Here's some cool, cool music to give you a break in the warm summer days ahead:
JASON ROBERT BROWN
Reflecting on life changes, this CD's opening song has lines like "I got a haircut. I guess it's 'cool' ..." It's the title song of the coolest CD I've heard in a long time but perhaps "red hot" is a better description. Reviewers usually come up with their "Ten Best" lists at the end of the calendar year. This week's column finds us at exactly the mid-point of 2005 and if I were asked to look back at the first half of the year for such a list, there'd be no question that this CD would be near the top. The reason is pretty simple: to have a top vocal album, you need not only a dynamic singer but also a top-quality accompanist and arranger/conductor, all of whom must bring out the best in well-written melodies and lyrics. Here, one man who claims to be Wearing Someone Else's Clothes is also wearing many hats. Jason Robert Brown is the singer, pianist, arranger, conductor, composer, lyricist and associate producer and he succeeds in all categories. Best known as a musical theater writer for Parade, Songs For A New World and The Last Five Years, he's now taking center stage himself. He's done this in live shows before, but now it's finally time for his debut as a recording artist.
His songs are passionate, literate and often deeply moving. The material he's written for himself is no different. But let's talk about Jason the singer. The voice is physically strong and powerful - listen to the held notes, modulations and belting. There is a fearlessness in his singing, but his musicianship prevents him from becoming reckless. However, he's not afraid to let rage or euphoria come out when the subject matter leads him there. A tender, vulnerable quality is a striking and pleasing contrast in the tender ballad "Nothing In Common" and in the quieter sections of a few numbers before he steps on the gas. Without dropping names to make comparisons, I'll just say that he will remind you of the best work of several successful pop singer-songwriters of the 1960s and '70s, or what they'd come up with if they had more musical sophistication and were more consistently literate. As a singer, he's riveting.
Jason shows as much musical versatility (well, frankly, more) as pianist on all tracks. An effectively repeated and haunting musical motif, a driving accompaniment, a pause in just the right place to let a word sink in: everything is thought out, like a master plan (or a master class, if your goal is to learn). A bravo to bass player Randy Landau and guitarist Gary Sieger, his indispensible main partners on most tracks. They are called, in fun, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings. Other musicians appear on some numbers and then there are three selections with an orchestra. "Coming Together" has as guest vocalist Broadway favorite Lillias White, and when White and Brown get together, the results are gold. This inspirational number also has a guest conductor, Georgia Stitt, a talented musician in her own right whom Jason also sings love songs to, as she is his wife. She's also one of 29 - count 'em, 29 - voices in a choir which includes many current Broadway names. The same choir appears on "The Music Of Heaven," sounding appropriately heavenly and just plain exciting, conducted by Joel Fram. The album's closer is yet another change of pace and musical flavor. The joyful "Grow Old With Me" could pass as a swinger crafted for Bobby Darin or a Sammy Cahn lyric for a Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle album. In fact, it's all Brown in a carefree mood with veteran Don Sebesky providing the arrangement and orchestration. Nice surprise and an upbeat ending for what is admittedly a sometimes gut-wrenching emotional workout - for performer and listener.
A few of the 11 songs were very recently written but most have a copyright date between 1997 and 2001. "Getting Out," his acerbic commentary on the music industry rat race, finds plenty of room for wit as well. The title song is also quite funny with and packed with clever alliteration in its clothing/negative mood references ("jaded jeans ... foul flannel ... burned-out boxers"). The attractive song of romantic attraction, "I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You" has its origins in The Last Five Years and is a special treat for lovers of that excellent score. Clearly they represent the thoughts of someone who has been through quite a lot as the lyrics and attitudes have evidence of pain, struggle, and much self-analysis. It's called Life. The writer has just turned 35 and his perspective comes through with lessons not easily learned. Some examples of the lyrics and quotes from this talented man can be found in my interview with Jason, along with comments on his week of concerts in New York (through July 3).
I'll admit I've always been kind of ambivalent about Rita Coolidge. I was familiar with her pop albums, dating back to the term "soft rock," and I did like that she was open to recording songs in different musical styles. She was a little bit country, she was a little bit rock and roll. She has a sound that's easy on the ears, but I often felt she was too laid back. I kind of liked her vocal quality which is light and silky, but she didn't seem very involved in the material, as if she were dipping her toe in the waters. I wanted her to dive in. On her new album, And So Is Love, Rita is singing standards. A much earlier album, which was recorded with the brilliant jazz pianist Barbara Carroll, was only available overseas until recent times. Her profile has not been so high lately and I'm glad to have a chance to hear what she's doing.
It's encouraging that the singer is now with Concord Records, a label known for surrounding singers with top drawer jazz musicians. It's been the home for class acts such as Keely Smith, Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, and presented a beautifully done CD this year by Debby Boone. Rita's most recent albums, as part of a family trio, explored her Native American roots so this is a change of pace and also a return. Old chestnuts like "Sentimental Journey" and "More Than You Know" find her making a logical slide from California laid back studio singer to languid jazz chanteuse. She still resists fully inhabiting a lyric, and certainly there's no drama or histrionics. She might flunk Cabaret 101, but I don't think she signed up for the class. On a hot summer day, sipping on a lemonade (or frozen Margarita, if you prefer), Rita's relaxed grace could be just right as music wafting through the air.
A varying group of musicians who accompany the singer on this CD have adopted her super-relaxed stance, although there are some tasty solo moments here and there. Rita used to record for Herb Alpert's A&M label and she is reunited with the trumpeter on one of the best tracks, "Estate." She also revisits one of her old pop hits, "We're All Alone," and it sounds fine. I'm fond of the sound of her voice now; it has a darker timbre with more vibrato and an appealing scratchiness that provides a little more character. Still, I find her standing outside the lyrics and some of the songs chosen are less suited to that. "Come Rain Or Come Shine" is about determination and jumping into love and, pretty though it sounds, convincing it's not. I also am put off by her paraphrasing the lyric a couple of times (example: singing "like no one's loved you" instead of "like nobody's loved you" so that the syllables don't fit the music). An avowed Peggy Lee fan and friend, she essays a couple of the legend's tunes as well, showing respect without aping her style.
This is not the kind of CD that sends goosebumps up your spine and makes you sit up and take notice. I've enjoyed listening to it, and it's certainly professionally done, soothing and warm and fuzzy. This CD is pleasant company, undemanding listening. But I prefer goosebumps.
For those hungry for an original musical comedy score, the cast album on our menu this week is BurgerTown. What is it? It's a tale of the a crummy little burger joint struggling to be a success. The musical doesn't take itself too seriously; it's meant to be a big helping of silly with a side order of satire. The score, for the most part, evokes the feel of early 1960s pop music. I can't help thinking it wants to be Little Shop Of Horrors or Hairspray with its simple, sweet misfit characters singing bouncy tunes with broad, broad humor. If those shows are among your favorites, you might want to have a taste of BurgerTown, but it doesn't have the same bite. The characters, at least as experienced on CD, don't have the same kind of quirky likability and the lyrics don't have tremendous wit. It's harmless fun and there are some cute moments. In that vein, I like a song that sets a list of fast food artificial ingredients to music. A lamenting ballad about life in the diner "Under The Train" is well done and builds well as performed by Janette Bruce, long-suffering waitress. She's appealing describing her appalling lot in life and the number is interrupted by the sound of the train coming.
There are many references to making money and making burgers. A plot synopsis helps one understand the wild plot so it's clear how organized crime, competition and true love fit into the picture. The band has a lot of energy and does a creditable job keeping things moving along, even adding zip when the music lacks inspiration. Music is by Jamey Strawn with lyrics by Christine Jones. The songs about fast food hamburgers have more "fast" than meat to their credit. The cast of nine sings gamely and with relish. I didn't laugh much, but I smiled and sometimes grimaced. But it's a well-meaning diversion avid cast album collectors and those who gravitate toward musicals with a pop score will want to hear.
Looking for a big voice singing big pop and Broadway songs? You've come to the right place, if you're considering clicking on the picture of Stig Rossen's new CD. Stig who? If the name sounds familiar, maybe it's because you saw his concert broadcast on PBS earlier this year. Here's the audio version. Hard core cast album collectors may know him from one of the recordings of Copacabana or a show called Which Witch?. He's from Denmark where he's a big star, performing in a company of Chess (also recorded). His big theater gig has been starring around the world as Valjean in Les Miserables. That credit should give any musical theater fan at least a hint of his voice and, yes, you can win a bet guessing what some of the other famous Broadway song choices are. "This Is The Moment"? Check. "The Music Of The Night?" Check. He does them up, in the standard way: big and full-voiced. But there's more to the story.
Stig started as more of a pop star, and came to theater later. Roughly half the repertoire on this 2-CD recording is pop material, some very familiar, ranging from Chicago to Stevie Wonder. At the end of the day, he's not an especially individualistic singer with a distinctive style. The arrangements and phrasing don't strive to be different from what you've heard before. Originality is not on the agenda. You hear him sing 25 songs here, but still don't get any sense of his personality. There is patter preceding only one song, and that's not revealing.
On the bright side, this is a performer who's competent, and has one foot comfortably in theater music and the other foot in pop. He does not come across as a singer who is awkwardly trying on unfamiliar, unsuitable musical styles. He's more of a chameleon who's ready, willing and pretty able to sing whatever the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra has in the book to play. I admire his skill and versatility, and particularly like his all-stops-out belt of "(It Looks Like) I'll Never Fall in Love Again," a hit for both Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. His voice is flexible and only very occasionally does he sound like he's straining in this live concert. Stig has also lived for years in England, and in case you're wondering, he does not have a strong accent at all.
The orchestra sounds swell, and there are singers, used judiciously. A belting guest female singer, Trine Gadeberg, duets on "Come What May" and Amanda McBroom's "The Rose." She takes a solo, vamping Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs To Daddy." Some humor is injected towards the end of the second disc, with a raucous rocked-out "macho" version of "I Feel Pretty" that is surprisingly campy. It will make you laugh or shudder. Also on the light side is a charming and well done rendition of Frank Loesser's tale of "The Ugly Duckling" from the movie musical autobiography of its writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Remember that Andersen, like Stig, is Danish, so it's no surprise, especially since this is the 200th anniversary of the fairy tale writer's birth. He reprises his Chess pieces "Anthem" and "Pity The Child" and salutes Les Mis with "Bring Him Home," which is done expertly, as you'd expect from someone who logged over 1400 performances (!) in that mega-musical. The program ends with a rafter-raising "Light At The End Of The Tunnel" (Starlight Express) and tucked away is a gentle pop song the singer wrote himself.
About ten other albums have been released by the vocalist, mostly in English, but he's only appeared in the USA in recent times, and is currently touring here. Most of his earlier recordings are primarily pop songs, but a prior album, Love Changes Everything, is a Broadway collection. If you like a big male voice doing this kind of material but don't care for the more operatic-sounding voice, Stig may be your Mr. Right. This is the moment.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a singer you might not have caught up with yet. In our weekly "Under the Radar" feature, we try to alert you to something that may have slipped by. Her albums are not widely available, but should be. I'd heard her do nice work on several songs on a big band album but hadn't noticed that she'd put out a solo CD until her second one came to our attention.
Now here is a CD that's good, clean fun. It's good for sure. "Clean" is the best adjective I can come up with to describe Madeline Kole's voice. And it sure is fun to hear. Madeline has a refreshing, enormously musical voice that is unadorned, unpretentious and especially legato. Her intonation is wonderful, with high notes especially clear and flute-like. There's no showing off. Most of the time, the tones are pure and exceptionally sweet, except when she varies that for effect. Her approach to singing, using her voice as an instrumentalist does, makes perfect sense: she is an instrumentalist as well. She plays bass. Madeline has spent part of her career as a bass player, part as a vocalist, and now she does both. On this album, she's on Fender bass on five tracks. Three are Harold Arlen melodies: "As Long As I Live," "I've Got The World On A String" (both with Ted Koehler's lyrics) and the bittersweet ballad "This Time The Dream's On Me" (Johnny Mercer).
Madeline was the bass player on the Harold Arlen tribute album, Arlen plays Arlen by family heir and sax player Sam Arlen. That very agreeable CD kicked off this year's 2005 centennial celebration of the composer's birth. Madeline has chosen Arlen songs that were not on that album.
I particularly love the way the singer holds onto a note not usually sustained, and she doesn't always take the easy way out by choosing open vowel sounds. Her head tones are just exquisite. The Gershwins' "For You, For Me, For Evermore" has become my favorite cut. The tempo is relaxed and just right. It's another song she plays bass on, which obviously doesn't distract her from vocal production and qualities just mentioned. The title tune completes the list of numbers on which she's on bass and here I detect perhaps a bit of an Ella Fitzgerald influence in her, which is just fine by me. This is a jazz album, but with great respect for both music and lyrics, very accessible to any music fan. The jazz players include acoustic bassist Mike Hall and her talented pianist-arranger-conductor husband, Rich Iacona; it was on albums by his band that I'd first heard her. This is her second solo CD. The first is all Cole Porter songs entitled (of course) Kole Sings Cole. There are no Porter songs this time but you do get mostly songs from Broadway and movie musicals including nice takes on "There's A Small Hotel, " and Willy Wonka ...'s "Pure Imagination," which is pure heaven in its opening moments and then starts to happily swing. Even more infectiously irresistible is "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top." One of the most romantic movie songs ever, "I'll Never Say Goodbye," is the best example of how this jazz person can also attend to interpreting a lyric. Madeline sensitively communicates the words of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. She also easily makes the leap in David Shire's melody up to the very high note on the last word of "I love you" which should and does bring the song its dramatic climax. It brings a rewarding album to a close.
And now we bring this week's column to a close. We already have a pile of things waiting for next week's column, from Shakespeare to great cabaret duets. We'll be listening for you.