Karen Mason's socko voice, acting skills and pizazz sure sell a song. Wesla Whitfield takes a gentler approach and makes each an intimate story. Louise Rogers literally presents stories for kids through jazz; each is accompanied by her husband as a musical partner. Also: Our Story with D.C. Anderson's story-songs and Nancy Stearns sells a lyric in her own way.
"Get Happy" is not just a track on Karen Mason's new CD, but it's how you should be prepared to respond when the CD hits your ears. This is a feel-good listen, because of the joy and exhilaration in the big, bravura belted numbers and the warmth of the tender ones. Even when sorrow rears (or hangs) its head, there's a life-affirming sensibility, catharsis, and sense of triumph by the end.
For example, there's an inspired combination of the title song from the Beatles' movie Help! and Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive." Achieving the ideal goals of a medley, the two songs inform each other and what might seem like an odd coupling works, with the cry for "Help!" very good company for this other plea. Both lyrics emphasize needing someone, so the key, shared words "need" and "someone" serve to allow the interweaving. It all has a fervent feel; as the track begins, we hear the piano figure familiar as the introduction/ background pulse of "Being Alive" but it becomes the spine for "Help!" which is sung first.
Likewise, the CD's other choice for high stakes and tension, a super "As If We Never Said Goodbye," is a change of pace from the album's main focus on the warm and fuzzy or hot and brassy (and it's nice to have her version of the Sunset Boulevard grande dame grand moment recorded, after her many performances in the role).
Karen's strong belt, high and bright energy, ballad-ready tenderness and aforementioned acting skills are all assets evident here and well established by now after years in cabaret and theatre and her recordings (five prior solo albums, guest spots, and cast albums of And the World Goes 'Round, Wonderful Town and the recently released Mid-Life!: The Crisis Musical). Beyond that, what the CD has going for it is the way familiar songs are reinvigorated, thanks to her juicy attack, biting into lyrics, soaring with the melodies, and the smart arrangements. They respect the material's original intent, but re-invent.
The refreshing changes on the now perhaps overly familiar "All That Jazz" are terrific, justifying a new recording that's delicious with its tempo tweaking, slowing down the early sections to make them all the more sultry and fun without losing any adrenalin. Teeny little pauses create a staccato effect on the title line, which is just one of the neat touches. These arrangements are mostly by Karen's excellent regular musical director/pianist who's on hand here, Christopher Denny, with Barry Kleinbort collaborating on six. Paul Rolnick arranged and co-wrote two songs that live somewhere in the zone between heart-on-sleeve tenderness and power ballad : the CD's title song, with co-writer Jim Papoulis who orchestrated it, and "Like the Heavens Hold the Stars" written with William Soden, Jr. The latter number is a recording with late Dick Gallagher on piano, featuring an orchestration credited to him and Tom Kochan. There is a medium-size band with brass, strings and reeds, including multi-tasking Paul on guitar and additional keyboards; he's also the producer of this impressive CD and spouse of this impressive singer.
Two years after her last solo album, the twelve-song, 42-minute Right Here/ Right Now feels like not quite enough of a fix for fans. But, to quote the album's final song title, "Look for the Silver Lining": there's little cause for complaint on this solid, professionally-delivered outing. Karen and company deliver the goods with brio, blare and care. The CD is available at Karen's website and at Footlight.com.
For New York fans, Karen is performing right here, right now at The Metropolitan Room, celebrating the release of this album. She's also just gone into the cast of Hairspray on Broadway as Velma Von Tussle.
Good singer, good pianist, good songs – what more do you need? Nothing. This is another in a long line of satisfying albums from Wesla Whitfield with pianist-arranger-husband Mike Greensill, but this time it's just the two of them for a change (they also produced the CD themselves). Since both excel at stripping songs down to their bare, spare essence, this album is particularly affecting in its direct-from-and-to-the-heart work. With the same no-fat, nothing overdone agenda, eight of the 15 tracks are under three minutes in length, with only one, "My Ideal," longer than 3:36.
As usual, there's a yearning, bittersweet quality in the singing of the more serious numbers with piano handled in a way that subtly supports that without ever milking it or losing the melody in any drama with the lyrics (which are always freshly and naturally phrased). It's not just disarming and hypnotic - it's a master class in getting to the core but ending up with more: their renditions always make me look at songs with a deeper appreciation for the craft in the interpreters and the songs themselves. Clearly, they relish well-constructed songs with intelligent words but trust the material enough to do know they don't need to dress them up or mess them up with gimmicks or grandstanding or flowery flourishes.
There are some interesting song choices here, such as two show tunes that are rarely done: "Will You Remember Me?" cut from the Gershwins' 1924 Lady, Be Good (not recorded until Michael Feinstein rescued it for his own 1996 album) and "I'm Way Ahead of the Game," from the 1964 musical Foxy (Robert Emmett Dolan and Johnny Mercer). Both are especially wistful (this singer's strong suit is so very much imbuing material with a wistful quality that she may as well be named Wesla Wistful). The Foxy number celebrates putting up a brave front and stiff upper lip, but in this treatment we see the patches on the heart, too, not just the bravado. Mike's accompaniment captures a sense of sorrow as does the vocal treatment. In feistier territory, another Mercer lyric (with Harold Arlen's melody) is treated with a little light sass in the celebration of the freedom to change opinions - St. Louis Woman's "A Woman's Prerogative." "A Woman's Intuition," on the other hand, looks at women's thought processes more seriously and tenderly.
This is a rich treasure chest of songs, from the always welcome "Why Did I Choose You" (from The Yearling, romantic music by Michael Leonard and heartfelt lyric by Herbert Martin) to the moon-themed tunes: a strong, clear-eyed and dramatic reading of Jim Webb's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," the cute "Moonlight Savings Time" and the bouncy, quaint and quirky title tune. All Wesla needs is Mike and a mic - and maybe a little moonlight - to create mesmerizing musical magic.
His long-term regular job has been performing in the company of The Phantom of the Opera (many roles in many locations for about 15 years, with three years off for good behavior). But when D.C. Anderson sings and records, it's usually music that is far afield from the grand Phantom-esque style. Songs tend to be nakedly emotional - dear and sincere in their small-scale romanticism - or daffy and off-center humorous. Either way, they often feel like little slices of life - or chapters from life stories. His latest album's title, Our Story is apt. D.C. mostly records songs he has written himself, often with collaborators. Some of the composers this time around also appear as musicians. But musical accompaniment is spare – and effectively so for the hushed, intimate confessionals or folksy ambience; four musicians on the title track comprise the largest group, and five tracks have just piano accompaniment.
What strange bedfellows are in this mixed bag of reverent romance and irrepressible irreverence. Of the 15 songs, five are comic relief; the others are on the serious side, some quite ardent or fragile in nature, a highly breakable heart worn on the sleeve. With the jokey ones, I don't think he puts his funniest foot forward with this particular album. The standout for me in that category would be "I'm the Law," the tale of an uber-dedicated undercover corporate spy – for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Composer Ritt Henn is a kindred spirit and knows how to "compose funny" so humor builds and bops along with attitude matching the words. (His melodies for two other numbers here, where he's also playing bass, are zingy and groovy as well.) Other topics for lighter fare range from the smile of Mona Lisa to karma self-absorption.
Here are a couple of examples of the fine lyric writing by D.C.:
You have to know I separate/ the hearts and deeds of men/ I know it tore a hole inside/ Made mock of course and creed/ I cannot give you back your pride/ My love, that's on your lead. (from "'Til Then," a sublime match of lyric to Adryan Russ's graceful melody, enhanced by the accompaniment of guitar and cello.)
The window screen has captured a leaf/ A chivalrous wind comes to save it/ Happiness drops in as deeply as grief/ Dare I hope we two can enslave it?" (from "This Is My Love," with his own breathlessly tremulous melody ... I love the poetic phrasing of the wind characterized as "chivalrous" - the guy is a real romantic!)
On highly emotional moments, he sings with some sweet, high tones, here and there gathering strength and force when it suits the development of the mood. He sounds more casually Everyman in the lighter songs, cheerily embracing his inner dork.
Also included are two strikingly lovely and evocative songs D.C. had no hand in writing, but he treats both memory pieces with tender loving care: Bruce Kulak's "Tin Can Telephone" and Roy Zimmerman's "You." Lyrics for all songs except these two are included in a booklet.
Our Story is the story of people daring to love, coping with the loss of love, and sometimes laughing at life.
Hey, kids! Here's a trio of stories about trios (The Three Little Pigs, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Three Bears) presented by a trio - jazz singer Louise Rogers, her bass player husband Rick Strong and storyteller Susan Milligan. The walking bass plays throughout the CD - spoken and sung sections - and is the only instrument. The spoken section is done in rhythm with a hip attitude and the oft-reprised songs are done in short segments, so it's a real back-and-forth feel. Frankly, I wish more of it were sung, as the narration gets to be cutesy-sweet and kindergarten-variety perky. Despite the "cool" attitude, the patterns and structure become repetitive, and the actual narration is fairly straight rather than witty or jokey. The three songs are tracked so they are broken up into very short segments (a grand total of 36 for this album, whose total running time almost exactly that many minutes).
Each story has a little song with snappy rhythms matched to kid-friendly words that also sort of approximate scat singing ("Boppity bippity ho ho ho" for "The Piggy Feet Hop"; "Duff suffa duff suffa" for the goats; "Bop boo dee bop boo dee" for the bears) and each has a blues: "Miss My Mama Blues" for pigs; "Suffy Suff Blues" for the hungry goats; "Little Bear's Blues" ("Who's been sleeping in my bed?/ Giving me the blues/ She's sleeping in my bed/ Wearin' dirty shoes" - you get the idea.)
The bears' tale is best, largely because more of the piece is sung, with a perky theme for the bears and a new ending with Goldilocks not running off but invited to remain after she apologizes for breaking and entering and makes new porridge and fixes the broken chairs. Throughout, Rick Strong's bass playing keeps things moving and grounded. It's a shame, though, that he didn't get some real solo time for a few moments here and there as a respite from the chipper chirping.
Louise and Rick's previous album for children, Bop Boo Day is more diversified and more rewarding, with songs they wrote and some by famous jazz figures. They're joined by a group of children on some tracks, including their own son. It's adorable. Louise is a music educator who runs a New York choir teaching the Great American Songbook standards to young people. When not involved with youngsters, they play with and for the grown-ups. I first heard them on their swinging jazz album Bass-ically Speaking. Whether you're four years old or quite a bit more aged, they have something to make you smile and snap your fingers.
UNDER THE RADAR
Nancy Stearns generally performs just a couple of nights per year, quietly singing in her low-key way at the New York cabaret Don't Tell Mama. Since she released two charming CDs of her repertoire, she was invited twice in the past several months to appear at the MAC and Bistro Award-winning "Any Wednesday" free concert series at Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center, hosted by Bart Greenberg. Though she's therefore hardly the most visible presence on the scene, her most recent act was one I was glad to catch and this third CD presents that material.
There's major emphasis on lyrics in Nancy's approach to all of the material, given her lack of a big voice and scarcity of sustained tones, plus her very attentive phrasing and crisp, super-clear diction. She largely chooses songs with words that are especially literate (Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind") or clever (the hilarious "I Don't Say Anything" by Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty from the musical Inside Out). The latter is about being just a girl who can't say no – no, not "no" to lust like Ado Annie in Oklahoma! but being agreeable to whatever anyone suggests, from giving up a vacation to giving up a boyfriend. Her comic timing is great, as is this presentation of a smiling-through-gritted-teeth character - she should seek out more such material.
Other show tunes include Oliver!'s "Who Will Buy?" and the Gershwins' "Bidin' My Time" from Girl Crazy (or if you prefer, the latter-day Broadway revamp Crazy for You). Occasionally, the laidback style doesn't work so well, with "We'll Be Together Again" oddly dispassionate and offhand, whereas it has the potential to have gravitas to the point of being metaphysical in implication.
Nancy is in the company of the two musicians who appeared on her prior albums – both are strong reasons to stop and have an attentive listen — giving first class support with their classy, jazzy work, without ever overpowering the conversational approach Nancy takes to her song-story presentations. The two are pianist/musical director Gregory Toroian and bassist David Finck, who composed the music for the attractive "Here We Are" and collaborated on its lyric with Jack Murphy. The musicians nudge her into jazzland with Bob Dorough's tricky "Up Jumped a Bird" to spread her musical wings. She's game, but it feels a bit labored.
The Toroian arrangements and solos throughout are excellent and he does so more than accompany - he adds colors and subtle dramatic subtext much of the time. Playing moods as much as playing notes, setting moods as much as setting tempi, his work is exceptional here (he's also the co-producer of the CD with the singer). He joins her a bit on William Finn's "14 Dwight Ave., Natwick, Massachusetts" from the Elegies song cycle and it's a major highlight. The recollections of growing up in a kind of it-takes-a-village street of caring people who become life-long friends is beautifully done and extremely touching. When she proclaims, "Oh, lucky us for us for living on that street" or he recalls "where dad coached summer teams and won," it's believable and moving. They also sing together on the far lighter, brighter "Spring, Spring, Spring" from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers having great fun with the wordplay and clever rhymes of Johnny Mercer set to Gene de Paul's sprightly music. There may be "no particular reason" for these songs being together on one CD, but there are plenty of reasons to care.