The path one singer might choose, another eschews. Some of Liza Minnelli's early recordings, just reissued, show her on the path to superstardom but avoiding material associated with her famous mother, Judy Garland. Likewise, Steve Kirwan skips songs written for Garland on his Harold Arlen CD. Linda Foster's debut CD, Roads Traveled, takes a variety of routes.
Standards and show tunes, including four Harold Arlen melodies, were included on her first solo albums in the mid 1960s, but Liza Minnelli was determined to go down her own road. She was ready to move beyond being known simply as "Judy Garland's daughter". In this packed double-disc set (55 tracks) are her first three solo albums in full, plus more. There are 20 songs that were recorded as singles, some never released until now, and one track recorded for LP, but left off: a brash medley of "Walk Right In" and "How Come You Do Me Like You Do." Some have never been on CD before. Certainly there are times when there is a lack of restraint, with some something shrill coming along with a thrill, but a legend was already developing.
Here is Liza in her late teens, with her youth and exuberance bubbling over - or even exploited - on some tracks, while on others she sounds wiser than her years. The bursting-at-the-seams energy of "I'm All I've Got," from a then-recent Broadway show, Bravo, Giovanni, is balanced by a plaintive and thoughtful "I Knew Him When." Much of the material heard on the first CD in this double set allowed the developing singer-actress to express the restlessness, optimism and determination of youth, as well as the confusion and thrill of first brushes with romance. The girlishness and humor retain their charm, and there are many excellent performances with a sense of daring in some and heart-on-her-sleeve tenderness in others.
Her third Capitol Records studio set, There Is a Time, begins the second disc. It had an emphasis on songs originally introduced in French, though she sang in English. No matter. She was still taking on the role of dramatic chanteuse. Most were on the serious and dramatic side, but for zip and bounce, she chose a couple of songs heard in French-set film favorites directed by her father, Vincente Minnelli: Gigi's "The Parisians" and An American in Paris' borrowed "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."
Then come the singles intended to be pop hits. Some are blatantly commercial, striving for a teen sensibility, projecting adolescent angst or puppy love. Many now sound hopelessly hokey and dated. (They were saddled with charts that aped the beat and musical trends of the moment, whereas many of the album tracks are timeless: standard songs with imaginative orchestral arrangements by two of the best in the business: Peter Matz and Ray Ellis.) These singles have more than an amusing historical footnote to offer. There's some good singing in full voice that will please Liza fans eager to hear her with no holds barred and some titles are of special interest: four are different versions of numbers from her Broadway debut, Flora the Red Menace by Kander & Ebb, and their fans will note the same team's "At My Age" and the first recording of her trademark "Liza with a 'Z'," both previously unreleased. Musical theatre followers will also appreciate "Marriage is for Old Folks" from the Off-Broadway musical The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a welcome choice.
In the forgiving hindsight of 2006, some of the weaker fluff stuff seems sweetly innocent or amusing. None of these attempts became radio hits, and many were left on the shelf, but it does make one wonder if one or a few of the singles recorded prior to her first album had caught on with the intended teen market, would the new recording artist have continued down a very different road rather than the one called Broadway? In any case, thanks to DRG Records, this road called Memory Lane will provide a very happy ride for Liza fans, with long-lost surprises, too. It's all lovingly remixed, remastered and packaged with the original LP covers and photos of the star, in a booklet with notes that are both a valentine and an informed perspective, courtesy of reissue producer and longtime Minnelli champion, Scott Schechter.
And Liza keeps going. She performs tonight (Thursday, August 17) in a free concert in the park opposite the New York Aquarium in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
Here's a Harold Arlen tribute album, appearing the year after the composer's centenary. I'm glad to see the party isn't over. Steve Kirwan may sing of "the fairy tale I read when I was so high" (in a grand and serious "Out of This World") and of "sittin' on a rainbow" in the hip opening track, "I've Got the World on a String," but the title of his CD and the booklet photos make a point. Unlike the other Arlen salutes, Steve is avoiding that most covered number, "Over the Rainbow," and the rest The Wizard of Oz. When he laments that "suddenly the cyclone came," we're not in Kansas anymore; it's a line from the "When the Sun Comes Out" and the storm he's weathering is a lover's exit. Likewise, the lyric line "the same old witchcraft" is love's power in "That Old Black Magic." These are grown-up experiences in the very real world of romantic entanglements. Steve's treatments of these two last named numbers find him in busy arrangements, ratcheting things up vocally as if his life depended on it. Some will find the all-stops-out tracks like these to be exciting and pulse-quickening, others will hear them as overwrought divo turns. I think he's most successful in more subtle treatments. He doesn't need to go for broke to connect with the material or his audience. He has a knack for doing it without high drama.
Working primarily with arranger-orchestrator Raul Ferrando, with some arrangements by guitarist Jerry Cole, there is a contemporary feel to the musical dressings. R&B and pop sensibilities are brought to these songs from the 1930s and '40s, and Steve and his band sound comfortable, as do his guest and background singers. Four of CD's ten selections are from the score of St. Louis Woman, with Johnny Mercer's lyrics, including the two duets. Nita Whitaker shares vocal honors on the more satisfying of the two, "I Had Myself a True Love," and Catte Adams is Steve's partner on "Come Rain or Come Shine." My favorite track comes at the very end, and it's the least known song: "With the Sun Warm Upon Me," comes from the motion picture musical The Farmer Takes a Wife, with a Dorothy Fields lyric that celebrates Nature. It finds Steve at his best and most convincing: never overstated, truly joyful.
There are many moments of pleasure throughout the album, with refreshing phrasing in many of the very familiar lines. Steve sounds quite connected to the emotions and in the moment, even when I don't love each twist and turn in the musical roads he and his arrangers take. There are adventurous choices. This is his second solo album; the first (in 1999) was Blame It on My Heart, comprised mostly of songs he wrote himself.
If you're in the Hollywood area this Saturday night, you can hear Steve at The Gardenia. The varied styles on Steppin' 'Round the Yellow Brick Road show he can be a cool jazz guy, a sensitive balladeer and quite the showman, too.
UNDER THE RADAR
This column always travels roads that are not on everyone's radar, seeking out recordings independently released and voices not widely known. This week, that mission leads us to...
The musical Roads Traveled by singer Linda Foster - who's based in Rochester, New York - have apparently led her in many directions. By and large, they lead to rewarding listening on her debut album. Her soprano tones are clean and pleasing; there's a formality and gentility to some of her singing that has its pluses and minuses. On the minus side, it prevents her from sounding as completely emotionally involved and vulnerable as she might on the Rodgers & Hart lament of a lost love, "He Was Too Good to Me," pretty though it is. The formality suits the style of the Langston Hughes poem "Luck" set to glorious music by Ricky Ian Gordon, making for an elegant and noble reading. Linda manages to shed the white gloves for some light and comic numbers, like Christine Lavin's delightful character piece, "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind." She's a delight as the woman who, for the sake of impressing her man, is gamely trying and professing to love things that actually make her feel bored, terrified or nauseated.
Theater and cabaret writing team Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler are represented by two numbers: their sweet tale of a crush on "Taylor, the Latte Boy" and "Funny How the Love Gets in the Way." In the latter, Linda etches an intelligent and nuanced but heartbreaking rendition, without resorting to any melodrama or self-pity. Also very moving is "In the Morning" about key moments in a mother and son relationship, from Gregg Coffin's musical, Convenience. This track stopped me in my tracks, and sent me off to explore this musical I didn't know previously - thanks in large measure to Linda's convincing performance and respectful treatment.
Pianist Don Kot is also the arranger on all tracks (except "In the Morning," a collaboration with Michael Gribbin and songwriter Coffin); he does fine work. Assorted guest musicians add to the variety in sound and repertoire on the album. Two more songs from scores of musicals are included: Nine's "Very Unusual Way" (close to the usual way of the original, in tempi and interpretation) and a Harold Arlen melody with a cute "list"-style lyric by Johnny Mercer, the rarely heard "A Lot in Common with You," introduced by Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie in the film The Sky's the Limit. Linda has fun with this, too. The CD concludes with Linda singing Jean Anouilh's French words that translate as being about "paths of despair, paths of remembrance, paths of the first day." Linda's path seems to find her headed in the right direction.
Next week, as summer winds down, Ann Hampton Callaway's new CD (it has three Harold Arlen melodies, including the one that gives the album its name, Blues in the Night), the cast album of Grey Gardens - both due in stores on Tuesday - and more.