Next Tuesday, May 6, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) presents its annual awards show, open to the public. CDs have recently been issued by artists nominated for their live performances, and there's a just-released recording by the person getting a very special MAC Award.
Maureen McGovern's Lifetime Achievement Award from MAC comes just a week after a truly outstanding achievement in her lifetime comes into the marketplace: her CD, A Long and Winding Road. Always a polished and dynamic vocalist, an increasing depth and wisdom have radiated through her work in recent years. Masterful Maureen brings an adult elegance and grace to the songs from writers and artists who made them famous when they (and seemingly the world) were quite young. Generous in spirit as well as time (18 tracks; just under an hour), this is a rich and moving experience that is very emotional without ever feeling calculated or dependent on just memory-tugging. Call it nostalgia with a brain.
Maureen's own long and winding road seems to have been a circular one - her career began when she sang folk and pop songs in the late 1960s, and here she is back where she began, with music mostly from that period: the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, etc. Though many of the songs are monster hits, part of the fabric of American music and milestones of an era - hit records burned into the brains of many listeners - these renditions are not redundant or sentimentalized. Maureen and arranger/pianist Jeff Harris treat the songs with tremendous care and affection - and something called perspective. It's quite remarkable how the performances are so emotionally present and involved, line by line, while at the same time they feel imbued with a fondness for the material in its original era. And she certainly sounds very much at home. The one non-Harris arrangement is the work of Jay Leonhart, playing bass and joining in vocally on "Feelin' Groovy" (AKA "The 59th Street Bridge Song"), which, like the Beatles' quirky "Rocky Raccoon," is a rare light moment.
Interestingly, the point of view and vocal finesse brought to a particular song sometimes gives it a new flavor - the warmth and tenderness lavished on "Let It Be," "Imagine" and "Fire and Rain" make them feel both soothing and inspiring, while subtly sophisticated arrangements and fresh phrasing allow them to escape being trapped in melodic repetition. A trio of Jim Webb songs ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a part of "MacArthur Park," "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress") feels like a wistful look back at love with a growing sense of self-awareness and lessons learned. Sung totally a capella, "The Fiddle and the Drum" (Joni Mitchell) is arresting and moving. Bob Dylan's landmark "The Times They Are A-Changing" is stirring richly sung, it may be the album's strongest achievement as it is the least likely candidate for being yanked from its 1964 page in history. Rather than relying on anger or a storm clouds-gathering foreboding for its propulsion, it has in its warning cry a determination and even hope with even a tinge of expected triumph. Indeed, the word "triumph" could describe this whole album.
In addition to performing at the MAC Awards, Maureen will appear the day before (Monday, May 5)at 5:30 pm at Barnes & Noble on West 66th Street and Broadway. (Producer Bart Greenberg and the B&N "Any Wednesday" series of free concerts is being given a special board of Directors MAC Award.)
Nominated in MAC's jazz vocal category, Julian Yeo has been working around town in different venues (his next is May 23, the official CD release event at the jazz club The Iridium, on Broadway). This second CD shows growing skill and more variety in the sound palette while retaining the elements that made his first recording notable: the terrific musical settings by his pianist, Jesse Gelber and a unique charm factor. That charm comes from odd couplings of attributes: a modesty in vocal approach with an unabashed confident air embracing the material; a throwback to old stylings that's so retro it seems hip through sheer will; his crisp approach to words and having an accent (Malaysian by birth, he lived in Australia until moving to New York a couple of years ago). I hadn't listened to the CD for a while, having lived with it for quite a while in advance as I was asked to write about the singer and material for the liner notes; pulling it out again this week, I'm re-charmed.
The upbeat tracks are ingratiating and chipper, the more serious ones like "Charade" and "Nature Boy" have a sense of real melancholy and a slight air of mystery. There's a buoyancy on many tracks that makes it a fun listen. The Pajama Game's "Hernando's Hideaway" is especially playful - teasing and pleasing.
Julian seems to have a special affinity for Irving Berlin, as his three choices here - "What'll I Do," "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain") and "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket") are highlights (two Berlin numbers on his first album, Old New Borrowed Blue were likewise good fits). I think it's because there's a directness and economy in the writer's style and the singer's general instincts and approach that make for a natural common sensibility.
Mostly bright tempi, a cut-to-the-chase approach and non-indulgent instrumental breaks keep most of the tracks on the short side: eight of the 15 are well under three minutes in length, with four others just over the three-minute mark. The arrangements and musicians are so strong that a few longer band breaks or piano solos would have been welcome. Some may feel the generally frothy, smiley approach glosses over the lyrics and is a bit too stylized or atmospheric at the expense of substance, but the song choices rarely demand nuanced phrasing or drama. However, in the more serious numbers, there is evidence that Julian can delve into real feelings - although, as is his wont with other numbers, he does this in an understated way that is simple and effective.
Instrumentation brings real period flavor to the nifty old tunes - with guitar, banjo, clarinet, mandolins, violins, mandolin, bass and drums (drummer Kevin Dorn, returning from the prior CD along with the anchoring and thoroughly delightful work of the pianist - see next CD review for quite a bit more of him). Unusual Passage brings something that may become usually expected from Yeo and Gelber: a gratifying, stylish time warp that's refreshing and rousing.
JESSE GELBER & KATE MANNING
Nabbing a MAC Award nomination in the Duo category, Jesse Gelber and Kate Manning are a delicious and devilish pair for sure. Subtitled "Hot hits from the public domain," the CD is full of snappy, snazzy, smile-inducing numbers from the first part of the 20th century. The carefree, rambunctious entertainment starts immediately with the first track, "Hello! Ma Baby." Just plain uninhibited fun, it's complete with the sounds of old-fashioned clanging, jangling phone ringing and the two inserting bits of dialogue as a plucky flapper and her hard-boiled, two-bit boyfriend.
Billed as Gelber and Manning, the two (a couple in private life, too) cutely address each other by their last names in the few occasions of patter, suggesting an old time vaudeville team with a history of being in each other's pocket and sometimes on each other's nerves. It's adorable - as is their singing style that really evokes the era the songs come from, with a rowdiness and innocence. Kate does the lioness's share of the singing, mostly aping the older style of brassy, brash, bouncy vocalizing appropriate for the eager-beaver, kind of rowdy entertainer she's portraying. Her "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Runnin' Wild" have their wild way without risking overkill. When Jesse takes a vocal turn, he's a hoot, keeping his sort of Chicago-esque accent and growl on "Margie" (pronounced "Mah-gee"). Only rarely do they actually sing together, which seems like a missed opportunity because their interplay is so good. But it's evident in his piano accompaniment for her that feels like real teamwork as they push and pull(or egg) each other along. His dexterous and nimble jazz/razzmatazz conglomeration of past styles is superb instantly accessible and a marvel. He's joined by his drumming partner Kevin Dorn (also heard on the Julian Yeo albums) and Charlie Caranicas with high-spirited energizing work on cornet. One cut is almost fully instrumental a splashy dash through the "Tiger Rag."
Just when you think enough is enough with the tough, gruff stuff, Kate relaxes and uses the pretty side of her voice for a ballad before coming back strong roaring with a roaring '20s burst of hale and hearty party-ready blast of fabulous frenzy. This album is a knockout and a joy. Here's hoping their next adventure brings back some more obscure novelty numbers and another serving of nuts and ham.
UNDER THE RADAR
The next CD features a couple of cabaret people who are not under the radar to regular cabaret-goers, but they have been moonlighting and can be heard on ... .
MAC nominee for both male vocal and directing, Miles Phillips deftly plays two roles in this recording of Damn Yankees with musical direction for the singers (and you, the karaoke candidate) by Tracy Stark, nominated for her playing in piano bars. Stage Stars' new 2-disc package - one CD with just the instrumental tracks and one with the same tracks plus vocals - is well done in many ways.
The package is made to be used to learn the songs, practice, or for recorded accompaniment for auditions or performances by providing "guide vocals." Songs are in the original tempi and keys, and the CD includes all the numbers used in this popular show by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (which will be returning to New York this summer at City Center). When licensing by the writers' agent allows, the lyrics are provided in a booklet and appear on screen in a karaoke machine (and with some DVDs and computer screens), highlighted phrase by phrase to help a learner stay in time. This show is one that allows all that. There's no overture or separate dance music, but there is the reprise of "A Man's Doesn't Know."
Tracy Stark's work, along with series producer Stephen M. Pearl's own orchestrations, are attractive and easy to follow, providing more melody and thus a stronger, clearer guide than in many such recordings I have heard. This is spoon feeding in the helpful way, although it is not heavy handed. The very tuneful, fairly uncomplicated score is less challenging than many. There are nice, bright little figures within the broad strokes that keep things lively so that it isn't overly simplistic. There is a little room for embellishment and creative phrasing. In fact, listening to the instrumentals alone reveals some nifty, show bizzy touches and musical punctuation.
Once again, Stage Stars and its company of performers assigned to the "guide vocals" have gone above and beyond the call of duty, with vocals that are full of color and character. Not generic by any means, they have the flavor of the show and are thoroughly engaging in their own right as a cast album is. In a role that can be quite hammy, Miles Phillips' devil character, Applegate, is more low key and less idiosyncratic than the way some might be inclined to play it (to play Devil's advocate, one can't go too far over the top when the mission is to be a guide and stay strictly with the music when temptation might be to speak more lines out of tempo for comic effect). But he finds little moments to add color and attitude, bits and phrases here and there - the devil is in the details indeed. He moonlights by also playing the role of the baseball team's pitcher, Rocky. In the broadly comic "The Game," he is highly amusing.
Since the CD is not based on a staged production, strong-voiced Rob Langeder (last year's MAC winner for Male Debut) can play both the old and young Joe, and it's nice to hear the older Joe's songs in such a vibrant, full-bodied voice. Other returnees include Dara Seitzman, who is sensational as Lola, getting lots of juice and humor into the role of the sizzling seductress. Marilyn O'Connell as wife Meg is quite touching here, the heart of this recording. Liz Donathan is a suitably spirited Gloria, adding appealing energy and gumption.
A welcome addition to the Stage Stars label stable of recurring cast members is the skilled Michael McGregor Mahoney who plays the baseball team's manager. Leading "Heart," he makes it a pip of a pep rally that just keeps building. Rounding out the male ensemble are the strong Billy Ernst and the always particularly entertaining and on-target Kristopher Monroe, provide swell teamwork. The comical accents and attitudes for the ballplayers are fun.
Devotees of this 1955 score, which has fewer cast recordings than other shows of comparable fame, will be glad to know it's in good hands here. This bright, theatre-experienced cast is not at all out of its league and, while karaoke-goaled recordings by their very nature can't quite be in the world series of cast recordings, this score scores with these talents. And, for the target audience, the clear, clean tracks that are easy to follow. This Damn Yankees package is the theatrical equivalent of a very helpful and generously guiding baseball coach.