of indictment and challenge, Cooper soars with focused laser-beam energy without a speck of bravura showboating, letting the weight of the inescapable truths being expressed sink in and linger. Imbuing his long-suffering character with a firm dignity, he is the crucial conscience of the play, offering the inner compass his master lacks.

The original score is capped by the final track rendition of the anticipated John Newton hymn, now appreciated in the context of the writer's long search for meaning and acceptance and faith. And this glorious performance, begun simply and unfettered by Young, eventually encompassing the large company who sing in unison at its swelling conclusion, as the confession and realizations ring out. Although billed as sole composer-lyricist (and sharing book credit with Arthur Giron), first-timer Christopher Smith had some other help with several numbers, as the finer print states. Other hands, such as those who did additional orchestrations likewise supplementing Joseph Church's work in that department, are co-credited for either music or lyrics, or in the case of "Welcome Song"—in a tribal language—both. Despite some vexing cases of impure rhymes and overstated lyrics that could use more artfulness or nuance, Smith's work shows promise and heart with authentic sweetness and sincerity.

MARLENE VERPLANCK
THE MOOD I'M IN

Audiophile Records

Now with two dozen albums to her credit, Marlene VerPlanck continues her own tradition of championing neglected songs by well-known writers with stacks of standards. While most jazz singers sampling Ellington will pick from the same usual suspects of a dozen biggies, VerPlanck digs deeper to come up aces with "All Too Soon" and "It Shouldn't Happen to a Dream." And while the prolific collaboration of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn brought forth piles of polished craftsmanship, I think you'll dig getting to know a little-known cutie she managed to dig up called "Come on Strong." Though she does get around to spending some time with one of their classics, "The Second Time Around," she gives it a new impact by plopping it into a medley where another number bookends it ("It Started All Over Again"). And while we get her old-timey romantic idealism aglow in "This Is Always" by composer Harry Warren with the lyric of his frequent collaborator Mack Gordon, she also finds a Warren winner with lyrics by Ted Koehler (whom we most closely associate with the many standards he wrote with Harold Arlen in the first chapters of that composer's history), "Me and the Blues." The deep melody well Warren drew from brings forth not his typical tuneful flowing legato when the lyricist of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and "Stormy Weather" is adding the flowing of tears to the mix.

As is her trademark style, the clarity of veteran VerPlanck's vocal tone always shines through in a way that radiates optimism, pluck, and straightforwardness, so we never are mired in melodrama even with melancholia hovering. The inherent cheer and uber-clear sound with precise pitch prevails and cuts through any bathos potential. I can only guess that after decades of admiring reviews and articles she may be tired of hearing her persona being described as sunny, the voice as bell-like clear and her brisk, no-nonsense but jazzy approach characterized as refreshing and ever-youthful. But facts are facts and the long-revealed truth, like her sound, remains as clear as that inevitably conjured-up bell.

As always, the work is tasteful, jazz-oriented but always accessible and never self-indulgent on the part of the very capable songbird or the instrumentalists or arrangers. The final track, a warm rendering of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's standard "Too Late Now" is a fine arrangement left behind by Marlene's late husband and musical partner Billy VerPlanck, while the remaining charts are collaborations of the singer with the very talented Tedd Firth. Although Firth has played and recorded with her previously, the pianist for this U.K.-recorded endeavor, following a tour there, is John Pearce. (The typical jazz piano/bass/drums trio gets some variety in sounds with some tracks featuring trombone, sax and/or flute.)

The mood-brightening CD The Mood I'm In is just the latest in a long line of panacea platters that began as bigger vinyl ones. I'm especially happy she included its title song, an invigorating number I've always gravitated to on an old Jack Jones album. It's an especially ingratiating romp by Pete King and the versatile wordsmith Paul Francis Webster and a natural for Marlene's merry manner, so it's an instant favorite. But just as juicy is a nifty number called "Certain People" which makes much with wordplay on different ways to use the word "certain." It's co-written by two men who know their way around a piano and a song: John Bunch and pianist-singer Ronny Whyte whose mutual admiration society with Marlene has found them crossing simpatico musical paths before. She's known as "a singer's singer" and a songwriter's lucky find as she excels in putting the focus on the material without distractions or over-embellishment. Certain people have a habit of making it all seem so effortless.

DANE VANNATTER
GIVE ME SOMETHING REAL

After an impressive trio of solo albums, with the exception of some guest tracks on songwriters' albums, golden-voiced Dane Vannatter has not released a CD since 2001. He's continued to perform live (recently with regular gigs in the Pittsburgh area, with a rare Manhattan appearance at the Metropolitan Room on April 3). What a pleasure to have this voice-of-cream crooner back at last for a solo disc, even if I'm a bit grumpy feeling cheated that it only has ten tracks. But they're all fine—and varied.

Recorded in a town in Massachusetts and in Pittsburgh, with tasteful backings in small-group settings, the results are satisfying and find the singer in superbly supple voice. With judiciously employed vibrato, his sound can be ethereal, with high and buttery notes a trademark specialty, extending to a drop-dead beautiful falsetto. But he can also sound gutsy and even cocky, but pure beauty in vocals is his long suit. If he drifted off or lost focus, he could probably become just a super-pretty sound floating through the air or poured like so much divinely rich honey. But he sounds involved, with a point of view, to anchor his renditions in a decided attitude and stance.

A mischievous kind of sexy playfulness dominates the first two selections. The opener is "Lover, Come Back to Me," the antique by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II that was written for an operetta and proclaimed in formal and starched style, but was long ago repurposed as a swinger by everyone from Sinatra to Streisand. Dane's reading recalls the latter's winking glee (from her earliest days) in its phrasing and emphasized words, though less wild and not as wildly unrestrained, but still a romp. It's followed by another indulgence in seduction, "Just Squeeze Me," again playing the cute and coy card without much at stake, perhaps eyebrow-raising in its day decades ago before lyrics were blatantly sexual and a Duke Ellington melody could compensation with the insouciance and spice. If I didn't know Vannatter's track record, these two opening tracks wouldn't lead me to think he had a lot more to his arsenal than lightly charming fun stuff. Happily, there is more and it's far more interesting and satisfying.

Although Dane has not discarded his cabaret/Great American Songbook loyalties, the title number of Give Me Something Real is one example of his expanding the horizons. It's a roaring tiger of a pop song by Clark Anderson and Mervyn Warren (the Renaissance man and founding member of Take 6, whose first name is unfortunately spelled wrong on the back cover). To his credit, the singer sounds just as comfortable in this setting and with Al Green's wailing R&B hit "Let's Stay Together" as he does on cabaret classics "Blame It on My Youth" and "But Beautiful," both bittersweet and imbued with 20/20 hindsight, or the novelty number "I Love My Bed" where he seems oh-so-cozy literally and in the genre.

But it is with a stunning medley of two pieces that he sounds most involved and is the most riveting. It's Coldplay's "Fix You" blended with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Without the sheen of classic American ballads to lean on or the flirt persona to fall back on, Dane is spare and magnetic and the lyrics to both seem like heartbeat-true confessionals and declamations. While some drawn-out and drone-like renderings of Cohen's haunting and naked piece can have diminishing returns when going on at snail-pace length, the shorter time sandwiched between the two parts of "Fix You" easily fixes that and it's all truly arresting throughout the track.

This CD just arrived this week and quickly became a favorite to spin again and again. Moody enhancements of flute and guitar up the ante of emotion. As the plaintive Billy Strayhorn music and lyric of "Something to Live for" waft through the air, the truths of loneliness and ache mixed with faint hope, I feel firmly convinced that this cry of pain is an open wound, slow to heal. But then the next selection, the old ditty about a heavenly nest of homey happiness "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" makes me thing that happy endings can be just around the corner. And I hope another platter from the much-missed Vannatter will be around the corner again soon. I am not willing to wait another decade and a half. And it would be a crime if he did.


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