This week it's a look and listen featuring female vocal sounds. We begin with a British
star who has been on these shores quite a bit lately, then a couple of jazz ladies
who've been around. The last item takes us back to England and jazz.
Now and Then: the album title refers not only to the name of a terrifically torchy number but also to the fact that the CD has tracks from the past and present. There's much more of then with only two recently recorded tracks representing now. However, the dazzling dozen dating from Britain's Maria Friedman's 1995 solo recording have not found their way to an American release in all this time, only available as an expensive import when you could find it at all. Following her starring turn in The Woman in White in London and on Broadway, and timed to her current cabaret engagement in New York at the Cafe Carlyle, Now and Then has been released to American record stores this week. Frustratingly, it doesn't include her deliciously uninhibited "Gorgeous," the comic tour de force from The Apple Tree, but these mostly serious songs are mostly gorgeous for certain.
In her liner notes, Maria says she always dreamed of appearing on Broadway, so hearing her decade-old version of "Broadway Baby" which expresses such a wish is that much sweeter. She plays with this Stephen Sondheim favorite, relaxed and winsome (knowingly so), and then - surprise! - comes in with a big, smasheroo ending blasting out the final line. Maria's Carlyle show is all Sondheim, and she has a history with his musicals in London, including Sunday in the Park with George, represented by two highlights here. "Finishing the Hat" is great to hear in a woman's voice, especially with Maria's thoughtful and invested reading of the lyric. Elegantly poignant, "Children and Art," is one of the new items and it's done with just piano accompaniment - and her accompanist is none other than Mr. Sondheim himself.
There's an elegance and an adult sensibility pervading the album. She holds back on some numbers, opting for subtlety and mature reflection over high drama. Still, one can refute any accusations of Maria clinging to the famous English reserve by listening to the song "Now and Then." She does not shy away from its rich emotional content and anguish; to the contrary, she throws herself into it with full voice and full heart. In a much calmer mode is the other new item, "Smile," featuring the pillowy piano accompaniment and arrangement of Joseph Thalken. The musical settings (by quite a few different arrangers) throughout are especially well realized and evocative, from the solo guitar accompaniment on "My Romance" to the sweeping full orchestral treatments on others.
Anita O'Day is still hip. Long considered one of the greatest and most inventive jazz singers, she is a wonder, recording again in her mid-eighties. (An amusing typo in the liner notes says the last recording session for Indestructible! was in November 2006 - but Anita has always been ahead of her time.)
I'd be dishonest or in denial to say that Anita has all the verve she had in her classic recordings. Time marches on. Certainly her vocal strength has diminished and she sounds fragile or tired at times. Her forte was never holding notes or vibrato. It's about rhythm, swing and a super cool sensibility. A newcomer won't "get it" from this. But bring your memories and a reality check and appreciate a grand lady who can still get things rocking when many people her age are just in rocking chairs. Some tracks are more successful than others, but lean in a little to listen and you'll hear she still can bite into a lyric and have a good time. The set list is mostly standards she never recorded on her many studio albums, like "Blue Skies," "The Nearness of You," and "Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Those of us who know Anita's past work well will recognize her trademark attitude, her refreshing phrasing and an unexpected bending of a note that shifts things a few degrees in a pleasing way.
A song Anita performed regularly for many years, "Is You Is (Or Is You Ain't My Baby)" is included for the sake of fun and history, and she's still in touch with its playfulness and sarcasm. "A Slip of the Lip" (Mercer Ellington/ Luther Henderson) is a wise choice, letting her show her jivey jokey side. She is surrounded by top players; most prominent among them is Joe Wilder on trumpet and flugelhorn. Eddie Locke on drums does fine work as well, especially on "All of Me." The band gets its own number with Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes." The old tune "Gimme a Pigfoot" is perhaps the most fun, with its feet-up-on-the-couch and have-another-drink attitude inviting everyone to chill out and join the party.
SATHIMA BEA BENJAMIN
Here's a jazz CD that's hypnotic. Sathima Bea Benjamin recorded Musical Echoes in 2002 but it's only being released now. She takes her time between recording and releasing - and she takes her time, period. With one exception (Noel Coward's "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," which is the most mannered with notes twisted and bent galore), the tracks are all over five minutes in length, with two reaching eight minutes on the clock. The singer favors a relaxed tempo and also gives her musicians plenty of playing time. She's an acquired taste, perhaps, with her horn-like vocal sound and low-key style, but I acquired the taste some years ago with her earlier work. She's actually been singing for decades, and this album marks a homecoming, a return to her native South Africa to perform and record.
Although Sathima and her trio take many liberties with the melodies, and the musicians take many a side trip as they improvise, there is respect and love for the music and especially the lyrics. Throwing off the expected accents and timing, she is able to put the focus on a different word, making a listener notice the words even more. Because her singing is not about vocal power or a pristine pretty sound, her emphasis on a word or the twist of a musical phrase commands attention. This is especially true on "Falling in Love with Love" where she breaks up "make/ believe" and relishes "just a juvenile fancy." Any potential for sentimentality is banished with this down-to-earth and hip framework.
Three of nine songs are Duke Ellington numbers: "Caravan" and two ballads, "All Too Soon," and "Something To Live For," which finds her at her most vulnerable and yearning. A highlight of the album is "They Say It's Wonderful" from Annie Get Your Gun, in a slow tempo that lets her revel in varying ways to play with the adjective "wonderful" to make it dreamy, doubtful or wistful. The title song is a sincere and intriguing one ("those musical echoes heal my broken heart"). In a couple of brief parts of this, she sings a capella, which is highly effective and I wish this idea had been used more. This piece was co-written by Sathima and her first-rate pianist, Stephen Scott, whose sensitive and creative playing are satisfying throughout. His contributions are paramount to the success of this CD. (They also produced the album together; she is credited with its arrangements.) Stephen is the anchor when she's singing and a co-star when she takes a breather. Never showy or wild, he nevertheless shows a great adventuresome sense and variety. Bass player Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana are strong as well, particularly on the Ellington tunes and on "Star Eyes."
My one complaint about this CD is the included interchanges between numbers as they set the tempi and slate the takes. There are asides and quiet laughs that break the mood for me, and seem unnecessary, as if they are trying to leave this in to prove the sessions were congenial or some songs were captured on the first take. It's fine for a live album, but seems pointless here. This is not for non-jazz fans, as these aren't folks with one foot in jazz and one foot in cabaret or musical theater singer. Both feet are uncompromisingly in jazz. I found that I enjoyed this CD more with each spin and ended up just letting it play again, especially because of the mellow and moody moments, which are plentiful.UNDER THE RADAR
Here's an unusual package: a 51-year-old show that had about 20 minutes worth of its British cast's performances preserved - put together with twenty (!) period bonus tracks that take up the vast majority of the CD's playing time.
It was 1955 and a revue called The Jazz Train, celebrating African American music and its roots, found its way from a New York night club to a 111-performance run at London's Piccadilly Theatre. With an orchestra and chorus conducted by Peter Knight, the cast recorded several of the big vocal numbers. The original music is credited to J. C. Johnson but well-known, traditional songs are a big part of the picture, too, with the legends of "Frankie and Johnny" and "John Henry" revived along the way.
Things get off to an exciting start, with "I Got a Train" followed by the familiar spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the mournful "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (not identified in the packaging by their titles). Salutes to famous performers were part of the proceedings, so some of the singing is done as approximations of their styles. It's a mostly high energy, sometimes raucous affair, but with a variety of musical rhythms and moods: a calypso, a blues, a cakewalk. "Ev'rything Is Rhythm" sums it up very neatly and nicely. This compact disc's compacted history of black music is quite entertaining and the cavalcade moves along at a fast clip, with the upbeat ending "There's No Journey's End to My Train," sung by the company.
The main singers include Fredye Marshall (in two short but attractive solo spots) and Jeff Williams as our strong-voiced engineer-host, but the irrepressible and sometimes saucy Bertice Reading is the most prominent performer aboard The Jazz Train. She's also the only member of the cast represented in the album's bonus material, with four commercial tunes, including "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" (the sentimental hit for Jimmy Scott and the band of Lionel Hampton who composed it, not the same-titled Connie Francis bouncer) and an early rock entry from Leiber & Stoller, "Tears of Joy." These four reek of the 1950s' commercial try-for-a-hit studio sounds. If nothing else, they show her chamelion-like ability to fit into any musical structure. (Cast album collectors may recognize her voice from Sandy Wilson's Valmouth and a London South Pacific revival wherein she was Bloody Mary.)
In other non-Train tracks, Elisabeth Welch is a welcome addition to the album, midway in her long career, sounding very smooth and relaxed. Unfortunately, she has some lightweight material that hardly challenges her, but she carries off everything with aplomb. Marie Bryant has the real luck of the draw here, with four selections that all have stood the test of time, such as "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Georgia on My Mind," and her sweet tones glide over them lightly but brightly. The arrangements aren't especially original, but are respectful of the material and these cuts stand out among the less involving ones. The Peters Sisters get twice as many tracks as the other ladies (they have eight), half of them had been heard in The Folies Bergère, so the harmonizing siblings are chanting in French for much of their section. The CD ends with two jazzier, snazzier cuts, where they sound not unlike The Andrews Sisters. The selections are their well-done "Basin Street Blues," finally reminding us of the flavor of The Jazz Train and then a snappy run through the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful" (yes, an actual show tune, at last, to end this mixed-bag CD!). What all these bonus-track artists have in common is worth noting: they were non-white Americans who found greater fame and acceptance in Europe and spent much of their lives there.
This collection of 78 rpm records has a 78-minute playing time (very generous), and is an enjoyable time capsule of the sounds of the 1950s on top of the revue that starts it off, a time capsule of its own. Consider the bonus tracks the icing on the cake, but it's the rare case when there's more icing than cake. Some of that icing is kind of too sticky and sweet for me in the way that some of the era's music was indeed gooey, but I enjoyed the trip on the jazz-inflected train and the journey down Memory Lane, too. But do we file this on the cast albums shelf or just under "miscellaneous"?