This week: three singers with especially striking voices, and strikingly different from each other.
"Isn't it rich? ..." Hearing Sheera Ben-David sing the first line of the very familiar "Send in the Clowns," three-quarters of the way through her CD, she could be asking a rhetorical question about her striking, velvety voice. Not allergic to drama, her performances set moods quickly, arriving fully formedcutting to the chase and cutting no corners vocally because she has the range and control. A cloak of melancholy is something she can wrap around herself comfortably, unselfconsciously. However, there's a palpable sense of wanting to reach out and communicate and be understood, rather than shut others out and be lost in self-pitying gloom. When she tosses off that cloak to exult in being "King of the World," (Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World), it's a joyful and defiant release. Projecting some of an "old soul"'s wisdom and understanding beyond her years on the heavier material, her heartrending renderings command respect as she pours out both the melody and what seems to be lived-in philosophy. In different ways, the reaching-out "Here's to Life" and the thrust-inward sorrowful lament "I Miss the Mountains" (Tom Kitt/ Brian Yorkey) are drenched with determined desire to face and embrace life's ups and downs. Perhaps "catharsis" is the key word here.
There are three melodies by Jacques Brel, whose music was the sole focus of her previous album. She revisits one piece here, the tour de force "Carousel." Three songs from composer-lyricist John Bucchino, whose unabashedly naked-heart songs suit her well: the pain in "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," the wistful "Unexpressed" and the carpe diem plea to hold tight to "This Moment." These three have her with just piano accompaniment, and the simpatico playing is by her talented musical director/arranger/producer: her brother, Adam Ben-David, conductor of Jersey Boys on Broadway. On others, bass and drums are present, with guitar on a couple of cuts as well. (The album was recorded during live performances, but the applause is basically edited out and there's no patter. Sheera's current live gig is performing at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida where she is through Saturday.)
One goes for quite an emotional ride when spinning On a Carouselif not for the obvious title reference to the Brel number, it might just as well be called On a Roller Coaster. Sheera's depth of feeling examining the highs and lows of feelings resonate as much as her full-bodied voice.
Looking at some of the more familiar, oft-recorded material, there does not seem to be an agenda for re-inventing or trying significantly different approaches with new angles or tempi. It's all approached with great integrity and respect, passionately sung, but without the kind of touches that make one look at a well-known song in a totally new way. Surely there's room for one more version of each of those when sung so skillfully and powerfully, with thoughtful, throbbing theatricality. With Sheera, sheer vocal prowess could almost be enough and, if the rest is just icing on the cake, there's quite a lot of icing and it's the best kindtasteful, interestingand rich.
The ethereal and lovely, legato sounds of high-voiced Theo Bleckmann might not seem like the typical casting choice for German politically minded, tough-minded songs, but consider the possibilities of catching more flies with honey than vinegar. Besides, with almost everything sung in German, if you aren't up on the language, the attractiveness of the melodies gets brought out even more. We've heard versions of "Moon of Alabama" (one of three Bertolt Brecht- Kurt Weill songs included here) with gruff, whiskey-voiced singers intoning "show us the way to the next whiskey bar," so why not a honey-voiced one? This number is one of the few sung in English (partly, anyway; a gentle yet arresting "Falling in Love Again" is also sung in both languages, and is a major highlight). In this latest of his albums, the singer known for experimenting with different styles and experimenting comes up with an often intriguing presentation, sounding comfortable in the genre du jour.
Seventeen of the 23 numbers have lyrics by Brecht, but it's composer Hanns Eisler whose work gets the spotlight for 13 of those. The music can be serious and contemplative, but not especially heavy and brooding. Some have an "art song" feel in their attractive refinement, and, while melodic, may not be somewhat elusive rather than traditionally accessible. The piano accompaniment and arrangements of Fumio Yasuda and the playing of the four other musicians (all playing strings) also bring out the grace and elegance or intensity and darkness of each piece. "Als ich dich in meinem Lieb trug" is an interesting study in contrast, with tension via pizzicato playing by strings and analogous clipped phrasing by the singer, an a capella section, a short flight of pretty humming, and the strings come back with a hint of foreboding. The harsh consonant sounds of the German language are sometimes softened here, with lyrics often crooned.
The packaging does not provide the lyrics or any summary of their subject matter; newcomers are left to their own devices to get a clue beyond what's felt by listening and the album's theme, stated in its subtitle: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile. (Born in Austria in 1898, Eisler, spent most of his time in Germany and was a politically involved man who thought music should reflect politics and struggle; he came to the USA but was deported in 1948, despite the support of fellow musicians such as Leonard Bernstein.) But angst and sturm und drang won't be the pervading musical feel at all, lyrics aside.
The last three tracks end the generous program (an hour and 17 minutes) with another change of pace: the familiar "Lili Marleen" making a graceful appearance without milking the nostalgia, and then there are two pieces showing Theo as a composer, setting the work of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). However, he resists showcasing his elastic voice with rangy melodic leaps or bravura moments.
The hypnotic and unusual stylings of Theo Bleckmann can be experienced in person tonight in New York as he performs a mixed program at The Stone in downtown Manhattan with guitarist Ben Monder, with whom he collaborated on another recent CD, At Night. In person, this singer (reviewed in the past in this column for his Las Vegas Rhapsody with many songs from shows and movies, in English) is quite compelling, too. Another current release features him as part of a vocal group, Moss, to be reviewed soon. High praise for this high-voiced artist again, and a salute to his adventurousness in recordings and performances
UNDER THE RADAR
This CD is her second, following 2004's self-released, similarly titled Journey into the Fourteenth Hour. Anna Maria Flechero is a San Francisco singer who also spent some time working in Japan. I'm happy to now come across her with the appearance of her new CD, released just this week. A jazz singer who sounds assured and in the groove in different tempi, she's easy to enjoy.
There's some subtle work being done, originality with phrasing as she takes her time and accents surprising words and notes with a slight variation. This may be her greatest strength. Taking songs like "Autumn Leaves" at a slow pace, rubato, with a laidback accompaniment, she can make these changes. Sometimes she may go too far, as she adds words, which might be too much for purists. For example, taking the line "And soon I'll hear old winter's song/ But I miss you most of all, my darling," it becomes, "And so soon I would hear it, that winter's song, but you know I miss you most of all, my, my, my darling." But generally, it's less extreme than that, and her slight shifts in emphasis are more effective, keeping the words exactly as they were. The liberties and embellishments she indulges in with The Beatles' "And I Love Her" make it a warm and thoughtful reflection. It also gives pianist Jeffrey Chin his best solo; he's also the arranger and producer.
Two tracks feature the major jazz pianist Cedar Walton: "Misty" and "God Bless the Child," which is one of album's strongest cuts and is particularly thoughtful in its spinning out of the words, with a quiet shadow of the blues. Most tracks have piano, bass and drums with sax and/or guitar on several.
Included are a couple of the most recorded classics from the musical theatre canon: "Summertime" and a surprisingly bluesy "My Funny Valentine"; she even finds some new nuances on these. She scat sings nicely, and it would be great to hear more of that than just quick passes. The Roberta Flack hit "Feel Like Makin' Love" isn't as successful, as it doesn't seem to fit in with the classics and seems too offhand, like filler. Also notable is the final track, which she wrote herself and is a serious and moving tribute to her mother: "Pretty Soon" with deeply personal lyrics.
This is a singer whose sound is growing on me as I listen.