Hear it and see it! As 2006 closes, we look at some CDs that have come in over the year that have a companion DVD. A growing trend? Good marketing idea? We shall see.
It's the quirky movie musical of the year, with little offbeat conversational and mock-serious songs. It's wonderfully loopy. Dan Mirvish's film Open House has songs by him, Lawrence Maddox, Joe Kraemer and Andrew Melton. It's all about real estate agents showing homes to prospective clients, or so it would appear. But not all the people are who they claim to be. It's a case of hidden agendas. Sounding like "average" people with modest voices bursting into songs sprinkled with unlikely vocabulary words all the while being quite dramatic is part of the oddball charm. The CD states that the songs were performed live on the set of the movie, rather than pre-recorded and then lip-synched.
All of the actors do well in their roles but many are not sterling singers. However, there are a couple of people who know their way around a song: Rent's Anthony Rapp (he's a delight) plays an over-eager guy who's showing one house, insisting that it is "Fantabulous" - the number starts as a tour of the abode in rhymed spoken praise and turns into a hyperactive song and dance. Later, he has a solo that is surprisingly emotional. Sally Kellerman as a blowsy, deadpan, boozing real estate pro nails her lament, "Sellin' a Dream" that morphs into a misery-loves-company duet with Jerry Doyle.
To hear the soundtrack CD on its own is a head-scratching experience. You wouldn't "get" it without some background. The juxtaposition of the songs with the on-screen action often is the key. For example, a married policeman and the policewoman he's having an affair with sing passionately of their "Safe House of Love" while casually intercepting, roughing up and handcuffing crooks. But once you've seen the film, the CD becomes a favorite souvenir (even though the order of the musical numbers is different), especially with the included dialogue. The musical accompaniment does not call attention to itself, serving to make the singing seem both naturalistic and ludicrous.
The movie is full of delicious bits and reactions, including sudden choreography on staircases, a car chase, and a couple who get turned on by imagining themselves as the erstwhile residents of a dwelling and stealing items as they house hop. (Let's just say they make themselves at home.) The ending has some surprises - a few last twists in this somewhat twisted tale, one providing Ann Magnuson with a great moment going back and forth between musical sobbing about "The Lies" she's lived with, and biting interchanges with other cast members.
I think Open House is a very smart brand of nuttiness that takes chances and wins. The DVD and CD are available separately, the CD only at CDBaby.com (all of the other items in this column come as packages). You'll just have to make the same decision about the movie as you would with a home: to buy or to rent.
Although Mamma Mia! never bothered to put out a separate album of its Broadway cast, the show recently celebrated its fifth anniversary on the Great White Way by reissuing the original London cast CD with three bonus tracks along with a companion DVD and booklet. The cover is now a gleaming silver.
There isn't much to be said about the three bonus tracks. Tacked on at the end, bringing the total to 27 cuts, the extra cuts are peppy versions of the title song, "Dancing Queen," and "Waterloo." The first two are heard in longer versions on the pre-existing cast album, but "Waterloo" is not heard elsewhere on this CD. All three are sung by the large company ("Dancing Queen" features the three female leads who play The Dynamos), with cheers from an audience and some audible clapping along. This makes for a live curtain call add-on to the original cast album experience. All told, the bonus tracks take up about six minutes of playing time, and the sound quality is fine, with the lyrics easy to understand and the ensemble sounding spirited.
The booklet and fold-out outside packaging have photographs from various productions, but mostly of the London company, and all of the lyrics. Besides a few sentences on the last page, there is no commentary. That comes on the DVD, which is actually rather short and doesn't show very much of Mamma Mia! in performance. The video is not as much lighthearted fun or self-congratulation as you might expect. It is hosted by Tina Maddigan and Joe Machota, who played the young couple in the original Broadway cast. They reminisce and tease each other in scripted dialogue that they seem to think is hilarious but often comes off as more smug and silly, like the lame exchanges sometimes heard by celebrity co-presenters on awards shows. There is, however, a nice touch of irony in hearing Tina tell how she got the role three weeks after applying for a job at the same theater - as an usher - and being rejected. More interesting are the recollections by members of the creative team. There are some mini-clips of various international productions; these are highlights. There is also a bit of footage of ABBA in their heyday. Audiences seeking more of that on DVD, and a real look at the group's history and music, including some Mamma Mia! memories would do better with their Super Troupers DVD.
The show is still packing 'em in at The Winter Garden this winter and to say it's a big hit after the London success, these five years in New York, plus productions in 130 other cities, would be as redundant as some of its song titles: "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," "Honey, Honey," and, of course, "Money, Money, Money."
If you're looking for jazz superstars, for an introduction or revisit, you've come to the right place. The DVD and CD Showcase have the same musical numbers: 13 selections of diverse material by established artists. The DVD's extra features are website-ish: biographies of the performers, photos, etc. These strong performances are culled from the jazz television series hosted by veteran Ramsey Lewis, whose own piano performance of the John Coltrane composition "Dear Lord" ends the CD on a note of elegance and reverence.
The collaborations are especially captivating: watching jazz performers interact and revel in each other's in-the-moment work is great. This is best illustrated with Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling setting sparks off each other as they cook with their vocalese and also singing some of the lyrics to the major jazz hit recorded by Dave Brubeck, "Take Five." Brubeck himself teams up with Billy Taylor for a two-piano version of "Take the A Train" that is a fine meeting of two elder statesmen. Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli combine attractive forces on the Gershwins' classic "They Can't Take That Away From Me," certainly a highlight. The other show tune on hand is the ubiquitous "My Funny Valentine." (The jazz joke making the rounds is "How many jazz singers does it take to sing 'My Funny Valentine'?" - The answer is: "Apparently, all of them.") It takes an especially moving performance to freshen it, and trumpeter Chris Botti does that. His playing and phrasing have passion and thoughtfulness.
There's not a weak spot in the set, although certainly those with only a limited appreciation of jazz might not appreciate all the tracks. The performances, neither overly-indulgent nor abstract, are more accessible than other various artists collections I've known, and visually they pull you in, with attractively filmed sequences that focus on the energy and show close-ups of the dexterity of flying fingers on instruments. My beef with the direction and camera work are that the camera rarely stays with one shot for long. They are constant changes of angles, and a tilted view is favored too frequently, giving the illusion of a show on a cruise ship that is leaning left. Even so, the show is produced very beautifully, the stage often bathed in blue, the artists lovingly filmed. Likewise, the sound quality on the CD is warm and clear.
Some humor comes with Clark Terry's performance of "Mumbles" and the live audience is much appreciative. (The audience is never distracting.) But if you're seeking watered-down mellow melody, you won't find it here: this collection has more heat than sweet. Great to hear, even better to see.
Some singers have a bag of tricks and a unique sound, create fireworks or have a certain mystique. Others have some appeal in a straightforward, no-frills kind of way. The latter describes tasteful vocalist Bob Stewart, a non-groundbreaking type, and what can you say about such an unassuming performer? He's tall, he has white hair, he sings songs. He doesn't showboat, he doesn't turn the songs inside out and approach them at all unconventionally. In fact, on the DVD he does some numbers in tribute to Frank Sinatra, sometimes borrowing the basic arrangements of the master, just underscoring whatever similarities you'd notice otherwise. But Bob's versions lack the Sinatra assertiveness, making them somewhat more "polite" approaches. Taking that into account, the strengths of the I Concentrate on You package still are apparent, even more so on a second and third go-round. I've had the same reaction to his previous CDs: his conservative and gentlemanly ways around a song grow on me.
The man's singing career had a long intermission. It began over 50 years ago and when rock and roll came in, he bowed out for decades. Since his return, he's put out several albums, this latest being a double dose of Bob: a CD with 14 tracks and a DVD with 18 numbers recorded live, with only "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" on both. Recorded over the last few years, the set has just been issued this fall. The DVD is, unfortunately, rather frustrating: the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, with the instruments sounding muddy. Though much of the singing is fine, the DVD overall has a low-energy feel. The vocalist often remains quite stationary, and the camera usually does, too - when it pans to the band during solos and then back to Bob, it's sometimes late. When the shot includes band members who are not playing, their inattentiveness just adds to the draining of energy. Tedd Firth, the dynamic pianist, could be better appreciated if there were camera angles that let us really watch him or if there were crisper sound. Still, his talent comes through in the small-group numbers that begin the visuals. When the bigger Virgil Scott Swing Band comes in, the challenges of the miking and acoustics become even more apparent. Despite these shortcomings, Bob's fondness for the standards and comfort with the big band style is clear. Though his greatest strength is probably as a sincere balladeer, he can swing gently and when he uses more vocal strength for sustained notes, it's effective.
The audio disc is far more satisfying. The material offers a few more opportunities to delve into introspective lyrics, and Bob rises to the occasions with involved phrasing. With his voice revealing a sense of melancholy, "The Masquerade Is Over" and "A Cottage for Sale" are highlights. Both are among the five tracks with an excellent quartet that features the veteran Hank Jones on piano, Chip Jackson on bass, Glenn Drewes on trumpet, and Ronnie Zito on drums. The drummer is also part of the group on all the other tracks, along with the late Sir Roland Hanna on piano, Gary Keller on reeds and bass player extraordinaire, Jay Leonhart. Among the tracks with this second group, there's a sly and sprightly jaunt with "Love Is Just Around the Corner" and a leisurely exploration of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" that sidesteps the tricky introductory notes but is otherwise nicely done. It's one of five tracks that lasts over four minutes, but the musicians in both groups get room to shine and their class-act jazz playing contributes mightily to the pleasures.
Besides the title song of this set, which is on the CD, there are four more Cole Porter numbers, all on the video portion. Other show tunes on the DVD are Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love" and "Ol' Man River," and "The Lady Is a Tramp." I should point out that, although the DVD is problematic, financially it actually is a "bonus" disc as claimed, for the price of the set is the same or less than the list price of single CDs.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a singer who has plenty of experience performing but hasn't recorded much. This is Jamie Davis' second album, and it is the debut release from a new label.
If you watch first and listen later, the DVD accompanying Jamie Davis' CD It's a Good Thing is an appetizer. Seen after, it's a lesson in appreciation of what went into recording this impressive, swinging album. You only get relatively brief bits of the skilled deep-voiced singer actually singing; musically, you hear more of the sensational band. What it's full of is evidence of dedication, skill and a love for the task at hand, as those involved comment and are viewed listening to each other's contributions with great joy and respect. No bad vibes here.
Some of the musicians are more articulate and specific than others in their reflections and reactions, but it's real and the editing doesn't allow anyone to ramble on. Their down-to-earth quality is refreshing, and the pointed-out elbow-to-elbow mix of generations is rather moving. Several of these musicians are veterans of the Count Basie Band which employed Jamie on their tours. Watching conductor Shelly Berg and producer Greg Errico at work is interesting: both have such enthusiasm for the project and their cohorts - and for good music in general. The editing is so well done that you don't feel the snippets of music are a tease, except when you hear strains of "On the Street Where You Live" and find it's not on the album.
But what is on the CD is plenty cool. Relaxed but vibrant, Jamie sounds comfortable with all the material, which is a mix of jazz, pop and blues. He's loose and sometimes seemingly offhand. On two ballads, "The Very Thought of You" and "My Funny Valentine," he proves he can pour more tender emotion into a romantic song and shade it well. I suppose it's nitpicking, but in the latter, his singing "don't change your hair for me" instead of "don't change a hair for me," may well be accidental but it bothers me in such a famous lyric. Likewise, in George Harrison's "Something," on the line "you're asking me will my love grow" he sings "heart" instead of "love," but it's no deal-breaker. Jamie's bass-baritone voice is lower and grittier than your average Joe, unless your average Joe is Joe Williams, the late Basie alumnus whom he recalls a bit, especially when he takes on the trademark "Every Day I Have the Blues." But he's no copycat.
With a band this expert getting a lot of focus and time to play in arrangements with a kick, this is a listening experience that's as much about the musicians as the singer. There are five different arrangers, and they use the band well, with wailing saxes and brass blaring or providing flourishes. The excellent sound quality and very "alive" presence indicated in the DVD is a promise fulfilled.
There's more about Jamie at his website, and additional performances can be seen and heard there, too. An album title like It's a Good Thing tempts a reviewer to simply say, "yes, it is," and leave it at that. So, I will.
The next two columns will be devoted to the Top Ten lists of exceptional CDs released in 2006. January 4's Sound Advice will cover the cast albums, and the following week will look at vocalists. Feel free to lobby for your favorite by e-mail with a click on my name below. I'm still narrowing down my list; it was a very good year.