Sound Advice Reviews
"Holiday" Music (not that kind ... it's too early)
We have some weeks before we get to the annual holiday fare, but first we turn our attention to two other albums with other "Holiday" fare: It's the intriguing cast album from the recently-closed new musical Death Takes a Holiday, which some may find surprisingly full of life. And then, an appealingly lively live album that is a tribute to jazz legend Billie Holiday, from veteran jazz singer Rebecca Kilgore.
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY
Get ready, get set to suspend your disbelief even more so than usual in getting into a new, long-aborning musical. A sense of realism and expected reactions (for characters and audiences) takes a holiday if you want to get into Death Takes a Holiday. There are rewards to engage your mind in other ways, emotionally; and the part of your brain that responds to the glories of music will get stimulation aplenty. The character of Death, as in the Grim Reaper, lets us reap many rewards as he literally goes on a holiday from claiming souls to claiming himself some down time in human disguise, passing himself off as a prince and enjoying the hospitality of some rich folks in their well-appointed digs. Previous incarnations of the odd but oddly compelling story have appeared in different languages, with non-musical stage plays, and a film. Still set in the 1920s, the story may be unique, but Maury Yeston's score uses some musical theatre forms that are traditional: florid and flowing operetta-style romantic duets, melodramatic breast-beaters, bouncy "take home" tunes, a snazzy and jazzy number and, sometimes involving Death himself, sincere ballads of love that isforgive the expressionundying (it's meant to be oh so true in this case). One moment dignified and dark, the next spunky and sprightly, the score by turns throbs, twinkles and soars.
As captured on CD, with a vocally blessed cast, there's some rich, radiant and robust singing. The optimist who enjoys a wide range of styles (I'm in that camp) might invoke the phrase of recommendation, "There's something for everyone"; a pessimist may grumble that the score is too much all over the musical map. Perhaps once one gets through the first listen and accepts this variety, and the atypical nature of the tale itself, the songs and performances can feel like familiar friends whose company one wants to return to. After all, that's what it comes down to in owning and re-playing cast albums, as compared to an initial exposure of the score in the theatre or on recording.
As the mother still mourning the loss of her son, Rebecca Luker is heartbreaking but calibrated on "Losing Roberto." While all cast members are undeniably in character for this piece, some definitely have a challenge; they have to portray those for whom love is both blind and something that blindsides them. However, as they declaim devotion to last forever and ever and ever, they sing so fervently that we are led to accept what's real to them. And certainly Kevin Earley, as Death in his usual guise and his surprise delights found in human form, has a field day in this Holiday, dynamic and demanding attention at all times. Even on disc, he pulls off the neat trick of making us "see" him as both the specter and spectacularly happy fellow reveling in his new-found temporary human form. Taking on mortal form, he bursts with giddy excitement in newly experiencing emotion and the senses in "Alive!" His glee and the sparkle of the melody make this a spectacular highlight. ("Starting with the sunlight streaming/ And warming up my skin and beaming/ Within me this new glow/ Of coming alive!"). The exuberance of this sixth track is immediately expanded upon by the group number that follows and follows suit: "Joy" ("Life prevails/ In details").
Jill Paice, with a soprano that can be delicate or powerfully passionate, skillfully navigates her major role of Grazia, the ingénue. She's convincingly full of wonder or confusion or determination as her character reacts to a wide variety of situations and finds herself attracted to the title character, though she thought she was happily engaged to someone else. That fiancé is played by golden-voiced, vibrant Max von Essen, who, alas, doesn't get all that much to sing in solo lines, but he shines.
There are several strong turns of widely varied tone as different elements and personalities are spotlighted so strongly that we momentarily forget the ever-thickening plot (it's synopsized in the booklet with all the lyrics, but much is clear from what we hear). As a character entering late in the story, Matt Cavenaugh delivers a searing solo with "Roberto's Eyes." Don Stephenson does some delicious and welcome comic relief, as he finds out that "Death Is in the House" and he entertainingly flips out, as the head-more-on-his-shoulders head of household, the fine Michael Siberry, provides some contrast. An appealingly quaint and gentle moment, shall we say a "senior moment," unlike any other, comes with the "December Time" duet for Linda Balgord and Simon Jones.
As befits this story, the 13-piece (five string players) orchestra sounds sumptuous and splendidly old-fashioned on the more traditional pieces full of fervor, without going whole hog on soupiness or sappiness for easy button-pushing. The zingy '20s-flavored "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree" has the required chipperness. There are such perky pleasures and respites, but it's the heavier-duty dirges and declamations that dominate over the ditties. Whether you are swept away by or feel saddled by doses of lament and sentiment, buoyed or bothered by the bounce and ballads, it's difficult to deny the often life-affirming/ life-appreciating qualities that may be the unifying factor that's there after all.
If the Help Wanted ad read, "Vocalist Wanted. Experience and excellent intonation required. Self-starter and good team player sought. Must swing. No drama queens need apply," singer Rebecca Kilgore would fit the bill. It's been great to find her on the bill a few times at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, where I recently caught her set of songs that Marilyn Monroe sang in films, and this recent release of a show recorded at the classy venue has her equally classy style captured on disc saluting a very different icon. This time, we're considering songs recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday and/or her sax colleague Lester "Prez" Young. Miss Kilgore is a real singer's singer, absent of quirks, tics or tricks, with a notably pure and clean sound and a modest serve-the-song and sail-along-the-music agenda. Thus, her singing voice and persona resemble neither Holiday nor Monroe.
When a tribute/survey is on the table, some of the most rewarding albums for me have not been the paler, close-but-no-cigar approaches of singers who walk tentatively in the big shoes of an icon. Instead, I find that singers who have a wholly different sound and style often bring a whole new element to the songs and make me hear them in a different way, where they might have been dominated by an indelible personality before. Others have done Holiday tributes, but they tend to concentrate on the trademark songs and the sorrowful ones. Not so here. The Kilgorian path and projected personality is a rosier one, and she's wise to set her eyes on the lighter and brighter fare and not the tougher, he-makes-me-suffer-but-I-love-him cries of pain. This is one Billie Holiday salute that certainly doesn't have to come packaged with tissues, razor blades or aspirin, let alone heroin or 800 numbers for heroic rescue services. The included patter makes evident the respect and admiration our current-day lady has for Lady Day, but she doesn't gush. Her speaking voice is crystal clear and smooth, with its excellent diction and grace, just like her singing voice on this and her many other recordings.
Yes, "Them There Eyes" is one of the Billie standbys, but it's the only one Becky (as she's known) sets her sights on, and it's certainly a happy tune. It's given a smooth, carefree ride here, with nice variety in tempo as she and the band play with it. Billie's beginnings are noted with the selection from her first recording sessionand a musical theatre revue, Blackbirds of 1934the charm/novelty number, "Your Mother's Son-In-Law." One of the Kilgore methods seems to be not to condescend to, wink at, or "cute" up a pretty little ditty or to try to deepen it. On these bits of sweetness and sunshine, the singer, band, and listener can all just have funand those of us who admire song construction with dutiful, unforced rhyming/ rhyme schemes or have a soft spot for antiques of a more innocent bygone era can appreciate the solid structure and traditions.
Far and away the standout vocal for me is the convincing and convivial "Getting Some Fun Out of Life," as it is perhaps the best overall fit and the tempo is just so right for song and singer. The creamy and relaxed, dreamy sounds that are the singer's strengths are best showcased here. And there's playfulness without coyness. The band is with her each step for this folksy appreciation of simple pleasures in life and romantic partnership ("When we want to dance, we dance"). Also having contentment content, but not quite as colorful, is "You're a Lucky Guy," an early Sammy Cahn lyric with Saul Chaplin's melody, the sunny side of being cash-strapped. (It always sounds easier in songs.) The closest we get to the looming of gloom or doom is "The Blues Are Brewin'" which comes between the last two mentioned numbers as a change of pace.
The instrumental breaks are rewarding and on the same page, not overly indulgent or esoteric, as befits this mostly upbeat, easygoing affair. In fact, the two purely instrumental tracks stay on the lively and cheerful side. These put the focus on Holiday's friend and historic musical mate, the jazz sax giant Lester Young, with one piece actually composed by him, the quirky "Tickle Toe" which goes on for seven and a half minutes and might make some non-jazz-priority minds wander a bit. The old show tune from No, No, Nanette, "I Want to Be Happy," is the other instrumental, even a little longer, but the varied arrangement with its whirring accelerations and showcasing of instruments is pure pleasure. Tenor sax player Harry Allen is a lithe and prodigious player and especially effective on some supportive, laidback obbligato work. He introduces the instrumentals himself. His quartet is strong, with Joel Forbes on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums, with simpatico and sometimes splashy piano work by Rossano Sportiello.
The sign-off is not a signature piece of either honored artist, but not foreign to the era by any means; it's the ever-reliable exit cue, "I'm Checking Out (Go'om Bye)" by jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The "... Checking Out ..." song may not be on-task, but Rebecca Kilgore, in any company of players or repertoire, is well worth checking out. She's a holiday from the singers who try too hard or swing too hard and don't get out of their own way or the song's way to communicate. I could listen to her soothing and musically astute voice on a daily basis, with no holiday requested.