Lifetimes and/or Live
British leading man Dave Willetts has quite the resumé at this point, as this recently released album makes us stop and take note of the quarter-century career retrospective (and his landmark 60th birthday, which happened last week). Doing the math, he's been doing musical theatre for more than the 25 years the album title references, but it seems a nod to two consecutive years (1986, 1987) when he took over the main roles in two mega-musicals from their original British stars, first Les Misérables, then The Phantom of the Opera. The latter is represented by the chock-full album's last track, a medley of that big show's big role's big songs. Although he has recorded other versions of some of the numbers sampled here, most of the tracks have not been released before. It's like a scrapbookone whose rather randomly assembled pages, as you turn them, don't hang together especially well due to the sudden shifts of tone and sound quality. With varying styles, accompaniments and sensibilities, plus arrangements that can be either theatre-true or very popby turns emotionally sensitive, glossy or finger-snappyand a mix of live and studio recordings from over the years, the tracks become a hodgepodge of highs and lows.
Though a strong, capable singer, Willetts is not one to consistently overwhelm or overdramatize with volume or muscle. With a voice that has more velvet than metal, usually more balm than bombast, the sound can be quite pretty and even ethereal when in sweet territory. There's a smoothness in his voice that is at times warming and at other times, for me, creates some distance from the potential of gutsy emotion. Often enough, though, it's refreshingly sincere with a captivating vulnerability and vibrato. A melodramatic song I thought had been beaten lifelessly into the ground by being taken on by one earnest-as-hell male voice after another, "This Is the Moment" (from his Timeless album) survives quite well. It's blessed by his gentler manner, less grandstanding and underplayed thoughtful phrasing. Oh, yes, the Jekyll and Hyde item builds to its tornado-type triumph, but assuredly and in a calibrated way that works. A song from another musicalization of the story, "I Dreamed You" (Jekyll, Tony Rees/ Gary Young) is forcefully ardent. His unaffected, clear "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another notch on his career belt) rings out wonderfully and is a blessing amid the mush and flamboyance. It leads me to conclude that the less encumbered Willetts is by florid material or synthetic sounds, the better the results.
Some uninspired or muddy-sounding arrangements don't help. While there are delights among the many (21!) selections, like a newly-recorded crooning of the sentimentally romantic "I'll See You in My Dreams" that charms immensely, others then shock with their schlock. For example, "From Today" repeats its title over and over, an insipid background chorus adding ear insult to injury. And a heads-up for those conservative show tune fans who don't want their leading men leading them astray from tradition: Be aware that some of the theatre songs are styled with sounds and stances decidedly far from their origins. "Once in a Lifetime" from Stop the World I Want to Get Off makes you get off, like it or not, somewhere near the cheese capital of Vegas; a busily boisterous, drama-draining treatment finds Willetts even atypically embellishing lyrics. ("I soar like an eagle as though I had wings" becomes the cavalier, would-be-hip, "I'm gonna soar like that eagle, as though I had his wings.") As other have done with it, "Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon becomes a snazzy, peppy excursion rather than a more tender burst of romantic joy as in the show. And, though he played Ben in Follies, he chooses his character's wife's song, "Losing My Mind," and takes his cue from the techno, fast-beat revamp recorded by Liza Minnelli and The Pet Shop Boys that alarmed some Sondheim purists years ago. It may bring back not-so-dim nightmare memories of that musical highjacking as he mutters about how he "dims the lights" and spends "sleepless nights," etc. No need to spend sleepless nights wondering where you heard the arrangement of a live version of the old chestnut "It Had to Be You." From its very beginning of the big band blast and jauntiness that follows, it's totally ripped off from the version done by Harry Connick, Jr., and heard in the film Sleepless in Seattle.
There are two potentially interesting and intense duets. One is with Carol Woods ("We Love Who We Love"), but they seem to each love a different style of singing and don't quite meshhe awed and hushed, she more presentational and stylized with melisma, and one with the always-welcome Petula Clark, the title song from a musical she co-wrote with Dee Shipley, Someone Like You.
All in all, judging from this potpourri and his other recordings, Dave Willetts has a gorgeous timbre and can be committed interpreter at his best and, while I think some of the choices made by the singer and the uncredited arrangers and musicians can sabotage his talents, listening past thatjust concentrating on the voice itselfis much more a pleasure. After a good chunk of a lifetime, the Once in a Lifetime gent is still very much at it, touring all summer through Britain in the lead role in that musical about putting together a musical (no, not Smash), 42nd Street.
He proudly calls himself a "crooner" and croon he does. But he can sing forcefully when he wants to, though he does not go for the gusto necessarily just for a big show biz/nightclub finish at the end of a chorus as an easy applause-getter. There's a nice mix of musical confidence and personal modesty that comes through in the live performance of José García. It's endearing and captivating. As he sings most of the numbers in his Songs for a Lifetime set, I am particularly struck by a singular strong skill. That is his varying the intensity of his voice or pausing for a millisecond and how that colors the phrasing. A word or phrase stands out for its sudden gentleness, suggesting sensitivity regarding a very specific detail or emotion.
The way he lovingly lays out the lyric of "The Shadow of Your Smile" makes him sound as if he is lovingly, reverently realizing his feelings in the moment. And extra points for including the introductory verse that sets the mood and brings us to a time and place and references the bird that gives title to the movie this song is from: The Sandpiper. In the last line of the verse to another standard, "I Wish You Love," when he croons, "I sincerely want to say," he truly does sound sincere. In a bittersweet break-up song professing a total lack of hard feelings (quite a tall order!), what is at best a throwaway line when others essay it, is totally believable and endearing. That makes all the itemized "wishes" that follow seem lovingly selfless and thus the well-wisher becomes all the more admirable.
For me as a listener and reviewer, the two greatest joys are discovering the new or hearing something so familiar that, through artistry and originality of convincing interpretation, sounds new. I've long known all ten of the songs very well, including the two classics sung in Spanish, so it's a case of the latter. Recorded at an engagement in Palm Desert, California, it's García's debut album, and he seems to have the audience in the palm of his hand. They smack their palms together in long, appreciative applause for which he sounds truly grateful in each "thank you so much!" and one thrilled "Wow!" near the end after an especially strong performance. The singer himself is new to me, tooa happy surprise.
The sensitivity in some moments and joie de vivre in others freshens the familiar brews. A common word becomes special, a passing obvious observation seems like a news flash, an overdone standard sounds just discovered. All this is done without gimmicks and without guile and without anything grandiose. The presence of a live, listening audience may be part of the magic, but there's very direct communication of the story of each song and its immediately crisply setand sustainedmood. That sustaining of mood is all the more crucial when tracks are on the long side, which many are. They don't overstay their welcome or peter out.
Much credit goes to the small band that never lets things slough off, but much of that is due to the guitarist who is the singer himself. His guitar work gets the spotlight for the two ultra-romantic Spanish songs done with affection by this gentle spirit who grew up in Mexico: "Besame Mucho" and "Sabor a Mi." (He began as an instrumentalist, playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music, etc., and only started singing some years into his career.) When it's time for an energized piano break, "Go to it, Carlito!," he calls out (maybe once too often) to his terrific pianist, Carlos Rodgarman. Those breaks are often not just entertaining and deft, but also interesting and add new flavors without undoing what's been established or upstaging the vocalist. In a lovely version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," there's a notable nod to the memorable piano phrases in the arrangement of Tony Bennett's original and later versions (and is José subconsciously or studiously channeling that veteran singer with a little Bennett-esque gravel and ebullience in his voice here?). Pablo Correa is a skillful drummer with variety who doesn't phone things in. A line of text thanking the CD's producer, Mike Paganini, "for adding your sweet bass to this live performance" makes me wonder if bass lines were added in post-production?
OK, a few quibbles. Two songs are not properly credited to both their writers. And the band doesn't seem as tight and together as usual on the final song, Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big"; the singer goes straightforwardly in the direct, straight-ahead buoyant, driving manner so natural for the number while the band seems to be holding him back and cluttering things up. Then, a few changes are evident from the original lyrics to these classic songs. On a live album, this can happen unintentionally, as I suspect strongly is the case with a substituted word that messes up the internal rhyme in a line of "The Shadow of Your Smile" that goes "Our wistful little star was far too high"because when the lyric comes around again, he gets it right. But on the two Cole Porter songs, I would bet the changes are no accident. I recognize two specific personal "hip" alterations in "I Get a Kick Out of You" from the performances of Frank Sinatra. It wouldn't be a stretch to think either he was a role model to this or any male crooner, or maybe he learned the piece from a record. On Porter's "Night and Day," García sullies the literate lyric of this most sophisticated of wordsmiths by jarringly revising a line ungrammatically: "It don't matter where you are." But these are minor annoyances or indulgences, especially for a first album, and a live recording where one might "go with the moment." These guys are clearly in the moment and I just wish there were more than ten songs to relish (despite the generous length of more than five minutes for six of them). I'm tempted to yell "Encore!" each time I play this new favorite. That word translates as: I look forward to another album.