In addition to cast albums, regular readers of this column know that more often than
not, female vocalists are featured. The reason is simply that more female theater performers
tend to record solo CDs. It's a happy job putting the spotlight on them, but
this week's roster is all male. So, as Linda Eder's character sang in Jekyll And
Hyde, "then, bring on the men!" (Things will change next week; in fact, Miss
Eder's new solo album is on tap for review then.) But meanwhile.....
Every once in a while, a work comes along that feels especially "real." Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt is finely crafted and artistically put together, yet seems very organic and natural. The emotions in the lyrics and how they're performed are naked even though they are matched with outstanding musical dressing and crisp production. If this all sounds self-contradictory, allow me to explain. The songs, especially as sung from the gut by their author, Brian Lane Green, concern big feelings - anguish, loss, love, and self-acceptance. Many allusions to nature and comments that seem like pages ripped from a diary add to the sincerity and lend a confessional tone. The rhymes aren't forced and don't draw attention to themselves. The singer has a big, powerful voice but he uses it to bring out the text, not to show off and impress. But impress he does.
If something seems to be missing, it's because Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt was written as a score. Presented on stage in the past, it involved several characters of different generations with a non-linear story. The material has apparently gone through many changes and this album is not being presented as a theater piece. The liner notes reveal the genesis but don't discuss the characters and plot.
Brian sings all the songs with a little help from his friends. His theatrical know-how does come through - he's performed on Broadway in three shows (Starmites, Big River, The Life) and toured in Joseph. He uses his voice like a laser beam to zero in on specific words and moments that might be lost with another performer as it would be tempting to go for melodrama here.
Suffice to say that the material is sweeping at times and in other moments intimate and tender. Subject matter ranges from especially hard recovery from loss to family - life lessons about perseverance from a grandmother and a father and son who are both gay. Struggle might be the main topic, but overall it's empowering.
The contributions - or rather, collaboration - by Johnny Rodgers can not be overestimated. His musical command has been demonstrated this year with his own excellent debut vocal album A Box Of Photographs and arranging and producing Lee Lessack album of duets, In Good Company. (Label owner Lee sang duets with Brian, Johnny and others). The same superb band appears on all three recordings, and here guitarist Joe Ravo (displaying even more versatility), drummer Danny Mallon and bassist Brian Glassman are joined by string players on half of the ten tracks. It's all supremely arranged by Johnny, who also does background vocals (and vocal arrangements, with Brian). Johnny's arrangements and piano work are masterful. The material is so well shaped, with accents, supportive underpinning and drive. He brings a lot to the already full table.
The especially effective group vocals on "Home" also feature one of Johnny's co-writers, young Brian Wilson, and the soaring high tones of New York cabaret singer Scott Coulter. They're joined by six more voices on the inspirational "Grandma's Song," one voice belonging to executive producer Kristen Coury.
Part song cycle, part theatrical experience, part symphony, it's all heart.
It's always good news when a performer stretches and grows rather than relying on what has worked before. Jeff Harnar's new CD reveals a maturity and depth, and the arrangements are simply sensational; they have punch and are full of creative ideas. He's smart to hold onto his long-time musical partner, Alex Rybeck, who not only plays piano but also co-produced (with Jeff), arranged, orchestrated and conducted a terrific-sounding 13-piece orchestra (on two selections, an additional string or brass player is added).
Jeff's past work has always been polished and entertaining. Gracious charm and smiling boy-next-door "niceness" kept his shows and albums primarily in a bright and breezy feel, and he's a pro. His earlier themed albums (lively tributes to Sammy Cahn, the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies, pop and Broadway hits circa the late 1950s) are all swell. He's been there, done that. Without completely shedding his old skin, he's showing more of what he can do. Case in point: the title song. The Howard Dietz lyric is so often glossed over, despite its statement that "time hurries by, we're here and gone," without knowing what life is all about. Jeff's phrasing is thoughtful, neither overwhelmed by the questions nor possessing of all the answers. Alex's setting is a major asset from the very first seconds, establishing tension and a brooding, foreboding feel. Together, they give the words and the majestic Arthur Schwartz melody the weight they deserve. The same songwriters' "By Myself" can be either an anthem of self-reliance or defiance in the face of loneliness. This version lands somewhere in between and I'm not convinced but there's exciting vocal power that compensates. More successful, as I hear it, is "Lonely Town." The Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer "How Little We Know" takes a fascinating approach, as it's usually interpreted as quite optimistic about a new relationship. Jeff and Alex more than hint at the other potential outcome, underscoring the fact that the parties don't know enough to assume all will end happily ever after. With the same skills as shown in "Dancing In The Dark," they find a sober, eyes-wide-open hesitancy. The ending repeating the words "how little we know" a couple of times is to me unnecessary as they'd already made the point so well.
"You Can Do No Wrong," from the film The Pirate is a fresh choice. Whether revisiting two Broadway songs from their first album ("Love, Look Away" from Flower Drum Song and "I Say Hello" from Destry Rides Again) or other pages from The Great American Songbook ("Blue Skies," a Gershwin medley), Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck are on the same page. One track, "Taking a Chance on Love," has an orchestration by Ken Mullin, and Jeff does some of lyrics not usually recorded.
Since the singer is often found on luxury liners crooning romantic numbers for those floating around the world, I suspect it's no coincidence that he was attracted to the film Romance On The High Seas. He chooses its song with the following sarcastic suggestion for handling romance's trappings: "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie It With a Ribbon" ("...and throw it in the deep blue sea"). It reminds me of seeing a bit of this mischievous side with acerbic Noel Coward material in the ongoing Monday night "Cabaret Cares" charity series at the Hideaway Room at Helen's. Next month he'll be in town in a Kurt Weill concert with Andrea Marcovicci and Maude Maggart at the 92nd Street Y. (Details are at his website www.jeffharnar.com).
Clearly the writers of the "Golden Age" have a champion, another new album of old standards. Now if we can only get Harnar to harness his energies with some worthy new songs next!
JON PHILIP ALMAN
Unlike those famous Wizard-seeking travelers in the land of Oz, Jon Philip Alman doesn't need to ask for home, courage, heart and complex thinking skills. He shows he understands what the feeling of "being home" means in the title song, which he wrote himself. Wanting a home with a life partner is the agenda when Jon revisits "Just Like Our Parents," a number from a musical he was in, The Ballad of Little Mikey by Mark Savage. His other choices and interpretations show he he has a large supply of each, making for a very grown-up and sometimes intense debut album.
Having the courage and self-confidence to take charge of life is well explored in David Friedman's persuasive "Trust The Wind," and "Taking The Wheel" by John Bucchino who makes a guest appearance to accompany the singer on his carpe diem push for confidence. Intellectual analysis of motivations for major life choices is evident in "Past Perfect" by David Snyder, pianist and arranger for all the other 14 songs, and "Straits of Magellan" by Charles Bloom. There is heart and emotion pouring out of this album, worn on Jon's sleeve and in often delicate, shaded singing. Unexpressed emotion is the subject of "If These Walls Could Speak," by Jimmy Webb while Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" is an unrestrained celebration of happiness. Jon does well by all these songs, each written by a composer penning his own lyrics.
Christine Ebersole makes an elegant appearance duetting on "Come to My Garden" from the Broadway musical The Secret Garden. From the much-talked-about musical miss Carrie comes "When There's No One." "Why Do People Fall in Love?" from the Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy score to Havana is here as well. "Painted From Memory" by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach is a smart choice as is "Where've You Been?" for I think that Jon's greatest strength is with story songs that follow characters through chapters of life. He never loses the thread, and knows how to build to a "pow" and when to hold back vocally. He and David Snyder also know how to use a pause for dramatic effect. Much of the singing is gentle, but the guy has power when he chooses to use it and there are some big stirring vocal climaxes.
The album is heavy on psychologically complex tales of mixed emotions. More straightforward, happier moments are "I Hear Bells" (David Shire/ Richard Maltby, Jr. from Starting Here, Starting Now) and South Pacific's "Younger Than Springtime," are present, too. They could have been welcome respite from the more emotionally demanding ones if they weren't the first and third songs; I would have reshuffled the order. The songs may be heavy, but they aren't all heavy on sorrow, so that adds some variety. Since all tracks are piano-only, there isn't a change of pace accompaniment-wise either, though David Snyder and Jon make a good team and are in step with each other. Actually, I would have liked a few more instrumental breaks.
This is not an album for background listening; it demands intellectual engagement. People who are reluctant to reach for their own hearts or Kleenex will resist it. The rest of us will be glad to have another set of mature songs thoughtfully performed. When all is sung and done, it's an especially life-affirming experience that will stick with you.
AARON WEINSTEIN (VIOLIN) & BAND
Although the very skilled and energetic violinist Aaron Weinstein is only 19 years old, this isn't his first recording. His website reveals the seeds and the CD hints strongly at the future. When most of his Illinois high school classmates were worried about proms, papers and pimples, Aaron was in recording studios making a couple of albums and playing in bands, ready to go on tour. He's currently studying at the Berklee School of Music and is getting increasing attention from jazz fans and jazz musicians. From the moment you listen to a cut from his new CD A Handful of Stars, you'll understand why. His playing is exciting and highly entertaining, accessible to listeners beyond a "hard core" jazz mindset. Aaron shows respect for the melody lines but takes a listener on nifty little musical mini-side trips, too. He plays with happy abandon but also with obvious care and attention.
Aaron has enlisted some well-traveled big-name musicians to join him ("a handful of stars" to be sure). On numerous occasions, he has played live with the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli who is - hooray! - on most of the tracks here, including the opener, an irresistible grab of a ride on the standard "After You've Gone" along with son John Pizzarelli. Bucky sits out on two tracks where John is on guitar, the lively Brazilian "Samba de Orfeu" from the film Black Orpheus and "Let's Get Lost." John sings the Jimmy McHugh/Frank Loesser collaboration, the album's only vocal, with subtlety and great sensitivity. Tenor sax man Houston Person, who's been around for many years as sideman, leader and a notable 30-year partnership with singer Etta James, is on only four tracks. Fortunately, though, one of them is "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" which ends the album in a treatment that's nearly 13 minutes long and does not wear out its welcome. Drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Nicki Parrott (one of the very few women making a credited appearance in this week's albums) add to the joy and jump on nine of the twelve selections, making "Let's Get Lost," the movie song "Pennies From Heaven" and the Gershwin classic ballad "Someone to Watch Over Me" the smaller-group pieces. (Aaron also appears on Legends with Skitch Henderson and A Handful of Stars guitarists and bass player, among others.)
The title song is just one more fun frolic, and there is even a cool "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from Disney's animated Cinderella. This is a let's-play-it-again kind of album. Aaron shows sensitivity on the ballads, but things never slow down for long. This is high-octane good-time jazz with the focus on an instrument that just happens to be a violin.UNDER THE RADAR
The weekly look at a new album with some high points but not a high profile. .
I have a feeling I may be recommending Jim Van Slyke's second CD much more than this one, but he hasn't made it yet. He shows potential and has some things going for him, but I don't think Open Road fully taps that. I'm interested in his work because I think he has an appealing vocal quality which is sincere and sweet, and the best parts of this CD are quite likable. Jim's background includes vocal coaching and work in operas and musicals, so it's a bit surprising that a lot of this is light pop music. His unpretentious and clean voice cuts through every other distraction on the recording.
Jim is at his best with some of the uncluttered settings here. I find some of the back-up vocals distracting and unnecessary and some of the instrumental arrangements far more successful than others. The Bee Gees' "Nights on Broadway" only makes me wish he'd sing some Broadway songs, and his inclusion of theater music in his live act underscores that. He's touring now and will land in Manhattan at The Triad on November 7. The Peter Allen/ Carole Bayer Sager song "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love," heard on Broadway in The Boy From Oz, is well done with emotion and class. Right before that, another song about taking a leave is one of the thinner tunes from the Barry Manilow catalog. Heard back to back, it's frustrating to see how much more he can do with a meatier piece of material, making the other seem like a waste. Jimmy Webb's "I Don't Know How to Love You Anymore" also brings out some drama and gives him more to work with - another highlight. Three pop songs I'm fond of, "Summer Breeze," "Sailin'" and "Moondance" are good to hear, even if they are done in the blueprint of the hit versions.
"Kiss Me in the Rain," a number I wasn't crazy about on Barbra Streisand's Wet album years ago, comes off surprisingly well. Simpler and more innocent, it's actually more romantic. "When The Bartender Cries" is a new one to me and it's well suited to Jim's voice and manner. The opening Open Road is an original by Jim which serves as a friendly introduction to this warm-spirited performer. He plays his own piano accompaniment on this and three other cuts. Otherwise, the pianist is Bill Stanley who is usually joined by bass and drums, except for two tracks with guitar.
Open Road evidences a man on the road to bigger and better things.
So ends this rare column with all guys ... and they proved to be a rather tender gender
in this grouping. Emotion and sensitivity abounds. You'll often find it here with
recommended recordings. I'll be listening for you.