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That boy named Pinocchio and
2 men named Mark


Back in 1957, TV audiences were treated to a new musical version of the old story of Pinocchio with Mickey Rooney in the title role as the wooden fellow who learned hard lessons about the downsides of lying, selfishness, and playing hooky on his first day of school's academic lessons. Consider the review our timely back-to-school special. In addition to this tale of the puppet who (spoiler alert) became a real live boy are two real lively singers with new 11-track albums enhanced by a few of the same musicians—Jamieson Trotter, Bob Sheppard, and Larry Koonse, and even the same engineer (Talley Sherwood). Both bespectacled and with the same first name, Mark Winkler and Mark Christian Miller have picked interesting material, including a favorite by their fellow jazzer Bob Dorough.

PINOCCHIO
1957 TV CAST

Masterworks Broadway/Sony

Thoroughly charming and with especially infectious melodies by the versatile Alec Wilder, matched to kid-accessible simple lyrics by William Engvick, the 1957 NBC television version of Pinocchio is a heartwarming winner. The succinct but entertainingly crafted narration on the disc and some underscoring make for a unified, nicely flowing listening experience for all ages. Or, as worded here, "not for everyone—just for children and people who used to be children." One of numerous musical adaptations of the saga that began as a serialized story by Carlo Collodi in Italy many moons ago, this live-action look at the puppet carved by a lonely woodcutter came 17 years after the much better-known Disney animated film. Like that rendition, it uses main plot points from the original, adds some new ideas, softens and sweetens aspects of the cautionary tale, and makes the title character more endearing. Directed by Paul Bogart, the show was "created and staged by" Yasha Frank (scriptwriter), with the moods, merry and mellifluous, enhanced by the knowing work of arranger-conductor Glenn Osser who designed cozy settings for vocal albums by singers such as Johnny Mathis and Doris Day, following work with big-name big bands; he died just last year at age 99.

The souvenir album serves as a self-contained combination of song and storytelling, with Mickey Rooney functioning as narrator for the disc in addition to playing Pinocchio. Greeting the listener, he first acknowledges his own star persona in the casting, saying that some members of the public still think of him as a kid. "Maybe they're right," he allows, and then launches into the gently rhymed narrative in third person with childlike enthusiasm mixed with the point of view of an observer already quite familiar with the plot and the personalities. For example, when he says he'd like to tell us that Pinocchio went straight to school as instructed, he regretfully informs us that such was not the case. Then again, who could resist the cheer personified by the ever-irresistibly perky Stubby Kaye with his sunny depiction of the wonders of the circus coming to town in the peppy "Happy News"? He sings with the buoyant bonhomie reminiscent of his upbeat singing in Guys and Dolls and Li'l Abner from the same decade as this score.

More musical comedy panache is added in two other performances by masters of the trade, sharing melodic content, luring Pinocchio away from school and playing on his naïve nature. With the creature's trademark slyness there's "The Fox's Pitch" for Martyn Green, the veteran star of Gilbert & Sullivan roles, and "The Jolly Coachman" of debonair Jerry Colonna, both seductively appealing to the boy's gullible nature. A fool and his pennies are soon parted and poor Pinocchio is lured to the place touted as pure joy, where those taken in are proved to be fools. (Here it is named Boobyland.) Contrasting with the dazzlingly slick showmanship of these star turns is the sincerity of the puppet's creator/surrogate papa, the kindly and patient Gepetto, Gordon B. Clarke. Crooning his soothing "Lullaby" first to his wooden wonder the night he completes him and oils his mouth, and later to the whale who has swallowed them both, he's a graceful presence. In naming and training his creation, he shares the chipper "Pinocchio's Song" with Rooney, who sings his role in a quirky low-pitched character voice while his narration and recapitulation of others' spoken comments is in the more recognizably Rooney-speak of enthused folksiness. The croaking singing voice chosen for his early appearances is humorous, but one misses Rooney's familiar zesty vocalizing. We do get to hear it later. We also get to hear the cast serenade him with the no-frills cutie called "The Birthday Song."

If you look at the track list on the back of the album or the same at that list with timings added on the inside, you would probably reasonably fret that you'd have a number called "Listen to Your Heart" sung ad nauseum. The title of that melodic moral, introduced by Fran Allison as the Blue Fairy, is given to five of the thirteen tracks, one of which has a timing given of over five minutes. But it's not as powerfully present or repetitious as all that. All timings include the spoken material, and none of that is tracked separately, so the singing is not so long. One rendition is incidental, a reprise actually includes the longish verse not incorporated earlier, and an ironic use is not sung by the Fairy at all, but rather by Rooney and a chorus when turned into the circus's human calliope. Another instance features the melody only briefly as background music, while what's sung is not indicated at all: Rooney with his brief celebratory "Happy News" (with a different lyric than Kaye's). And, since the message/mantra of "Listen to Your Heart" works in the plot as a much-needed, rarely heeded reminder for the boy to do the right thing, it's justified that way and as a wrap-up. And truly welcome and warm are the ultra-clear, rounded tones of the maternal Fran Allison, the beloved human in the trio of the long-running children's TV series "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie." Her co-stars there were also puppets, making her a natural—and a natural choice for such interaction.

The liner notes for this U.S. release are reprinted from the original vinyl LP that had been issued on the Columbia label (pre-stereo). More background was given, along with photos, in the booklet accompanying the release issued by the British label Sepia in 2008, which also included many bonus tracks: eight by Rooney that had originally appeared on an album based on another 1957 TV production, "Mr. Broadway," and six various Fran Allison numbers of earlier vintage.

Besides its distinct characterizations, I also adore the score. Although the Alec Wilder/William Engvick team might be better known for sophisticated and/or bittersweet material favored by jazz singers, these numbers are delicious and captivating, with sparkle and finesse. I found them to be thus when they were my companions when I was a child and was lucky enough to have been presented with the record album, which, for years, was not an easy one to find. And I still find it tickling my adult fancy; if my nose grew with a lie as Pinocchio's did, you would not see it change size as I state that I praise and prize Pinocchio's pleasures.

MARK WINKLER
JAZZ AND OTHER FOUR LETTER WORDS

Café Pacific Records

My idea of a good time is this Mark Winkler disc that from the very, very first moments of its opening number, "My Idea of a Good Time," gives the impression of a solid, well constructed venture—and that impression never needs revising. It's partly the very good timing he and his colleagues so palpably have that make it clear we're in the hands of experts who own their moments with assuredness and no distracting fat on the musical bones. Instrumental solos aren't flashy; these aren't sidemen on meandering musical sidetracks to strut their stuff. It's all of a piece, this admirable and satisfying teamwork.

Album by album, Winkler has been building a steadily stronger body of work. Career highlights over the last decade include a compelling and evocative musical theatre piece (with various collaborators), Play It Cool, about men and women at a gay bar in the cautious, oppressed 1950s; and his CD reimagining the songbook of Laura Nyro. A jazz man to his toes, as a singer and writer he finds warmth and humor in his accessible, irrepressible approach. His deep affection for laidback icons of earlier decades informs and trumpets his very stylish style. But there are no cobwebs to shake off. His joy in embracing his musical forefathers blooms into a fresh contemporary fervor. There's a smile in his music which is contagious.

The musicians' outstanding and facile performances make singer and listener lucky folks indeed. Just to name of few of many, drummer Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton on bass set the pace, for starters, with a comfort level that spells total professionalism, and guitar work by Larry Koonse is gratifyingly prominent in accompaniment and soloing. Tenor sax work by Bob Sheppard and Kristin Edkins is exemplary, adding a distinctive layer of character. Most Valuable Player Award has to go to Jamieson Parker for his anchoring piano and sublime arrangements on many of the selections, such as the title cut for which he gets extra points as collaborator with the singer on its creation.

Five of the eleven tracks feature numbers Winkler co-wrote. Although not combined or placed next to each other, his "My Idea of a Good Time" (written with Greg Gordon Smith) could be a neat companion piece to "Have a Good Time," his reupholstered version of that Paul Simon number, making it seem custom-fitted. And the album-ending "Stay Hip" (written with Rich Eames, who did the arrangement and is on piano, duties he also excels at elsewhere on the CD) is a fraternal twin to the more tongue-in-cheek Bob Dorough/Dave Frishberg strutting declaration "I'm Hip." The latter is done in savvy duet with Cheryl Bentyne. It's one of two mischievous duets with the slinky-voiced Manhattan Transfer member, postscripts to their teaming up on a CD a couple of years ago called West Coast Cool. They click with the slick chemistry of a much-traveled vaudeville duo without the corn. Their other partners-in-rhyme romp is with Lorenz Hart's field day of sarcasm with Richard Rodgers' frisky melody, "I Wish I Were in Love Again." Taken at a more relaxed tempo than most versions, they take their time painting the images of "the lovely loving and the hateful hates" such as "the pulled-out fur of cat and cur." Lovers of classic Broadway tunesmiths' work will also be happy to find the inclusion of a fresh but respectful treatment of the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It." (And Winkler gets it—the essence of the song, that is. Joie de vivre fits him well.)

While glib playfulness is a trademark Winkler grin-inducing strong suit (his witty words to "Your Cat Plays Piano" with music by Bill Cantos being a prime example), sincerity can also shine in his lyrics and performance. "I Chose the Moon," with the same composer, is a romantic rumination comparing his longtime love to aspects of the stars and moon and how they glow. The piece has a warm glow of its own. As a balladeer, triteness and stickiness are anathema to him, whether he's crooning his own words or someone else's. A slightly smoky sound enhances the appeal of his timbre and a point of view is always squarely in place. But that's the only thing "square" about this very cool cat.

MARK CHRISTIAN MILLER
CRAZY MOON

Sliding Jazz Door Productions

With an affable, conversational approach to singing, Mark Christian Miller is an easygoing presence. There's a warm, almost neighborly way about him that doesn't inspire fascination or awe, but passing some time with him is undemandingly pleasant. He is most effective when songs are suited to, and bring out, these traits. The opener, "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (and Dream Your Troubles Away)," is just such a piece and lets him give a soft-soap philosophical spin to the message about taking the bad with the good. With Bob Dorough's jazz declaration of satisfaction, "I've Got Just About Everything," he is more assertively content and handles the fleet rhythms comfortably. And Irving Berlin's ode to feeling like one is "in Heaven" while dancing "Cheek to Cheek" lets him exult in that joy.

When Mr. Miller ventures into more dramatic or sorrowful territory on Crazy Moon, his persona remains too detached and demure. It's a mismatch. While some jazz singers with more chops or melodic adventurousness can succeed with gymnastic or muscular vocalizing without inhabiting the lyric's emotions, he's not that kind of guy. Thus, in "Oh, You Crazy Moon," the Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen piece referenced by the CD's title, he sounds more bemused than vexed that he's lost his gal. This suggests he didn't care all that much and the diffidence makes a difference, making the listener disengaged, too. The same thing happens to the more serious lament and rue that should be in Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern's "April Fooled Me," which could be more poetically elegant. He's still wrapping his troubles in dreams and dreaming his troubles away. And when he begs a lover for a "Second Chance," in André and Dory Previn's movie song from Two for the Seesaw, things feel somewhat more serious, but the mild-mannered pleading doesn't convince that he is terribly invested. There is some compensation in a kind of shrugging philosophical stance that comes through that arguably could suggest an acceptance of bad breaks and break-ups as Fate. But that's not very involving. Still, when the emotional stakes aren't high and emotional states aren't agitated, we can nevertheless enjoy the melodies in their more-legato-than-usual presentations.

The work by the seven-man band is generally low-key moody and attractive. Standouts include guitarist Larry Koonse with evocative passages and the refreshingly atypical sound of the bass clarinet supplied by Bob Sheppard, with burnished brass added by Ron Stout's trumpet. Josh Nelson on piano is versatile, providing chords that sound like gentle ripples in streams in setting moods or urge the singer on in livelier tempi. Five of the arrangements are his, with two credited as collaborations with the singer. The remaining four are by the able Jamieson Trotter whose contributions are so crucial to Mark Winkler's new album. But he doesn't play on this one as he does on Winkler's.

This is the third album by the singer (one had him billed simply as Mark Miller) who has also had a career on the business side of music. While, like the majority of CDs of traditional vocalists, it favors material that's been around five decades or more, it's not primarily the most overdone standards. It's nice to hear the Marian McPartland/Johnny Mercer collaboration "Twilight World," which has a suitably calm beauty, and the infrequently attempted "Strange" by John Latouche and Marvin Fisher. This mixed bag's best moments demonstrate that a mellow observational approach has its pluses.


- Rob Lester


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