Sound Advice Reviews
Singers Salute Songwriters with Multiple Collaborators
When it comes to songwriting partnerships, musical "monogamy" is fine, but it's always interesting to view variety: to note how changing partners brings out something different or what becomes recognizable as the trademark. Here are three vocalists saluting their special favorites, major songwriters of standards, with tracks sampling many of those writers' numerous writing teammates.
Procrastination can be a beautiful thing. Since good songs don't age badly, but rather stay fresh and ripely ready for years, awaiting new interpretations, often having aspects and potential previously unexplored, our exposure to previous renditions giving perspective and context. Sometimes, a singer finally getting around to that golden oldie might be worth the waitif that singer can now bring more depth to the song. Barbra Streisand's latest better-late-than-never checklist accomplishment is one of her better recording projects of recent years, all material she has not already recorded. Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman have been represented on many of the Streisand albums, and wrote the score of her film Yentl with frequent collaborator, composer Michel Legrand. Back in the vinyl 1970s, they all began, then shelved, a major album project that was to be a song cycle. This is not that project completed (a handful of its songs were eventually released), but newly-recorded treatments of other songs the Bergmans wrotewith various composers. The only disappointment is that there are only ten songs, though the tracks are on the long side: the first being just under four minutes long and everything else four-minutes-plus, except for the title cut at the end. But what matters most is that they are mostly exquisite, sung with elegance and commitment, a pleasure to hear and treasure. And there's a nice range of material, of higher and lower profile, with eight different composer collaborators' work sumptuously displayed. Although not programmed chronologically, the writing surveyed goes from 1957 to a couple of songs from this century, with each decade in between represented.
To say it's the Bergmans is to make a safe bet that it's ballad heavy, as much of their workprimarily created for filmstends to be very, very romantic, articulate, tender, mature and thoughtful. Recurring themes and images include the passage of time and the seasons, the sun and wind, smiles, loverswith hearts beating togetherlingering in each other's arms, relished relationships lasting ... or examining why they didn't. It can all get very velvet cozy, but this is not simply a series of serious, sweet, snuggle-up songs. There's drama. Vocally, there's some variety and build; this is not all Barbra in low-key contentment, cooing and wooing. While it's not lightning bolts and bravura belting by any means, and restraint is the order of the day, Barbra does show considerable oomph on some numbers, is in very good voice, and there's thoughtful (if sometimes seemingly "studied") phrasing throughout. There are many rewarding moments in her ways of shaping the music and these lyrics she clearly relishes examining and illuminating and embracing.
The CD begins a capella, making it immediately arresting, and putting the focus on the words and the voice, with the arrangement staying mostly spare and having an underlying, sustained tension that serves the song well. The song is one that won the Academy Award, "The Windmills of Your Mind," and Barbra, unlike some predecessors, never gets trapped in its musical structure and melodic repetitions/similarities intentionally meant to create that sweepingly whirling "windmills" effect the lyrics describe (hauntingly "never ending or beginning, like an ever-spinning wheel"). We really hear the lyrics, one by one, image by image, each colored slightly differently, rather than reeled off in tormenting acceleration. It's analysis with time to consider and reflect and feel. And it's gorgeous and vulnerable. Next is the sweet and optimistic "Someone New in My Life," another song whose melody has a strong, evident architecture, one phrase building on the next, with the words "in my life" the anchor, and various words that rhyme with "new" preceding those three. These first two treats have melodies by Michel Legrand.
Also double-dipped is the work of the late composer Lew Spence, the earliest collaborator. The charming "That Face" has his lyrics woven with Alan's, but not Marilyn's (it was written when Alan was courting herhers is that face). Barbra sings it with a playful bounce and glee. The Sinatra hit by Mr. and Mrs. Bergman and Spence, "Nice 'n' Easy" gets rethought here, taken not at the laidback but coolly confident finger-snap happy tempo, but as a slower, gently crooned, legato bit of cotton candy that picks up tempo. These lighter Spence pieces are arranged by Patrick Williams, with Bill Ross doing the settings otherwise, with some sweeping orchestral/string sounds, and star trumpeter Chris Botti guesting on a couple of tracks.
The rhapsodic rushes are lovely and gracefully sung, but rose petals and rose-colored glasses can be, well, a little dull when compared to the numbers with more intrinsic drama, when something is at stake or pleads to be communicated and understood. Thus, the confident, convincing vow that is stated as the David Shire-composed love theme from The Promise, "I'll Never Say Goodbye," is more theatrically thrilling than "The Same Hello, the Same Goodbye" (John Williams) about the grim and painful breakup/makeup/breakup again relationship cycle. When the lyrics repeat, we don't seem to have come to a new discovery and development, just another handkerchief to pull out to cry for the same lesson-not-learned reason. But the cumulative effect has heft, intellectualized emotion aside.
"So Many Stars" (a Sergio Mendes collaboration, permitting a brief flirtation with a few lines in Portuguese) is not thoroughly convincing in bringing out the sense of being overwhelmed, confused or lost by the many possibilities to pursue ("Which one is mine? One must be right for me ... ). Maybe it's just difficult to imagine the accomplished, in-command image of Barbra Streisand approaching the half-century point in her career as someone hesitant to take first steps. Although she relies a bit on some predictable phrasing, repeated acting choices like the breathy suggestion of a little "realization" chuckle (as in "I guess I wanted ... ") and humming, many other moments feel inspired and real. The voice remains a unique, distinctive marvel and the control stunning. The Bergmans' lyrics are very much treated with loving care and are in the spotlightand all in the booklet, along with the mutual admiration society liner notes by the writers and their muse, photos of them through the years, and notes on the actual recording. What Matters Most is a matter of talents all serving each other and lucky listeners.
Note: Also available is a two-CD package with these ten songs, all recorded earlier this year, and ten picked from the many tracks with Marilyn and Alan lyrics which Streisand recorded over the decades.
Although Hoagy Carmichael is mainly represented as a composer in Shannon Forsell's tribute CD The Nearness of You, it's notable that the chosen lyricsby someone different on each of the 11 tracks, including one number that's Carmichael writing alonehave so many of the same images. For example, the first five songs all have the moon mentioned in them, and that's before you even get to "Winter Moon." And there are the similarly-titled songs about being in a state of homesickness about one's home state: "Georgia on My Mind" and "Can't Get Indiana Off My Mind." Maybe it's not a coincidence that the latter feels far more convincing here (it's warm and sublime in every way), as the singer and Carmichael are both from the Hoosier state. I enjoy Shannon's voice, but find some of the tracks more interesting and better at capturing the essence of the writer and the familiar songs. "Georgia on My Mind" resists giving into the same longing and affection connection, seeming almost brittle or noncommittal in some lines, not melting into the memories and wishing or loneliness. Some of her jazzier forays are interesting in their variations within the general on-the-mark mood, while others distract or dilute the flow of melody in a CD meant as a tribute. Some choices pull focus or change character without payoff from the more traditional "down home" feel. Sometimes, the instrumental break breaks the momentum and takes us in another meandering direction. It may be well played or intrinsically appealing musically, but my mind wandered when things felt unfocused. Repeat listenings found this less disconcerting.
Though it's wonderfully enjoyable, the bouncy, frolicsome "Sing Me a Swing Song (and Let Me Dance)," set as the first track, sets a non-representative, thus misleading tone for what's to come. Sure, the songs are mostly familiar, so we know those other songs are very unlikely to be in a similar tempo or mood. But nothing else is like it, so it put me in a mood for another kind of listen. It's also atypical of the rest of the CD in length, at under three minutes, it's the shortest track; most others are well over four minutes long. But tempi vary from track to track, and sometimes within one. "Lazy River" starts attractively slow-ish and lazy, picking up suddenly in the instrumental section, and then Shannon comes back and goes with the flow. The singer is somewhat of a chameleon, and the arrangements, by sax player Bob Dixon, have different characters. She sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool blithe big-band vocalist right out of the gate, gets dark and dusky later, doing a very coolly knowing and sophisticatedly hip "Baltimore Oriole," and goes a ways toward being romantically inclined on the famous title song.
Not one to have her romantic cup running over, or wear her heart completely on her sleeve, Shannon seems to not gush or give in fully to the most sentimental or sorrowful segments. With the famed "Stardust"verse and chorusshe gets some of that, and is thoughtful and more emotionally exposed, although I'm distracted by a few small alterations in words with such a classic. But it is always impressive when a singer can sound involved and fresh in a warhorse.
Some notes are bent or broken up into a little cluster, and she floats easily and attractively over them, with some melody lines accommodating pauses, stretches, and inserts, as well as instrumental side trips and exploration. In the hands of Shannon and her arranger/sax man and the other musicians in the small band, Hoagy's cooler jazz and moody sides get prominence more than his small-town, front porch/hammock/lemonade life in slow lane Americana or the heart-touching wistfulness. Although the title song may protest, "It's not the pale moon that excites me," the two numbers focusing on that object do seem to bring something out in her. "Winter Moon" (written with Harold Adamson) is captivating and involved and the one song with music and lyrics by Carmichael, "Old Man Moon," shines with old-fashioned charm and a real ease.
Shannon, who admits a kindred spirit to Carmichael in the very brief comment inside the package, has so many colors in her voice and a confident air, and I hope she'll continue to grow in lyric involvement. Her "Skylark" misses some of the loneliness and mystique, "sad as a gypsy serenading the moon" put into words by Johnny Mercer. These two non-city boys often brought out the best in each other, and it's worth a listen to catch some of the many sides this lady brings out in Hoagy.
With a few tracks showing skill at storytelling and lyric interpretation, it's interesting to note Shannon's dedication to the world of cabaret, donating money from her sales to the mission and practice of www.TheCabaret.org in Indianapolis.
Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini and other composer collaborators get one nod a piece, and Harold Arlen gets three, on a recent CD honoring that most multi-partnered of all the major lyricists, Johnny Mercer. His centennial may be over, but don't worry about Sam Broverman being late for the party; he gives the CD kind of a party feel with his enthusiasm and zesty way with the songs by this versatile lyricist with a large songbook of accessible songs that have lasted. He is starting kind of late for making a debut CD at age 60, but that may explain his out-of-the-gate readiness to romp.
The Hoagy Carmichael event happens "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" with its ton of fun in rhyming names of foods and party items with names of animals and people, including Mercer having rhymed this Canadian singer's first name with "ham" (and his showy way of singing does make him a bit of a Canadian ham, and a touch salty). The album's title is from the classic "Moon River" (from the Breakfast at Tiffany's film scored by Mancini) and ends a largely satisfying 12-track album on a semi-mellow note. I say semi-mellow because his approach reminds me of a Sammy Davis, Jr. album title: The Wham of Sam, in that he's exuberant and excited ... all of which is terrif on the up-tempo bursts.
I get a kick out of brash, buoyant Broverman, but nuance is not his nature and even the ballads that cry out to be wistful and bittersweet, like "Moon River" and the usually haunting "Laura," seem to have his natural cheeriness obfuscate teariness. He bites into lyrics rather than relishing their subtleties thoughtfully. Mood-wise, he gets the major feel for each song, the big picture, but in coloring it in, he's more like an eager-beaver kid with just that small box of the brightest Crayolas. It is, surprisingly, often good enough, given the other compensations and infectious joy. One major compensation or distraction is the presence of a very good, excitement-generating, kickin' big band.
I do wish the singer would let the deeper emotions settle in and allow room to express them in his phrasing, but I couldn't help liking the guy and his approach. His sound is vibrant, though some phrases betray some rust on those pipes when he sings full out or sustains a higher notehowever, what's absent in purity is usually made up for in his pure joy. And, on the subject of purity, changing and embellishing words may seem blasphemous or cavalier in an album honoring a man as a lyricist (none of the Mercer melodies are here, except "I Wanna Be Around"). However, it's usually confined to the tags at the ends of songs, adding that extra little cherry of top of the sundae. The additions are in the spirit, rhyme, and seem to reinforce the sensibility of a song. They don't jar, they gel. So does the four-line verse he wrote himself, words and music, to set up "I Wanna Be Around," the first line proposed in a fan letter and fleshed out into a full song by Mercer.
Instrumental solos and overall accompaniment are a pleasure to hear, with much variety via different instruments featured from track to track, including producer Ken Whiteley who plays guitar on many tracks, organ on two, and vibes and a nifty ukulele to add nostalgia and sunshine to "I'm Old Fashioned," the sweet Kern confection. (Again, because of the Broverman approach, the declaration of liking sentimental things and Nature more than "passing fancies" is more about stating that preference confidently, not confiding such preferences.) The solos are welcome and well-played throughout, and instruments include violin, trombone, sax, and an atmospheric harmonica on the solid opening cut, "I Thought About You" (Jimmy Van Heusen).
Bravo, Broverman!: Mostly kind words for a fellow who seems to love words, having fun with one of our most prolific men of words. But this certainly won't be the "last word" on Mercer, whose songs, like those of the other writers honored here, are bound to be with us on recordings many times more as the years go by.