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Marvelous Marta; Amazing Grace


Recommended listening comes from vocalists who've perked up my ears and piqued my interest.

PanacheMARTA SANDERS
PANACHE

I've been wanting to spread the news flash about Panache, the spiffy and spunky album by the splendid Marta Sanders, but had to wait until it was available online. The time has finally come this month, as she returned to perform again at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Marta is a pip. She's an old-school musical comedy belter who can deliver socko sarcasm, super-silliness, and genuine warmth. Her enjoyable prior album focused on Spanish-language selections and was earthy and rich, but didn't show the many colors of her madcap and mercurial sides or the out-and-out broad goofy glee she can bring to a story-song about eyeing a "Hunk on the Bus," which begins with her admitting to drooling over a stud-muffin and builds to an absurd, over-the-top ending. Another bus ride is a serious one—"The Bus from Amarillo" (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas by Carol Hall). It's filled with regrets of thwarted ambition trumped by insecurity and the burdens of wondering what might have been and the self-scolding are palpable. Also in that vein—but even more searing because the wound feels more raw and fresh—is Mame's classic "If He Walked Into My Life." It becomes a strong entry as a case of rue and self-recrimination, and all the more gut-wrenching by Marta's making it less about wailing while riding the train of self-pity and more about slowly, reflectively reeling from realizations and being pained by one's too-little-too-late awareness.

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" brings encouraging insight and then she jumps into a spot-on embrace of the sardonic point of view and joie de vivre in "But Alive" from Applause. (Her bubbliness and wink at weariness is captured in her sharp delivery of lines like "younger than springtime and older than Moses, but alive.") The old ode to appreciation of Nature and life's joys, "What a Wonderful World," which can be unspeakably treacly in others' hands, but survives here to be believably sincere and simple. And, oh, this gal can be brash and boisterous pulling out all the stops when she so chooses. She has a ball singing the dubious praises of "Warsaw" as a romantically idyllic spot ("Warsaw/ I never foresaw/ How much I'd miss you/ Enchanted city by the lovely Wisla River").

Especially delicious is Panache's title song (bemoaning the current day's lack of flair) and the number that's become her theme song, "Been Around the Block." The latter's older-but-wiser/wise-ass mix of self-confidence and self-deprecation ("I recognize my cue/ I know the score/ I've been there, done it, seen it all/ Wrote the whole damn book/ I've no regrets, I mean it all/ I'm smarter than I look ...")

Best of all, this material fits her like a custom-fit, well-crafted glove. Such very special material is fashioned by longtime colleagues, the top musical theatre/cabaret team of lyricist Jay Jeffries and composer/pianist/musical director John McMahon. It's polished and smart and delivered with gusto. Some vibrato and powerhouse wailing (here and elsewhere) add to the impact of a gutsy gal who stakes her claim to attitude and songs.

Marta Sanders is a queen of clowning. And when a clown can unexpectedly break your heart by dropping the shenanigans to be real and tender, it's potent. There's pizzazzy panache throughout Panache.

TO LAURA WITH LOVE:
GRACE COSGROVE SINGS LAURA NYRO

Chantooz Music

A fascinating combination of wistful vulnerability and a survivor's strength through determination, innocence and burdened wisdom, as melancholy alternates with pure joy, can describe the work of Laura Nyro. And Grace Cosgrove's tribute to her work is inflected with all that. The lovely-voiced singer's impressive CD, To Laura with Love, also reminds us of the many genres of music that were melded in the songwriting. While Grace's brighter, lighter sound and personality eschews the deep, dark places Nyro could go as a performer of her own material, the difference prevents this from being a slavish imitation. The arrangements sometimes take their respectful cue from the memorable original recordings by the difficult-to-classify iconoclast; several tracks off the beaten track refresh the material and make it shine (or haunt) in new ways. It's an ambitious project, but longtime Laura admirer Grace Cosgrove pulls it off.

While the Nyro recordings often featured the artist singing with her own voice multi-tracked for exquisite, overlapping harmonies, Grace instead has brought on board three sensational harmony/back-up singers: background vocal arranger Margaret Dorn and Emily Bindiger (members of the vocal group The Accidentals) plus Diane Garisto, whose varied resume includes her own Nyro tribute and recording with Laura Nyro herself. It's an exciting and rewarding blend.

There's breathtaking, heartbreaking work on "I Never Meant to Hurt You," the little gem that's an elegant quiet apology and one of the writer's most accessible works (beyond those have ingratiating grooves and rollicking and/or rocking refrains). Those include "Flim-Flam Man," "Stoney End" and "Time and Love." These were all recorded by Barbra Streisand, one of the singers whose cover versions brought much attention to Nyro's oeuvre and thus to her as a figure in music. So did numbers here which were made hits by vocal groups, like "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness" recorded by The Fifth Dimension (here combined) and "And When I Die" done by Blood, Sweat & Tears. This last piece has perhaps inevitably seemed more meaningful to me after Nyro's own death from breast cancer at age 49 fifteen years ago. (A portion of Grace's revenues go to a related charity.)

A major highlight is a fresh, creative take on "Blowin' Away" arranged by Sean Harkness, who provides the formidable guitar parts throughout. Don Rebic, Grace's longtime musical director, brings his masterful touch and musical acumen to the other settings, and plays piano and organ in the small band. The affection for the originals is evident, but it rarely feels like a roadblock to interpretation. Quite a wise balance is struck between respectful revisits and originality: that's always the tricky part of a tribute. The more "different" approaches never feel cavalier or gimmicky. In fact, if anything, the set might have benefited even more by taking more risks. (The admiration and reference points aren't in danger of being overshadowed.) But those who know the Nyro versions or hit covers will note subtle changes and reinvigorated licks and touches. As a theatre piece done some years ago revealed, there's no shortage of character, drama and pathos in the Nyro catalogue. While some reaches the listener at a visceral level to be sure, and some lines can be provocative, there's also lots of irresistible music that gets one's foot tapping without turning off the brain. That's my kind of music. And Grace Cosgrove "gets" it, and gets a groove going. Her involving and moving live show of the multi-faceted material returns to the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan on January 10 and again on March 7. Like the CD, it's hypnotic and hip.


- Rob Lester


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