The first days of September found me examining four CDs that look back over decades. We have a British musical that reached back a century for inspiration, and singer who's closing in on her own centennial. Another vocalist goes back to the recordings from a half a century ago to honor a jazz legend. And also from the 1950s, recordings packaged with the remake of a story about 80 years old. That's a lot of looking back, but they're well worth the look ... and the listen.
Here's the story of the story that became and begat a musical called Bashville. Way back in 1882, George Bernard Shaw wrote a novel about boxing which tried to also throw a few satirical punches at British society. Hardly a knockout, it was turned down by publishers for years. In 1901, the writer, who once wanted to be a professional boxer himself, adapted his story as a play which didn't get much attention either. A revival in 1982 led to this musical adaptation the next season. A lot can happen in one hundred years!
The British cast album recorded when the show opened has made its way to CD just this year. With very accessible music by Dennis King and lyrics by Benny Green emphasizing "bright" over "bite," it's a diverting dalliance. If you're looking for an old- fashioned musical comedy, look no further. Complete with a title song you can hum before you've come to the last chorus, there's a familiar feel about the proceedings. For the most part it's likable and perky. The composer's own orchestrations employ many signature musical theater techniques to "sell" a melody. You'll hear echoing of musical phrases, a stop-time chorus, themes and variations, percussive "pow" endings crescendoing . Not that there's anything wrong with that!
No, there are no amazing voices here. In fact, there are some sweet-intended vocal moments that seem musically sour to my ears, singers sounding strained or tired. (Norman Newell produced the original vinyl pressing, and the quality is not up to the standards of recording JAY Records has in its own originals by label head John Yap.)
There is much to enjoy, with solid melodies. I like the boxer becoming infatuated with the name of the leading lady, "Lydia." In the tradition of "Maria" in West Side Story ("the most beautiful sound I ever heard") and "Rosemary" from How To Succeed ..., it's a charmer. As Lydia, Christina Collier fares less well with material and singing strength. The songs commenting on class distinction are highlights and, as often happens in comedies of manners, the servants are more colorful and get better lines than the rich. The titular character is a footman (also in love with heiress Lydia) who was not in the original novel. He becomes the center of attention but has only one solo, "Because I Love Her," and Douglas Hodge makes it a standout. You may find yourself wishing he gets the girl who seems to be in love with the pugilist, hoping she'll "think outside the box-er."
Golden Boy and The Body Beautiful excepted, the boxing ring is a rare setting for a musical, but this one has a familiar ring to it. In this period piece, boxing is not a socially acceptable profession. True love is the heavyweight champ. Hardly groundbreaking, but catchy and with sprinklings of wit, this is the guilty pleasure of the week.
DANNY THOMAS & PEGGY LEE
Reaching back more than half a century, the ever-resourceful Sepia label has dusted off some recordings by Peggy Lee and Danny Thomas. Their careers intersected when they were teamed for the second version of The Jazz Singer as a movie musical. With a mixed bag of music old and new, it came between between the Al Jolson vehicle (movies with sound? what a concept!) and the later retread for Neil Diamond and Sir Laurence Olivier. You'll note that the word "soundtrack" is not used here. You won't be getting the music as heard in the 1953 film, nor will you get all the songs used. To make a long story short, the stars had recording contracts with different companies; in the old days, the main songs were often re-recorded in studios in more "commercial" versions. So you won't hear the two singing together at any point. The bonus tracks outnumber the film tunes, but let's start with the music connected to the movie.
On the CD, you get just a bit of the flavor of this strife-laden, tear-jerking story of a Jewish man who eschews the path his father planned - following in his footsteps as a cantor - in order to be a popular singer. There are two sung Jewish prayers recorded with a choir and Danny Thomas. Making the point of the culture clash, the devotional opening prayer is abruptly followed by the sassy, interpolated Cole Porter classic "Just One of Those Things" in the capable musical hands of Peggy Lee. Also on the menu is her big, sizzling hit variation on "Lover" (Rodgers and Hart). Always a capable songwriter, Peggy Lee also wrote one of the film's numbers, "This Is A Very Special Day," a perk-yourself-up, rose-colored-glasses kind of tune which each star sings solo. Danny Thomas isn't much of a "jazz singer" but gets through a few other numbers, including "The Birth Of The Blues" with a little charm and a little chutzpah and maybe the aforementioned prayer helping. As evidenced by his musical side trips throughout his main career as a comedian, with solo albums and singing for an animated TV musical with daughter Marlo, the man was an old-fashioned, all-around entertainer.
Veteran composer Sammy Fain composed three solid, attractive melodies represented in the Jazz Singer segment and another of his tunes shows up in one of the Thomas bonus tracks, "I Went Merrily, Merrily On My Way" from the movie The Unfinished Dance. The lyrics there are by his "I'll Be Seeing You" lyricist Irving Kahal, but words to the Jazz Singer Fain strains are by Jack Seelen, who co-wrote a handful of the rather goofy but likable special material comedy Danny Thomas numbers. The other writers for those are orchestra leader Carmen Dragon and Danny himself. Hardly essential listening, but they're harmless fun. To give you some idea, the dated, daffy Danny doings have titles like "Anyone With A Million Dollars Can Be A Millionaire" and "Archeologist's Lament."
Speaking of archeology, ten hard-to-find Peggy Lee singles are a pop music fan's real buried treasure here. Primarily breezy and occasionally a bit cheesy, what we have here is not the best of her best, but these 1947-1952 tracks are all sung well. Of special Broadway note is the inclusion of "Goin' On A Hayride" from Ralph Blane's score to Three Wishes For Jamie. There's one tune by Miss Lee and her then-husband, guitarist-songwriting partner Dave Barbour whose playing is also heard on a few cuts. Their original tune is "That Ol' Devil (Won't Get Me)." With 28 tracks, this disc is another well-stuffed welcome trip to the past.
I have no idea what soprano Marta Eggerth is singing about on most of her 2-CD set, but it sounds lovely. The reason I'm at a loss is that it's mostly in foreign languages. Nevertheless, this historic retrospective and the silvery tones can't help but impress. Most of the selections are from operettas, the "parent" of the musical theater form.
Ninety-three years young and still working, Marta Eggerth has been singing for a very long time, with occasional forays into musical theater. Unfortunately for us, the album does not include songs from those shows - Follies, which she did in Pittsburgh, the Jones/Schmidt Colette or the Rodgers and Hart musical Higher And Higher. Yes, she was in the original cast of that in 1940. The earliest recordings pre-date even that decade, with two dozen songs from the 1930s. They include impressive, well-restored souvenirs featuring the music of such writers as Robert Stolz, Johann Straus II and Franz Lehár (in the 1930s and a medley from The Merry Widow, recorded at age 87). The album opens with opera favorites from The Barber of Seville and La Bohème.
Both lighter melodies and dramatic singing with notes in the stratosphere, the songs are something to behold. Considering the age of most of the material, the sound quality is quite good. Most of the tracks are with orchestra.
Judy Garland fans may remember Miss Eggerth singing in two movies: Presenting Lily Mars and For Me And My Gal, but, alas, those songs are absent as well. The only bone thrown to post-operetta musicals is "Married" from Cabaret. This and the songs recorded in the later decades, naturally, show a changing voice with a wider vibrato and deeper sound, but it's still a joy. If you never cared for operetta and the thrills of trills, this won't convert you. For me, it's an interesting time travel with a generous sampling of music from filmed operettas (she was kept busy!) and some in-person recordings. Even those with minimal acquaintance with the classics may hear melodies they didn't know they knew.
Although there are no translations included, there is a booklet with photos and a detailed history of Eggerth's career, including work with her husband, tenor Jan Kiepura. It's all lovingly (co-)written by their son, Marjan Kiepura. He is a pianist and accompanies her on a few Chopin melodies.
UNDER THE RADAR
(Our regular feature on a more "quietly" released CD is a real quiet one this time.)
Any album saluting the wonderful jazz trumpeter and sometime singer Chet Baker gets my attention and my ear. It's a pretty safe bet you'll start with top-drawer and emotional material in any case, as he favored well-crafted, plaintive melodies and lyrics. Once again, I bring you good news: this is a keeper.
June Bisantz Evans works primarily as a visual artist, although in my eclectic collection of old vinyl, I have some 1980s recordings under the group name "Mister Spats" with June as the lead vocalist and co-writer of the jazzy songs. She's made a few recordings, including a solo album 10 years ago. This new CD revisits some standards with Baker's low-key, languid style in mind, but comes across as just plain warm rather than warmed-over.
What's been included in June's tunes? Not the expected Chet signature "Let's Get Lost," and the album title doesn't mean you get the standard "Let's Fall In Love" either (it refers to the key line in the opener "For Heaven's Sake"). There are 12 tracks, all strong entries. Classics such as a slow, reflective "Come Rain Or Come Shine," shorn of its intrinsic determination, are attractive in their own way. Another Broadway number is "I've Never Been In Love Before" from Guys And Dolls which also takes its time but is worth the time it takes: it's drenched in romance. Two show tunes from Rodgers and Hart, "My Funny Valentine" and "Blue Room," also make for slo-mo happy moods.
June evokes Chet Baker's small voice and tender, thoughtful phrasing and is aided by the skilled Gabor Viragh standing in as the trumpet and fluegelhorn man. However, her singing does not have the hard-to-capture vulnerability and aching melancholy that made Chet's voice so nakedly emotional. Sorrow and fragility do not overwhelm the atmosphere even though they linger at the edges. Although she sounds quite sensitive and thoughtful, her own timbre conjures up a person with more emotional distance and perspective. In fact, there's an older-but-wiser maternal presence, a bit in the later Rosemary Clooney mold. Her timbre also reminds me of Nancy Wilson, even more so in the Mister Spats work where she used more voice. Some may find the "smallness" of the vocal sound, not sustaining notes or having much variety in dynamics underwhelming, but hearing this when you're in the mood for something gentle and soothing works well for me. Try it as a hangover cure!
In preparing to write this comparison study, I also went back and re-listened to some Chet Baker vocals I hadn't heard for a while. It was a refreshing refresher course, but confirmed that this is not a knockoff copy nor a radical departure. The essence is there, but there's some freshness, too. The good taste and subtle, skilled playing from the band members here should not be underestimated. The players are to be commended. In addition to the aforementioned brass player, pianist Alex Nakhimovsky is quite wonderful and gets ample opportunity to be heard and add to the classy environment. Guitarist Norman Johnson, drummer Greg Caputo and bass player Genevieve Rose complete a pleasing picture.
Autumn promises some cool things, and I don't just mean the weather. Check back each Thursday here ... I'll be listening for you.