Sound Advice Reviews
What a pleasure to find these two Lost-titled albums and welcome back to two female singers whose latest work brings intelligent, artful interpretations: Deborah Shulman and Deanna Kirk.
Along with the fascinating myriad of musical sounds on Lost in the Stars, add my sighs of relief and gasps of true surprise: there's no "same old/same old" feeling on this CD by singer Deborah Shulman, trombonist Larry Zalkind and bandmates. Familiar becomes fresh in big and small ways and some daring ways. Those with open minds and ears will find some welcome experimentation in the shifts of usual tempo, tone, and emphases. While some arrangements and stylizations may at first seem to have been just jazzed up or dangerously lightened or loosened the grip of intensity, just wait. The underlying intent is not lost in Lost in the Stars. For example, the theatrical knockout punch might not be the in-your-face kind we're used to on "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Could I Leave You?," the judgmental and keen observations still ring with veracity and vitriol in these two Stephen Sondheim bursts of bitterness. Both have arrangement and piano accompaniment by Terry Trotter, who has memorably released jazz trio versions of Sondheim's scores over the years. (He has also collaborated with the singer in the past; this is her third album.) Despite the adventurousness, there's a serious, grown-up, entrenched-with-theatricality agenda that commands my respect.
What also stands out here is the way the evocatively sultry-voiced Deborah Shulman and the masterful (but non-show-offy) musicians share the responsibilities and spotlight in telling the stories and setting moods. In many arrangements, there's a lot of space between vocal lines where the musicians' role is far more than accompanist or counterpoint commentator. A soloist acts as a vocal duet partner might, taking frequent "turns" prominently laying down a phrase rather than laying back in the background. It's as if the parties here have created their own time zone, allowing the songs' many thoughts and details to be presented at the pace they choose. Some changes are far more subtle; "Losing My Mind," the other entry from Sondheim's Follies, is taken just a bit slower than usual, and is the one track with just piano. The accompaniment figures are familiar, but taking it at more of a crawl makes the character's pain more agonizingas if "every little chore" and step and coffee cup sip is debilitatingly effortful. She's too burdened, damaged and drained to get through it any more quickly. It works.
Sondheim is also represented by three other titles, a languorous, lush "I Feel Pretty" and a more confident-than-usual and less agitated "Something's Coming," two items from the score of West Side Story, his early landmark collaboration with Leonard Bernstein. However, in the packaging's egregious error, lyricists for Bernstein and Kurt Weill's melodies are not listed in the creditseven though the song list, with composers (last names only, throughout), is shown four times. Ironically, the lyrics here are given immense, concentrated attention and interpretation by Deborah, whose acting skills are formidable. Only on a very few occasions are liberties taken there, such as adding the adjective "sweet" to Betty Comden & Adolph Green/Leonard Bernstein's declaration "It's Love," from Wonderful Town, at its extended fade-out. Cut from the same score, "Ain't Got No Tears Left" is the CD's least known song among rather well-known titles.
On the Weill side, there's the classic that gives the album its title and "September Song" (both with Maxwell Anderson's lamenting lyrics, and both more traditionally approached) and there's a whole new approach to "Mack the Knife" (in English). Also, we get Weill's melody of "My Ship": no vocal here, it's heard only as a multi-tracked trombone showpiecehauntingly beautiful, reminding one of how the melody was used in the original context of the show, Lady in the Dark, as an elusive memory in the heroine's dreams.
Trombonist Larry Zalkind is this lady singer's brother-in-law, incidentally, and other musicians heard on the recording include his viola-playing wife Marilyn and their cellist son Matthew on a few numbers. Arrangers are Trotter, Jeff Colella, Brad Warnaar, and the album's producer, Ted Howe.
If Deanna Kirk were not such a gifted singer, she's probably have made a damn good hypnotist. The mesmerizing sound of her lovely, feathery, voiceethereal and yet conversationally phrased with naturalnessand the way she spins a lyric and creates a mood pulls you into the spells she casts. Images presented in the bonus track of the standard "Skylark" could paint a picture of the tender, fragile, lovelorn environs and personae she creates: "faint as the will o' the wisp"; "a meadow in the mist where someone's longing to be kissed"; "a blossom-covered lane." Rare is the song stylist who can paint such vivid yet elusive scenes with such specificity in the way she colors and intones even the most well-known words. A wistful sigh crystallizes the pang of a much-missed treasured romantic memory in "Once Upon a Summertime" and one can see clearly through the mist and tears the many sentiment-drenched items in the list song "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)." Yes, Lost in Languid Love Songs is a perfect title for this moody, brooding collection that immerses itself in longing and liquid dreaminess.
Deanna, a gifted jazz-influenced vocalist who seems to disappear for long stretches of time, caught my attention years ago with one of the earliest of her several albums and I was delighted to find her also re-emerging for some live Manhattan gigs in the last year or two. She's a captivating and unique in-person presence with very much her own presentation style and stance, and her gamine image and the (broken) heart on her sleeve come throughjust throughher sweet and well-calibrated voice.
Most tracks have an element of sorrow; clouds seem poised to come into rain, and silver linings appear in them when things get gloomy. It never gets too weepy or wailing, as she has her own point of keeping on the communicative, storytelling side of the fence rather crossing over to play the "poor me" card. There's a grown-up kind of acknowledgment and acceptance of the struggles and pains that come with the territory called love and life. Annie Get Your Gun's "They Say It's Wonderful" is re-shaped to allow a more experienced point of viewnot a first-timer at romance, but someone waiting for one of her romantic adventures to have a happier ending. You can get that in the way she implies the word "or" in the lyric's line, "so they say." Another show tune is the lightest/brightest spot, emotionally, with "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady getting some respite from gloom and doom as the character drifts into her reverie about a warm, comfy place. It gets its playfulness quotient.
The musicians are first rate. Pianist-arranger John di Martino provides attentive, simpatico settings that embrace the storylines of the material caringly and carefully. Though he's a prodigiously skilled jazzman who can be very cerebral, fleet in side trip improvisations, he's more reserved and cinematically sketching here. Joined by the excellent bassist Neil Miner and superb sax player Harry Allen (who gets many tasty moments that add much flavor), the band is completed with the percussion players Manolo Badrena and sensitive drummer Tim Horner. The playing throughout is same-page thoughtful and resonant with the exquisite vocals.
The only way Lost in Languid Love Songs loses its way is in the credits, with several songwriter credits having spelling errors or being incomplete. But there's no sense of incompleteness or inattentiveness with the way these languid love songs, a rewarding world to be willingly lost in.