Carol Hall presents quite a haul of her songs on Hallways ... and then we take new looks at old songs from some Golden Age giants: Jule Styne, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Kurt Weill.
Listening to Hallways is kind of like walking through the hallways of songwriter Carol Hall's long career or memory. In addition to recent songs, there is one sample from each of several past projects. The proceedings open with a fine version of "Hard Candy Christmas" from her big Broadway show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She sings the song with her daughter, Susannah Blinkoff, a singer-songwriter herself with a new album, who appeared as a pit singer in the sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. From that later score, we hear the cheery "Change in Me," with Johnny Rodgers bringing sly charm with his vocal and his own piano accompaniment and arrangement. Carol Hall recorded two fine solo albums back in the early 1970s and one song from each comes up for a revisit: "Jenny Rebecca" about the wonders awaiting a newborn baby (sung here by Bobby Gosh in his appealing gruff-but-tender voice) and the evocative "Nana," the portrait of a grandmother co-written with her sister Jane which she sings herself.
Five of the 15 selections are from the past few years. Especially moving is the tale of those in the military who are at "War on Christmas Day" and those who wait for them to come home. This piece, with music by Robert Burke, is presented with aching harmony by Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter and Tim DiPasqua. Tim provides the arrangement and is on piano; besides this track and "Change in Me," Tex Arnold is on piano doing a splendid job with the varied styles of music, and he contributed the melody for the bittersweet 2006 "Dublin in the Rain" with a lovely vocal by Farah Alvin.
Though much of the material on the album tends to be on the serious side, there is also a sense of perspective that informs and tempers it. Hope hovers, as comforting as the warm and toasty sound of Carol's voice, which retains a touch of the tang and twang of her Texas roots. Fellow Texan Sally Mayes checks in with a get-over-it reality check that is the comical, smartly delivered "It's Only a Broken Heart," another of the recently minted numbers.
Two selections are performed by singers who composed melodies for Hall lyrics. Lesley Gore's lead vocals for "Hungry for You" are full of naked, raw emotion to match the bleakness of the words (like its repeated line, "I swear I'm gonna die"). The farewell to a departed loved one, "I'll Imagine You a Song," is voiced by Steven Lutvak who, deja vu, also did the number on his own album.
Instrumentation varies from track to track, including occasional but prominent appearances of harmonica, mandolin, flute and banjo. The booklet does not tell us the stories behind the songs, but we get all the lyrics for these heartfelt, life-affirming, grown-up reflections and photos of the singers who also include Laurel Massé, Amanda McBroom, Carol Woods (with the chorus known as the Broadway Inspirational Voices) and Rick Jensen and Wendy Lane Bailey on some harmonies. It all adds up to a rich sampling of music, serving as a deserving tribute to Carol Hall whose hallmark on Hallways seems to be real, unabashed sentiment that rings true and sings true here.
Her 10th album is Karen Akers' first to focus on one writer or writing team, and composer Jule Styne gets the nod with a wealth of songs from his catalogue of tunes from shows and movies and pop songs, some in medleys. To paraphrase Irving Berlin, she and longtime musical director Don Rebic know a fine way to treat the Styne way with a melody. She respects and follows the strong melodic lines, and his piano playing and the bass of Dick Sarpola are her only accompaniment, and though that rarely feels too thin, two or three instances that go for big moments do feel a like they could use some more company.
Current and frequent Broadway resident Gypsy is represented by three numbers. A medley of "Let Me Entertain You" and "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is uncharacteristically playful, with a bit of material inserted to mock her image as "a chanteuse" with a snippet of "La Vie en rose." Karen also takes on "Some People" (one that could have used more instrumentation and a more creative accompaniment; this track feels uninspired on all counts).
Karen stretches and exercises some more musical comedy muscles (the novelty number of insomniac frustration, "10,432 Sheep" and the bouncy, goofy original context of "Just in Time" as heard in Bells are Ringing with Rebic chiming in). However, Simply Styne's best tracks are simply presented. Three ballads, all with Sammy Cahn lyrics sung with understated elegance and warmth - with subtle, tasteful accompaniment - and a shot of wistfulness are the best examples. "Three Coins in the Fountain" shakes off its corny roots and reads as genuinely sweet as the singer colors the line "just one wish will be granted" with youthful hope. "Time After Time" is plain and unadorned. "I Fall in Love Too Easily" must be a favorite, as this is her third recording of the song, and the only Styne number recorded on any of her previous albums.
Two large medleys, called "suites," are constructed to show the post mortem of love affairs. The first contrasts lovestruck dreams with waking up and smelling the coffee that may provide grounds for divorce. As Karen sings, we hear a litany of lies and feeble excuses spoken as a man plays dumb and the woman wises up with "I've Heard That Song Before." The second mega-tale of love lost is decidedly downbeat but very dramatic and effective, the CD's best display of Akers as actress. Featuring the haunting Carolyn Leigh lyric, "Killing Time" and three Bob Merrill lyrics including "How Could I Know" from Prettybelle, its centerpiece is the resigned realization that "The Party's Over."
The album is based on a cabaret show Karen did at venues including the Algonquin's Oak Room in Manhattan. She returns there May 13 for a month with a new collection of songs.
The party's not over, though maybe a bit over the top (in a good way!) when KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler toast Cole Porter. This frequent cabaret twosome do some great Porter tunes with plenty of spirit on the sprightly numbers. Though adept at tossing off a cheerful or cheeky number, these pros can just as easily turn serious and do justice to the ballads. Singing solo or in tandem (duets are fewer), they are consistently entertaining and as the "hosts" of A Swell Party, they sound like they are having delicious fun with the material. The CD is another victory for this seemingly odd couple of the legit soprano with a sassy, saucy side and the ultra-high-energy fellow who can drop his clown act and trade the leer for a tear on something sincere. They throw a few curve balls by stretching or telescoping a phrase here and there, overlapping lines and playing with shifting tempi.
Sure, it may seem a bit relentless at times with a kind of pulling out all the stops to knock numbers out of the park or the bait-and-switch of merry medley back-and-forth activity. However, there are certainly respites and not all tracks start at the fever pitch. The party is packed with Porter punch; there are 14 tracks and half of them are medleys, with 24 numbers in all. Mark Nadler doing double duty as pianist on almost all cuts offers remarkable skill: showmanship and flair with much sensitive, nuanced work on the love songs. The other two splendid musicians are John Loehrke on bass and Loren Schoenberg playing tenor saxophone (and guesting on piano on "In the Still of the Night" and "Dream Dancing").
Let me mention just a few of the memorable solos. Mark Nadler builds and builds and burns through "Too Darn Hot" until he nearly explodes and is at his most affecting with a thoughtfully phrased version of the too-rarely performed "Wake Up and Dream." Soloing in a medley of "So in Love" and "Get Out of Town," KT Sullivan unearths new drama in these songs, creating tension and finding psychological complexities with the lyrics, especially "So in Love," so often treated as just grand passion and a chance for vocalists to just soar and hit the money notes. In "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" (borrowing the verse of "Just One of Those Things" to set it up), she bites into the comedy and indulges her hammy side, alternating cutesy winking tones and a raucous rip into the dig at men. Their duet of "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" with the long list of animal mating habits is classic Porter wit delivered with glee and fizz.
I do wish there were more duets as the Sullivan/Nadler vocal and personality interplay is a special treat. Nevertheless, host and hostess of this "party" are certainly swell.
The Gershwins' catalogue is a well visited one, as their songs have aged well and are flexible, invited different treatments and tempi. Jazz people have long favored them. Melody Breyer-Grell has one foot in jazz and one in the cabaret world, as also evidenced by her singing at and co-hosting the hybrid "Jazzaret" open mics in New York cabarets this month at The Reprise Room. Tackling the Gershwin song bag, her choices don't offer many surprises as she sticks with the standards on the 14 titles. But she throws in a few twists here and there with shifts in mood and tempo within a track and some artistic license. For example, in "I've Got a Crush on You," she begins with just the last part of the verse and later sings some of the verse's lyric to the music of the chorus. At the end of that number, she embellishes the lyric with some new words. For good measure and variety, one of Gershwin's more classical melodies is added to a couple of arrangements.
Her first-rate players also keep things pretty fresh and tasty in the musical brew. Three were also on her interesting first album, 2004's The Right Time: pianist Gloria Cooper, percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell and guitarist John Hart. The other musicians here are bass player Dean Johnson, drummer Matt Wilson trumpeter Jim Rotondi and sax player Don Braden. The singer's interplay with musicians is often attentive and inventive and, though I'd have liked more soloing from such accomplished folks, when they do get the spotlight, it's wonderful.
Melody seems to envelop herself in melodies, lingering in languid moods sometimes, kind of reluctantly (as I hear it) picking up tempo. There are times when it seems she might need to let go and be looser on rhythmic tunes and a slight case of inertia makes her seem petulant or uncomfortable. At other times, all is well and she can swing when everyone's on the same page, but a sense of tentativeness can be present.
When she invests the most feeling in a romantic lyric, she evokes a nice sense of yearning and vulnerability with occasional flashes that recall Rosemary Clooney on some (higher) notes. A sincerity often comes through but the projected mood can be inconsistent from line to line, making things feel somehow distracted. A mournful quality, while generally attractive, creeps into songs where it seems inappropriate. Inserting a rueful spoken section on "They All Laughed" with asides and talking some lyrics seems misguided and odd, attempting to insert bitterness. She's at her best with ruminative ballads like "How Long Has This Been Going On?"
Taking risks that sometimes pay off, and sometimes seem off-putting, Melody Breyer-Grell and company (such wording is the credit for the arrangements) have some fairly fascinating moments with their Fascinatin' Rhythms.
On May 7 at 6 pm, Melody will sing in the free "Any Wednesday" weekly series at Barnes & Noble, Broadway and West 66th Street.
UNDER THE RADAR
THE KURT WEILL PROJECT
They're going under the radar because they're going under the name The Kurt Weill Project, at least for now. To employ one of the CD's song titles, "This Is New." Well, sort of. The members have been around. Pianist-producer Frank Ponzio, who did some of the arranging, has recorded several albums. Bass player Peter Donovan has played with artists such as Barbara Cook, drummer Vito Lesczak has played with jazz stars such as Andy Bey. All vocals are by Hilary Gardner who has appeared on albums with various groups. A soprano, her voice can be clear or take on a smoky quality and she is particularly effective with sustained tones, with an attractive vibrato she uses judiciously. Also heard on the album are clarinetist Aaron Heick (featured on the final track, "Youkali," the only one not sung in English) and trumpeter Leif Arntzen (his muted work adding greatly to the ambience of the time suspension of a super-slow "Speak Low" that runs seven minutes in length).
Eleven numbers from the Weill songbook are heard, including well-covered show tune standards like and "September Song," and the title song from Lost in the Stars, but they get mostly moody, jazzy interpretations. Most tracks are on the long side, with five running longer than six minutes, allowing for generous instrumental passages and slow, sultry tempi. Melodrama and heaviness associated with some Weill material is largely absent, or at least takes more of a back seat, even in "Pirate Jenny" which does not cause its usual shiver down the spine. "Lonely House" becomes contemplative rather than haunting and desperate. The album title comes from a lyric in "Love Song" from Love Life, the musical written ion collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner. The energy picks up for this and for "Mack the Knife" without either getting a rollicking treatment - more of a hip groove with some spice.
The instrumentalists are generally laidback rather than forceful. They are exploratory with the music, rarely satisfied to just restate the basic melody. This is not a high-energy, wild jazz red hot on-fire playing, but more like nice slow-burning embers. Tasteful and mature it all is, and that's fine by me.