First this week, a look at Look for Me by Jenny Giering, known as a musical theater writer but here singing non-theater songs she wrote. Then, a look back at some theater scores, stirring up some memories. Our "Under the Radar" vocal CD has several songs about looking back on past experiences.
The first thing I did after playing Jenny Giering's debut solo album the first time was to simply play the whole thing again. There were a few reasons. On some songs, I had been paying attention to her vocal qualities at the expense of really concentrating on the material because I find her voice so attractive and emotional; it has a mix of vulnerability and strength that shouldn't co-exist but do. Other tracks set me to dwelling on certain melodic or lyric lines that grabbed me because they were especially intriguing, and I knew I had missed something in the middle. Several times, I just had trouble catching some words (the miking and diction aren't perfect, but the intelligent and precise word choices are worth the leaning in).
A few of the songs are familiar from in-person performances or earlier recordings: "I Will Follow" is on Audra McDonald's first CD; "I Can't Walk On" was on last year's N.E.O. (New, Emerging, Outstanding) multi-artist concert CD. Some listeners are familiar with Jenny's voice from the Windflowers album, the songs of Jerome Moross. Others know her as a musical theater composer (The Mistress Cycle, Caraboo: Princess of Javasu and others).
The material here is not from her theater work, but these are adult, emotional songs with clear attitudes and points of view. They tend to be reflective and examine a specific moment or mood. The opener is especially accessible ("Burning the Days") with a series of short phrases nicely balanced with longer, sustained notes later on as the song builds. "Sea Prayers" is one of Jenny's most attractive and evocative songs, with its celebration of true contentment, and she captures that feeling in her voice.
The title song is the only collaboration, featuring a sensitive lyric by Sean Barry, Jenny's husband, and is the only track just with piano accompaniment. Otherwise, Brendan Milburn of the band GrooveLily (who play on the CD, along with Tim Lefebvre on bass and guitarist Chris Tarrow) arranged and produced.
She makes a strong impact both as a writer and singer, thoughtful and passionate in both roles.
SALVATION (ORIGINAL OFF-BROADWAY CAST)
KISMET (STUDIO CAST)
all on DRG Records
DRG Records has reissued three cast albums originally on Capitol Records. For a while, all were available on CD on the Angel label, too. Based on the novel about an idealistic Irishman, Three Wishes for Jamie is robust and romantic; Off-Broadway's Salvation is all rock and religion; and then there's the rich and regal Kismet score heard in a 1964 studio version. These very different offerings have one thing in common: strong singing that offsets some drawbacks. Heard again in 2006, each feels very much like a product of its time rather than being timeless, but quite enjoyable as the aural snapshot that it is.
Broadway leading man John Raitt is the main attraction of Three Wishes for Jamie. As in his memorably recorded cast album performances and several solo albums, his voice is thrilling on big notes, and he sounds ardent, determined and sincere throughout. This musical is on the gentler side, so there aren't mega-grand dramatic showstoppers. Anne Jeffreys, the female lead, performs with a certain formality that works well enough for the character. She seems more reserved as opposed to aloof, best in her duets with the great Raitt: "My Heart's Darlin'" (the unabashedly lovestruck duet), the theme-reinforcing "It's a Wishing World," and the courting charmer "Goin' on a Hayride." These are highlights of Ralph Blane's score which has some low-key charms and sprightly melodies. Also in the cast contributing some mild comic relief are Bert Wheeler, whose singing ability seems quite limited, and, as a spunky character, Charlotte Rae.
The genuine sweetness and bright energy of this album's 20 tracks make it a generally pleasing listening experience, aided by the arrangements one of the major figures in that field, Robert Russell Bennett. Though not a classic, Three Wishes for Jamie's lack of cynicism is quite refreshing heard with 21st century ears.
There are quite a few recordings of the score of Kismet, and most include more musical numbers than this 1964 studio cast version which only has ten songs. But if you're a fan of Gordon MacRae's solid, heroic vocals (count me in), there's reason to especially want this one: he sings major songs written for both leading male characters. This places him on seven of the tracks, including the finale medley of reprises. This doubling and dominance, combined with the deletions, however, makes for a less "theatrical" listening experience, and he didn't attempt two distinctly different characters.
Opera singer Dorothy Kirsten is heard in the ingenue role with an elegant "Baubles, Bangles and Beads." Frankly, I find MacRae's performances in two of their duets ("And This Is My Beloved" and "Stranger in Paradise") less involved than in solo versions of the same two songs he recorded on his own albums. But he is in terrific voice and I always enjoy these two stars together (they also paired up for studio versions of three Sigmund Romberg operettas). The wise and wistful "Sands of Time" is heard to advantage both in the opening by Richard Levitt and male voices and in the reprise by MacRae. Also heard on the album are Bunny Bishop, Salli Terri and The Roger Wagner Chorale, with an orchestra conducted by Van Alexander, who worked with MacRae on some of his solo albums. The respectful treatments don't stray far from the original blueprints of this Alexander Borodin-derived score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, recorded a decade after its stage debut.
Salvation is the only one of these three reissues to reappear with tracks not on the original vinyl release. (They were on the long-extinct format of eight-track tape cartridge.) Interestingly, they are the ones that least fit this 1969 show's billing as a "rock musical." One is the fun "Footloose and Fancy Free," kind of an old-fashioned vaudeville turn that is quite catchy and cute. The other is an ensemble number called "Schwartz," another bouncy basic melody combined with some much-needed humor in the dialogue between choruses as various religions are broadly spoofed. The final rare track is an opening two-minute instrumental that sets the musical tone for the show, establishing that it will be electric and eclectic, as much bluesy as it is rock.
The musical challenges organized religion and its notions of sin, but has a lot of humanity and emotion under the attacks and satire. Seeking and relishing freedom, including sexual freedom, is the major preoccupation, but more than noisy celebration and revolution come through. There's some dramatic tension and more subtle yearning in the cast performances. The cast includes the show's songwriters, Peter Link and C. C. Courtney. (They later wrote a show that lasted only three days but produced a cast recording, The Earl of Ruston, in which they also appeared as did five of their six Salvation co-stars. Link also composed the music for King of Hearts.) Sounding very much like the product of its rebellious era that it was, Salvation is a somewhat uneven listen. Some of it seems almost quaint, some retains a certain fresh energy and vigor. And some is like the emperor's new clothes: stripped of shock value and the daring it wore so proudly, some is revealed to be rather bare - just not that interesting musically or lyrically. Still, it's an interesting and often entertaining time capsule and confrontation, searching for identity and lust will never really go out of style.
These reissues all sound quite good in their current incarnation, produced for reissue by Hugh Fordin, with Jim Kelly as associate producer. The accompanying booklet notes stress the interesting sagas of the shows' histories, concentrating on the critics' reactions and any roadblocks on the road to opening. The Three Wishes for Jamie booklet is minus a somewhat more detailed synopsis of the plot that had been on the vinyl reissue put out by DRG (then using the Stet label name), and I had to pull out my old vinyl album of Salvation to see who sang what song as that information is not on the CD.
Reissues bring both rediscoveries and reassessments; I hadn't listened to any of these in recent memory and found myself appreciating their strengths and theatricality more, slightly differently, through the periscope of time. Three cheers to DRG for three albums that deserve to be back in circulation.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a singer whose album favors the bittersweet moods that can come when looking back on times and relationships gone by. He draws from musical theater, film songs and pop.
His name is Perry Wood and he's an emotional singer. There's no doubt where his heart is: it's right there on his sleeve. Most of the renditions are imbued with lots of passion and an extra serving of reflection. This oh-so-serious fellow never hesitates to examine a sweet moment or a hurt. The stoic, macho card is not in his deck. Sometimes it's heavy going. With a handkerchief at the ready during the saddest moments, he tends to breathily opt for dramatic readings, painstakingly slowly wringing out a lot from each word on some lines. It works, but a little goes a long way. This is sometimes done at the expense of the pure musical values, but it's a choice that speaks perhaps of his penchant for crawling inside the lyric and unraveling it step by step. It's a trait that's more common among singers with limited musicality, but Perry is not in that category. He has many attractive tones in his voice, control and strength that he doesn't really exploit.
There's some refreshing energy and more dynamic singing on "The Last Night of the World" (Miss Saigon) and the peppy Nat King Cole hit "Orange Colored Sky." I respect and enjoy the tender laments that dominate the album and the willingness to go for honest, deeply felt sensitivities. Things feel more lugubrious than they need to because the accompaniment is, for the most part, very low energy and sometimes plodding. Richard Callaci is the only musician, playing keyboards as an accompanist rather than a creative musical partner. He shows more presence or sensitivity on a few tracks, such as the medley of "Old Friend" (from I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road) and "I'll Be Seeing You."
The album's title comes from a line in the lyric of "Here's to Life," a song tailor-made for Perry's preference for looking back and forward with the utmost sincerity and he does so. Another turn-the-pages-of-the-scrapbook-one-by-one feel comes from "Places That Belong to You," the theme from the film The Prince of Tides directed by and featuring Barbra Streisand. The Streisand influence is felt in the interpretation of this and the 1930s standard "For All We Know." (Neither was heard in the film, but her vocals for both are on the soundtrack album.) Likewise, his phrasing of "A House Is Not a Home" owes something to the songstress's recording, which she did in a medley with another number by the same writers, Bacharach and David. Though Perry sings this on its own, the title phrase of the other, "One Less Bell to Answer," is retained on piano in the opening and closing. There are some Michael Feinstein stylings as well, but he doesn't slavishly copy either.
This is a good late-night, rainy night, lonely night album. With all the heartfelt singing and memory embraces from "The Hungry Years" to "When October Goes," it might even keep your winters warm.
And now that it's September, we can also look forward to some intriguing albums promised for release during this somewhat busier release season.