2 Solo CDs by Bass-Baritones
Listening again and again to George Ball's CD Think of Me, what I think of in searching for an adjective is that that the most appropriate word is "dignified." Without ever seeming distant or "stuffy," the intelligence and sensitivity he brings to the material graces everything with a touch of class. Eschewing anything showy or slick, his vocals may seem reserved and restrained, but resonate. They don't just richly resonate as appealing bass-baritone notes, but also with sincerity and communicated experience. In interviews and in the brief liner notes, the singer has stated that he rejected earlier takes as being "too big" in concert style and opted for more intimate and conversational approaches. The scaling-down works for the performer and material chosen, which is quite a mix, not dominated by the musical theatre repertoire and roles he's sung around the country for years, beginning with work close to his boyhood home: The Pittsburgh Playhouse. (An earlier recording, with castmates including Susan Watson, was a souvenir of a revue of Broadway songs they toured with for years).
The Great White Way is not ignored. While the title song is not the same-named number from The Phantom of the Opera, but rather a thoughtfully turned-out composition by Mike Reid, two theatre warhorses are included. One was introduced by a big-voiced opera singer and the other by an actor with vocal limitations. (A favorite theatre anecdote concerns a telegram he received from Kurt Weill, asking him to detail his range and singing voice, to which the actor wired back "No range, no voice.") But the croaking Walter Huston's rendition of "September Song" and Ezio Pinza's grand "Some Enchanted Evening" were landmarks, and Ball takes an in-between approach to both and succeeds in making them uniquely his own, recalling neither star. The reflective "September Song" is further stamped with authority and more poignant bittersweet quality in the real-world realization that this perspective about the value of time and holding on to a romantic relationship in the "vintage years" is coming from a performer who is 80 years old. But no disclaimer or senior citizen discount is needed when it comes to passing judgments: the voice is sturdy and attractive throughout. The approach to South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening"'s advice, "Once you have found her, never let her go" is also redolent of taking the right opportunity seriously, coming from a man who's been with his wife for over 40 years.
That woman figures into the picture, too. She's the singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom, whom he met when she came backstage after his performance in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and got to know her better after she was cast in the same production. Ball's selections on the album include a riveting "Fanette," heard in that revue they both appeared in for years, and two McBroom pieces. One is the warm rumination on maturing together in a comfortable and comforting long-term relationship, "When Love Grows Up," which he sings with a mix of wonder and realization that doesn't cloy or turn corny. The other is a subtle emotional highlight (no grandstanding or self-pitying wailing for this man): the potently poetic wish, "If I Were You" (from the theatre score, Dangerous Beauty), a work with frequent collaborator and musical director/pianist Michele Brourman who fills the same duties sensitively now for both spouses. (She's doing the same for both McBroom and Ballwho've also co-starred in Sweeney Todd and her musical Heartbeats, which resulted in a nice cast albumfor their joint nightclub performances which they recently did in California and bring to Manhattan at 54 Below on October 8 and 14.) The Brourman piano work is dignified; she knows the power of a pause and a tip-toeing build or descent. She shares arranging credits with Stephan Oberhoff, a multi-instrumentalist in the small band.
A personal favorite is Billy Vera's unjustly low-profile "Hopeless Romantic," an ode to unapologetically wearing one's heart on the sleeve, which is a gem, pulling us in from the get-go with the opening line about crying at old movies. And indeed, two Jimmy Van Heusen melodies from old movies are also on the CD and could be cause for a listener's own tearing-up over faith in love: "All My Tomorrows" with one of Sammy Cahn's most mature lyrics, and "But Beautiful" with Johnny Burke's words. But equally convincing are two selections from the rock repertoire which find Ball still in a comfort zone musically and as an actor projecting strong, troubled personalities with no apparent trouble in inhabiting them. One is Bruce Springsteen's story-song about a "Highway Patrolman" forced to choose between professional and family loyalties, becoming a layered, gutsy and gritty psychological study. The other is an old hit that we've become familiar with in a breezy style, the subject matter of "Save the Last Dance for Me" usually strong with some swaying and swirling dance rhythms. Forget that. It's slowed down and taken with great seriousness and sorrow heremaking the mood lighting dark and dangeroussuggesting a man who is truly fearful of being deserted. The line "But don't forget who's taking you home" is neither threat nor sweet reminder, but almost a desperate plea shrouded with fear. It's interesting that the co-writer (with Doc Pomus) was Mort Shuman, the man who translated many of the Jacques Brel dramas. However, by the time you get to this 10th of the dozen tracks, you might be so assured of George Ball's ability to draw drama from any well that you won't be so surprised at alljust impressed. Me, too.
Bass-baritone Michel Bell's voice has been heard in various settings in different genres of music. In recent times, he's been working steadily on cruise ship jobs that have taken him all over the world, with some concert venue work when on land. Most notably, he landed on Broadway a couple of times in the 1990s: as Joe in Hal Prince's revival of Show Boat (following a run in Toronto) and then, singing "Father, How Long?" in the Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy The Civil War. He revisits both roles on his new album, As Time Goes By. (An earlier solo CD likewise included the Show Boat anthem, "Ol' Man River.") These two wrenching lamentsno surpriseare deeply moving and powerful, the sonorous voice full of gravitas, despair, and longing. He owns them. They ring true. Frustratingly, the same can't be said about most of the rest of this mixed bag. Some feel rushed through or perfunctory, with arrangements owing so much to old hit versions that they'd feel almost like warmed-over karaoke if, fighting a noble battle, the singer didn't remain enthused, many accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra that's often brassy, overly busy and boisterous. The most egregious examples are copycat treatments of not-so-timeless R&B mega-hits of Lionel Richie ("Lady") and Lou Rawls, with "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)." A tacky Nat King Cole medley is a mish-mosh rather than an interesting mash-up; unfortunately, its treatment of "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" has more slush than the genuinely sweet sentimental feel he was once part of in the recording studio harmonizing on it with Linda Ronstadt on her memorable teaming with Nelson Riddle.
Producer-trombonist Gary Tole and his Legends of Swing swing into overdrive and overkill, leaving most hopes for subtlety and originality behind, thrusting Bell forward. Interestingly, two exceptions to the rush-and-slush rules are arrangements by his wife, the album's pianist and conductor Catherine Matejka. (They met when he heard her playing years ago at an audition he was doing and they work together in live concerts.) Both tracks feature her in musical pairings. Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" sets the stage for Cole Porter's classic "Night and Day," which gets an elegant reading in its stately first and last sections, but is marred by a faster, frantic middle that fails to evoke the "torment" discussed in the lyric. The prayer from Civil War is set up by his spoken description of his slave/gravedigger character and an instrumental of "Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar, used in the PBS series about the war. This CD's "Ol' Man River" arrangement is the best of three assignments given to Kim Scharnberg, who worked on The Civil War and other Wildhorn musicals. The "What Kind of Fool Am I?" arrangement becomes oddly rollicking in its instrumental interlude, the bombastic vocal accompaniment suggesting more Vegas than Broadway balladry.
Bell's other notable musical theatre role as Porgy is not represented, but the Gershwin songbook shows up with "I Got Rhythm," which, at least, is more suited to the force-fed energy of the steamrolling orchestra. As on other tracks, the long-sustained final vocal note is thrilling. A double dose of Disney with "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" from The Lion King segueing into the title song from Beauty and the Beast feels overblown and too evenly phrased to let us feel the love tonight or bask in any beauty. But the considerable saving grace in some tracks with less sympathetic musical settings is that we can still revel in the glorious voiceits majestic sound and vibrato. Still, I can't help thinking this talented man deserves better than sounding like he's the overqualified vocalist in a wedding band. Thankfully, there's some genuine spunk when everybody sinks their teeth into the old standby "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" and things actually cook.
Bell's late-1970s years as a member of The Fifth Dimension (billed as "Mic Bell") gets a nod with that group's 1960s hits"Up, Up and Away" and their popularization of medley of two Hair numbers: "The Age of Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In." The slavishly similar accompaniment figures and tempi are more understandable here (he even calls out "C'mon now, put your hands together for The Fifth Dimension!!" and other comments on this albumnot recorded live). Depending on your point of view, there is a point or the point is missed to lean on nostalgia for vocal group hits that had prominent female lead voices.
A classier, more caring setting is needed for gifted Michel Bell's rich, deep sound. We don't have many low and potentially dramatic male voices making recordings these days. A more tasteful jazz-tinged treatment, recalling the best work of deep-voiced singers like Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Joe Williams would be refreshing. Or bring on the more operatic musical theatre repertoire. Though there's an overdose of cheese here, there are still enough times when we get rich cream.