Music from all directions: From up north, a 2003 musical from Canada that just made its way to New York. Speaking of New York - from the east, there's the vocal group New York Voices with a new album recorded in Pittsburgh. Going west, California singer John Vance offers a trip to Dreamsville and moving southward, a debut CD from a singer named Elin who worked in Florida but whose heart is further south: in Brazil, as she ably sings that country's music (though she grew up far from it - in Sweden!). But we start in Bohemia, the setting for ...
Shaking up Shakespeare is hardly something new, and this musical version of his A Winter's Tale is another example of taking liberties and taking chances. A lot of it works very well. It uses the plot and character names but employs modern language. Much of the story is transmitted in the songs in this adaptation from the fortuitously named songwriter Chris Wynters who plays some guitar parts, is co-musical director (with the band's keyboardist/accordion player Jason Kodie) and produced the album.
This summer, Wynters' Winter's Tale Project was presented as part of The New York International Fringe Festival, where it was reworked and trimmed and had a different cast than what's featured on this album. Seen in Greenwich Village this year, the big musical was impressive and entertaining. It was billed and advertised then and in the past as a "rock and roll musical." That billing is absent from the CD packaging, but it should be noted that the description is apt. Though it also incorporates some other styles, the sound is indeed by and large rock, with a strong pulse and beat and some wailing voices. Those who are semi-allergic to rock musicals as a genre may find this more accessible and less oppressive than other examples. It has a driving quality but won't drive the more adventurous theater fans away. Balance of band and voices is pretty good and performers are attentive to the lyrics, so there should be no cries of having trouble catching the words (that's especially notable since they aren't printed here or at the show's two websites, though there is a synopsis of the plot, indicating where the songs fit in).
A Winter's Tale has been musicalized in recent years with styles ranging from opera to R&B. Some of the most easily successful, though kind of one-color, uses of this version's chosen genre of rocked-out stylings on disc are when the the mood called for is anger ("Venom" for Leontes, the jealous king) or celebration (the rousing "Helluva Time"). The latter is heard at the beginning and the end, sung by the company which numbers 15 here. However, the most satisfying musical selections are the ones with more complex or subtle emotions and those that boast more musical depth.
In addition to the required rage, Christian Goutsis as Leontes has a wonderfully vulnerable quality and really captures the character's regret and anguish as he begs the god Apollo for forgiveness. This comes in the "Montage," a seven-minute sequence that works as a kind of centerpiece.
The heart and soul of the piece is also its standout song: "To the Moon and Back." It serves the functions of lullabye, story-song and love ballad. Though it's heard a few times, it's only listed once by that title on the track list. It's the one song credited as a collaboration between Wynters and the bookwriter-director, Bridget Ryan. The first appearance of this sincere pledge of strong and eternal devotion ("I'll love you to the moon and back ...") is sung by Pamela Gordon as the queen comforting her son, yet the last part of her solo becomes an all-stops-out, rock-voiced belting proclamation. The switch is a bit jarring at first, but spine-tinglingly well done. The pleading "For Innocence Sake" by the same performer is riveting, too.
Some intended aspects don't really emerge as they could. The innocent young lovers sound neither young nor innocent, for they are most prominently featured in the strident and repetitive "Kings and Shepherds." What also resists shining through enough is the comedy. The Clown is front and center only once, in a short (1:47) group number, "Piggy in the Middle," that is appropriately goofy and lively. The lyrics of "Stuck with the Bear," sung by the all-purpose narrator, mocks Shakespeare's odd choice to have a bear appear out of nowhere to chase a character offstage, but it doesn't play as the fourth-wall-breaking commenting goof it can be. In this role, Jeremy Baumung could be more offhand and whimsical. He has a good, strong singing voice, however. (He's one of a few actors in this 2004 cast of a 10-day engagement who was also in the first production a year earlier when it premiered as a commission work at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta.)
The Winter's Tale Project recording has much to recommend it: there are many tracks among the 24 that feature powerful performances and good ensemble work. The energy rarely lags and some of the music is just plain catchy Add all this to the touching moments and a strong last section and you have a rock musical with no holds barred as the Bard gets his work reworked once again. Rock on.
NEW YORK VOICES
It's been too many years since New York Voices have put out an album. The quartet - Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader (he also plays sax on half of the CD's 14 tracks) and Peter Eldridge (also on piano on four cuts) - make a welcome return to the recording studio as a group. They do most of the arrangements, too, and take turns on solos.
There's variety here with small and large instrumental ensembles varying, and two numbers with a sole musician as accompanist. On a lovely and affecting treatment of the standard from 1934, "For All We Know," it's just Peter's spare piano; and on the Laura Nyro song "Stoned Soul Picnic," it's simply Ben Wittman's understated percussion. Both tracks make the case that these very musicianly singers don't need any help and are plenty fascinating to hear if the band is banned from the studio. But there is also a lot of great playing by excellent players on the other tracks. With their cascading tones and blissful blends, the singers don't even really need lyrics to shine. That's clear as they glide through "Chamego (Betty's Bossa)" just with syllables. (It was composed by Peter and singer Jack Donahue and appears on his new CD, A Small Blue Thing, as well.) And there is some scat singing elsewhere: Darmon gets a great opportunity for that as a soloist on the title song from the Broadway musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever which starts as a real pure beauty, the "clear" of the title being illustrated by their sound before things get a bit wild. Jazz is their domain and their bread and butter, but they can bring jazz to something like "On a Clear Day" or "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" without dismantling it just because they can. The heart of the song is still there, albeit with some surgical intervention and the beat changed.
It's tough to pick a favorite here because it's comparing some very tasty apples and oranges. If pressed, I'd have to choose the album's title song; it's one of the originals, sincere, optimistic and evocative lyrics by Peter with music, arrangement and lead vocal by Darmon. Musicians heard on many of the tracks are especially effective on this cut: pianist Andy Ezrin, acoustic bass player Paul Nowinski and drummer Marcello Pellitteri plus the two who produced the whole album along with singers Jay Ashby (percussion) and Marty Ashby (acoustic guitar). The CD is full of great players, some of whom get more of a chance to be spotlighted as one-track-only special guests. Dave Samuels on vibes is great on the Duke Ellington trademark, "Love You Madly" used in two Broadway productions featuring the composer's oeuvre: Sophisticated Ladies and Play On!
We're always glad to cover an album from Manchester Craftsmen's Guild since a portion of the proceeds goes to bringing music education to underserved young people. Like their album covered last week, a belatedly issued concert by Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, this MCG Jazz album includes the song "Darn That Dream" from the musical Swingin' the Dream, another show based on Shakespeare. The Voices' take is inventive and refreshing, with an especially terrific extended ending. Like everything here, the presentation of "Darn That Dream" showcases the wonderful harmonies and hip sensibilities that always keep corniness a million miles away.
"Darn That Dream" shows up on West coast singer John Vance's album, too. He does an interesting version, with the arrangement and phrasing suggesting a restlessness and mixed feelings. That's a nice choice, and appropriate for the lyric ("Darn that dream and bless it, too/ Without that dream I never would have you"). There's restraint on this album: the singer handles feelings but doesn't go off the deep end. His "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" is more contented than hip-hooray happy. His smile broadens with a snazzier, bright-tempoed "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Finally, at the end of the list song "Better Than Anything," which is expectedly cool and light-hearted, he surprisingly bursts with joy in an extended ending. He does not pour out his heart in the gloomier moods, even with the blue-tinged classic of been-there/ done-that/ remember the pain, "You Don't Know What Love Is." Instead, there's a bit of emotional distance and a casual intelligence in his readings. The hip jazz stylings of the accompaniment also keep high drama in check. His very able pianist, Jeff Colella, did the arrangements and co-produced the CD with the vocalist, and they collaborated on writing the song "If You Go." The keyboardist is the one band member also on John's first album, It's All Right with Me (2003).
John, who is also an actor, goes in for the close-up mic style. He sometimes sings too gently and laidback for my taste. He can be very breathy rather than singing out and holding notes. So it comes as little surprise that he'd choose "Speak Low" for inclusion. His preferences are a good fit for the tracks that allow John to be lost in reverie or reflection. These suit him best. The album's title refers not only to the moody Mancini melody with lyrics by Livingston and Evans, but a state of mind. Larry Koonse's guitar playing on this is especially tasty, but the arrangement could use more shape to really take advantage of the melody line and has an anticlimactic ending that's especially noticeable as it's the last track. The other songs referring to dreams and wishes get into that dreamy longing. "Like a Lover" is a standout as he gets into the right zone for the Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyric ("Oh, how I dream I might be like the velvet moon to you ..."). A special treat for dreamers is the seldom heard verse to "My Foolish Heart" : "The scene is set for dreaming/ Love's knocking at the door/ But oh, my heart, I'm reluctant to start ..."
With its undeniably romantic qualities and some light swinging jazz, Dreamsville might be most ideally scheduled late at night when something subtle is what you want ... or maybe first thing in the morning with that first cup of coffee. Drifting into or out of dreams Dreamsville seems about right.
UNDER THE RADAR
An exciting and festive "Fascinating Rhythm" from the Gershwins' show Lady, Be Good! begins Elin's album, wherein her fascination with fascinating rhythms is instantly and consistently contagious. Elin (pronounced EE-ah-leen) combines it with something called "Telefone" as things get off to a high-energy, freeing, joyful start. I was pulled in immediately. There's variety in the instrumental sounds with guitar on five tracks, flute on two, plenty of percussion and brass to keep the party going on the lively numbers. She's having a ball, her musicians are super-solid, and the "homework" time she's invested, as explained in her printed comments, has paid off.
After studying music and discovering a passion for Brazilian jazz, Elin got her first gig at age 16 at the only jazz club in her home town of Norrköping. That's in Sweden. Soon, she'd moved to Florida and got a scholarship to study in Brazil, drinking in the music and the Portuguese language. This year her travels took her to New York City where she performed at Jazz At Lincoln Center.
The album's second track is also the only other number from a musical, one that came along 30 years after the Gershwin tune. "Lazy Afternoon" from The Golden Apple, the first off-Broadway musical to engineer a move to Broadway has the potential to be a real spellbinder. Elin does the magic without overdoing it or spinning the web at a snail's pace. Keeping accompaniment simple and tempo relaxed but not somnambulistically so, the images of the beauty of Nature on a day in the slow lane come gently alive. The singer has a luxurious, velvet-like voice on a ballad like this, and it's a pleasure to just be wrapped up in the beauty of her voice attentive to a lyric and bathing in a dreamy melody. Trading contentment for sorrow, she also takes a barer-bones chart for the classic lament "Lush Life." Her portrayal of the sad isn't bad, but a tad unconvincing as she doesn't quite sound world-weary with lived-in despair. Maybe her persona is just so upbeat that it resists projecting a woman whose handkerchief has taken in a lot of tears and whose heart has been broken or hardened. Still, it's nice to hear her attempt as it's just plain pretty and a change of pace from some very rhythmic work-outs with busy arrangements. More successful as a thoughtful piece is her one (obligatory?) number by the Brazilian master, Antonio Carlos Jobim. She chooses "Bonita" and sings it with its English lyrics, allowing a well-realized opportunity for reflection and her phrasing is skilled but natural.
Some other numbers are in Portuguese as Elin chooses some favorites from her beloved Brazilian/ bossa nova repertoire. She also shows talent as a songwriter here, with one number sung in Spanish ("La Luna"), the cool "Sugar" and with Sean Harkness collaborating on the melody, "I Love New York." She also clearly loves Brazil and this album is easy to love, too. It's arranged by the singer and her fine pianist Luiz Simas (who sings with her on the opening track), and produced by them and Tony Spaneo. The production and sound are especially admirable, with the vocals never overwhelmed but the instrumentalists sharing the spotlight and sounding super and super clear: the gorgeous work by cellist Erik Friedlander and the presence of Harry Allen on tenor sax are just two more reasons to play Lazy Afternoon over and over throughout any afternoon. It's a nice trip to Brazil without leaving the house.
So we've gone north, south, west and east - so the only path left is the one leading to an exit until next week.