Thank Heaven for music! Here are three albums with "Heaven" in the title. MaryJo Mundy's is named Halfway to Heaven for a cool title song, another is a reissue of Simply Heavenly set in Harlem, and we go under the radar for Keyes to Heaven. But, before we're Heaven-sent, a quick post-Academy Awards stop at the movies from the past.
For her fourth CD, singer Diane Hubka has chosen a baker's dozen of movie songs between the years of 1937 to 1979. The album begins and ends with compositions by Bronislaw Kaper: starting with the earliest song, the spunky "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm," and ending with the title song from Invitation. This CD is a jazz excursion, with some scat singing and long, generous solos by the top-flight musicians in the quartet. All but two of the tracks run longer than four minutes, with five passing the five-minute mark.
Diane has a very clean, clear, unfettered sound. Her style is unfussy; she doesn't ornament her notes when delivering a lyric and doesn't go into for dramatic highs and lows. When approaching a ballad such as "Wild is the Wind," she stays far away from the sentimental side of the street and is almost matter-of-factly straightforward with a song that could have an element of mush or gush. "I'm Old Fashioned" is no slow-go trip to tenderness territory - in fact, it gets an energetic bossa nova workout far from the original Jerome Kern plan in 1943. It's one of two choices with Johnny Mercer lyrics, the other being the title number from The Long Goodbye, a movie that followed 31 years later. This, with a John Williams melody, is Diane's best example of lyric involvement and sensitivity. However, generally speaking, those looking for tearjerkers or heart-tuggers should look elsewhere. That's not to say emotion is kept totally at bay, just kept in check - cool rather than cold, she projects having already analyzed a thought rather than being fraught with trying to figuring her out her feelings. It's a been-there/done-that summary of lessons learned and a statement of where a relationship stands. There are times I long for more emotion and feel there are missed opportunities to explore a deeper lyric's potential.
As a confident jazz singer, Diane is not put off by some adventurously structured melodies that have interesting twists and turns and swoops and rhythms. This allows for some atypical selections with more focus on the jazz exploration potential of musical themes. She sounds quite comfortable indeed with the Antonio Carlos Jobim melody, "Double Rainbow," and its Gene Lees lyric. "The Bad and the Beautiful," a memorable David Raksin theme, is heard with the intriguing, mature lyrics by Dory Langdon.
Pianist-arranger Christian Jacob, whom I've become a fan of largely through his work with singer Tierney Sutton, is a major attraction here. His work is inventive and often unpredictable, not taking safe or usual choices. Carl Saunders on trumpet and flugelhorn contributes some moody and atmospheric layers. Adding to the cool and swing are Chris Colangelo on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. Larry Koonse's superb guitar work is another plus, with Diane playing her own adept guitar accompaniment on one cut, the theme from Black Orpheus, sung in Portuguese. Expect a different kind of trip to the movies with Hubka's Hollywood holiday.
I'll shout to the heavens that Halfway to Heaven by MaryJo Mundy inspires huzzahs and is inspiring because of its subject matter. This is a live recording of a cabaret show at the Gardenia in Los Angeles, the city where the singer is based and hosts a weekly open mic cutely called Mundy on Tuesdays. The theme is a celebration of MaryJo changing her life by confronting personal issues, including having gastric bypass surgery allowing her to say farewell to 150 pounds. Her honesty, humor, and ebullient and likeable personality all come through in the included talk to the audience and careful selection of songs related to self-image, change and food and weight issues specifically.
MaryJo draws in the audience in a "motivational speaker" kind of way through honest soul-bearing and sharing, peppered with joy and joking. Beyond this human interest story, the reasons to celebrate are that the singing is marvelous, the interpretations wise and warm, and the musical accompaniment sensitive or invigorating as required.
This is MaryJo's first solo CD; she's done shows and guested on CDs (Lee Lessack's In Good Company and the various artists' One Meatball put together by Christine Lavin). Her appealing vocal sound has a sweetness and is filled with sunshine. A lyric from the included oldie "It's a Wonderful World" describes the way her voice comes across on disc here: "Everything has such a rosy glow." On the serious side, she commands and sustains attention with thoughtful and mature ballad phrasing. MaryJo makes Jewel's story song of the lonely "Fat Girl" a true heartbreaker, a confessional lament sung to a hushed audience. It's a stunner.
Broadway choices are a slowed-down "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story finding a sense of awe and wonder. "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow starts in a similar mood, then breaks loose. Unbridled belting here and elsewhere can get a little strident when caution is thrown to the wind.
What a treat to have some newer, not done-to-death cabaret-friendly songs beyond the standards. "Am I Lucky or What" (Shelly Markham/ Marie Cain) and "Other Eyes" (Kirby Tepper) are strong showcases for the mindsets on the agenda. Ray Jessel's rambunctious "I'm Gonna Eat" provides welcome comic relief with a flashback to the days of pigging out big time with comfort food.
There are a couple of extra treats here, added to an already strong set. A bonus studio track of the powerful "The Girl Who Used to Be Me" (Marvin Hamlisch/ Marilyn and Alan Bergman) is its own triumph with hope somehow shining through the lyric's regrets. Todd Schroeder, the effective pianist/musical director, gets a solo vocal spotlight with "Bein' Green" and nails its universality and sense of yearning with an appealingly husky sound and honesty in approach to the lyric. He's a super musical partner for MaryJo, and they're joined by Tim Christensen on bass and Terry Schonig as drummer, providing solid support.
Some brave choices make the whole endeavor life-affirming and moving, but the bottom line is that MaryJo Mundy sounds "Delishious" to note and quote another song choice (by the Gershwins) and is a terrific entertainer/communicator. She "gets it" and gets through life and gets through to her listeners.
Half a century after its New York run, it's nice to have the cast album of Simply Heavenly, previously on vinyl, on CD. Much of this is snappy and sassy, with good-natured teasing between characters and some strutting. There are a couple of lighthearted, uncomplicated, dewy-eyed romantic songs plus some strong medicine in the form of the blues. The slice-of-life Harlem tale centering around a bar and its regulars was based on stories by Langston Hughes, who provided the book and lyrics. The feel-good, naturally flowing melodies are by David Martin who also did the orchestrations for the small band. The first lyrics heard are the simple, carefree ones for the title song: "Love is simply heavenly/ What else could it be/ When love is made in heaven/ And you are made for me?" Marilyn Berry breezes through them, setting the mood for a happy-go-lucky time.
The cast is likeable in their presentation of generally playful and easygoing characters. Two spoken sections by the central character, Simple (Melvin Stewart), make their points about racism, employing some humor along the way. His song of determination to emulate a folk hero, "I'm Gonna Be John Henry," is the meatier side of this score, which has a lot of candy in it. The quiet little gem here is also an intoxicating one: "Broken Strings," sung by a character who is a blues-playing guitarist-singer in the bar. The character was played by a real-life blues star, Brownie McGhee, and unfortunately it's his only featured spot. The bigger blues number, "Did You Ever Hear the Blues?," is heard three times on this CD. Instrumentally, it opens the proceedings instead of an overture. Claudia McNeil and John Bouie lead the ensemble, and there's a bonus track of her doing it alone (it's a less gutsy pop recording conducted by Sticks Evans, the show's musical director).
This is quite different in flavor from the 2005 London revival cast album which has showier, more rollicking performances. Each has numbers not included on the other. For example, "The Men in My Life," sung and spoken with relish by Anna English on Broadway, has her character fantasizing about famous men of the day, like Jackie Robinson and Sammy Davis, Jr., mentioning his then-current Broadway musical, Mr. Wonderful.
In addition to the bonus track mentioned above, there are nine non-score items. The dynamic "Love Can Hurt You," recorded in 1950, is a collaboration between Hughes and Juanita Hall (best known as Bloody Mary in South Pacific), who sings it. It's strong, quite a tour de force. The others are by Bertice Reading who performed in a 1958 British production of Simply Heavenly. A rhythm and blues recording artist who also appeared in various shows, she makes a strong positive impression with commanding interpretations of a varied repertoire ranging from blues shouters to a happy romp called "Rock and Roll" and includes two show tunes, swinging her way through "Almost Like Being in Love" and "Love for Sale." These all come from an album made in 1956, and she's accompanied by a quartet.
While Simply Heavenly may not be a heaven-sent musical for Broadway fans, as it feels a bit thin and Langston Hughes' lyrics certainly don't have the depth of what he wrote in Street Scene. But this slice-of-life story is a small slice of heaven with real charm and refreshing unpretentiousness. And the bonus tracks are the icing on a pretty tasty cake.
UNDER THE RADAR
And speaking of Heaven ...
KEYES TO HEAVEN
Eben W. Keyes (1932-2003) was a lyricist who worked on stand-alone songs and scores. Keyes to Heaven is a potpourri of his output. The quite varied material ranges from very earnest and sentimental to lustful longings laced with leering double entendres. Some feels like commercial pop in its structure and treatment, some sits more comfortably in the cabaret world with specific character points of view. It's an uneven album with some real low points, some pearls and a couple of "Huh?" moments. The singers are all talented folks from the cabaret world who, as the album's cover proclaims, have all won MAC Awards, although MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) had no involvement with the album. Four different collaborating composers are represented. By the nature of the project, ostensibly the focus should be on the lyrics, but that doesn't always happen. On some tracks, the music, arrangement or integrity of performance stand outs more.
Being familiar with previous work and strong suits of most of the singers, I'm especially impressed with what many of them bring to the songs and how well matched singer is to song. For example, in "Look at Me Silver," the grace and sincerity Bill Daugherty brings to his work lets the tale of a couple's 25th anniversary sidestep any sticky puddles of Hallmark card mush and he lets his pretty voice float through Blair Weille's melody. In general, I found this and two other songs about growing older to be the strongest. "I Don't Want to Grow Old in Manhattan" (music by Ronald M. Gold) becomes a convincing story song with Carolyn Montgomery, clear in voice and intent as she sings how "cement can't stick like sand." Also in this category, on "I'm Ready for Fall," the masterful Steve Ross projects a clear-eyed and brave perspective on acceptance of the inevitability of aging, mixing restraint with vulnerability. The song's melody is appropriately dignified and graceful; it's by Bob Ost, who spearheaded the album and did the instrumental arrangements, with just a few musicians.
Julie Reyburn ("Handle with Care," melody by Michael Cook) and Lisa Asher ("I'm Here," another Gold composition) both succeed in creating and sustaining dramatic tension and their performances have real integrity. Others are less fortunate in what was assigned to them, but try gamely. Sex and humor can be, well, strange bedfellows in song, or come on with more smarm than charm. The happy exception is Sidney Myer's gleeful and savvy rendition of "Brownies for Breakfast," about belatedly awakened libido, which for some reason is heard in two not-so-different versions. He can make slutty, smutty lines sound kindergarten-innocent and make the tame or lame sound racy and raunchy, all with comic flair.
Heaven knows what to make of some of the rest, and I surely can't tell if "Come to Me, Pretty Lady" is meant to be serious, a put-on, or if Craig Rubano was told to channel Tom Jones playing Zorro, but it's good to hear his strong voice soaring. Since some songs are from revues and musicals, benefit of the doubt says some probably worked better in context, and some pop songs written years ago don't age as gracefully as the aforementioned pieces about growing older.