We begin with the current Tony Award winning musical In the Heights and then revisit a long-ago musical with an inspiration from even further back, Arabian Nights. And finally, a little jazzy music to fill the upcoming summer nights, Arabian or otherwise.
IN THE HEIGHTS
With Latino flavor bristling and bustling with the beat and heat of the street sustained throughout its 2-CD cast album, the recording of In the Heights is here. There's no denying the joy and longing being transmitted via the cast's fervent and committed, high-energy performances. The recording practically grabs you and invites you to dance. Samba, anyone? Those less attracted to such rhythms and/or the rapid-fire machine gun hip-hop style used prominently may shrug their shoulders rather than shake them. Certainly appropriate to the contemporary Latino characters living in New York's Washington Heights, the genres generally generate a feeling that seems to ring true.
For me, someone generally strongly allergic to hip-hop, a little goes a long way, but I see and hear how it's effective—even charming, I say begrudgingly —here, especially in the beginning. But it becomes, for me, more grating than ingratiating as the style returns with diminishing returns. False rhymes make it seem less clever and less polished. And I hope no score in the future uses the word "yo" as often. (Yo, I get it that it is right here; at least there's restraint in the use of expletives and pejorative terms for people are not adopted from commercial rap/hip-hop.) There's plenty of more melodic music, too—subtle and personal songs and the lively ones. I try to think of the hip-hop sections of commentary and litanies of feelings, often part of larger numbers with more traditional singing, as a sort of analogous to recitative. Weaving in and out of numbers, songwriter-star-show conceiver Lin-Manuel Miranda does the lion's share of this kind of material, and he is often at the center of things, spirits unflagging, and beaming positive vibes.
The bigger and longer celebrational and dance numbers can feel like non-stop fiestas that peak early. Energy level on some numbers starts in very high gear with powerhouse-level voices used a lot. Beginning with the fiery singing of Andréa Burns, "Carnival del Barrio,"—lasting nearly seven and a half minutes—is a lengthy party. I'm more attracted to the songs which favor drama or tenderness over the big blasts. Often that means that the appealing Mandy Gonzalez is featured. Her powerful work on "Everything I Know" is moving (it's also perhaps the most accomplished as far as songwriting) and "Sunrise," her Spanish lesson with Christopher Jackson, is a sweet moment. "Inútil," as sung by Carlos Gomez as a father recalling his own less-than-rosy upbringing, has real tension and guts.
The teamwork in the many group numbers is impressive: the wonderful harmonies and navigating the more complex musical sections with precision, all the while sounding fresh and enthused rather than regimented and drilled. Harmonies and contrapuntal sections add interest in later sections of numbers where things might otherwise seem just repetitious.
The recording is especially well produced and mixed, with the orchestra sounding vibrant and very present, individual instruments crisply heard rather than muddy in the melee. One can still attend to the instrumental work in big group numbers with a lot going on without worry of missing lyrics: the lyric booklet (which also has photos) is handy in these cases, allowing a listener to be able to catch the overlapping vocal lines or the Spanish words sprinkled in. In the sparer spots, the producers have created a warm ambience and a feeling of intimacy, with a character seeming to be confiding in the listener's ear, rather than "performing" or soliloquizing.
As In the Heights continues its run, this dazzling document of its score and its "it takes a village" neighborhood camaraderie and ensemble work should win it more fans. It's that through-good–times-and-bad sense of community that stands out, like Fiddler on the Roof's Anatevka or the community of Brigadoon before it.
Take your pick: grandly romantic, big-voiced versions with a big chorus and opera stars Lauritz Melchior, William Chapman and Helena Scott—or sweet and bouncy commercial pop versions. Arabian Nights is a musical whose score was recorded twice in the spring of 1954, both being "reunited" on this one CD (available now at Footlight, and July 8 elsewhere). The operetta played at long Island's Jones Beach Marine Theatre that summer and the next, produced by bandleader Guy Lombardo. He directs the orchestra for the studio cast album featuring his own group, The Royal Canadians, and singers, and Pembroke Davenport is music director the Jones Beach cast. There are also a couple of bonus tracks: Notably, one is a wonderful version of the solid ballad "How Long Has It Been?" by the great singing star Margaret Whiting with the Nelson Riddle orchestra. The other is "A Thousand and One Nights" by Gary Mann and a chorus; this song is heard quite a bit, four vocals of it in all plus its being featured prominently in the splendidly traditional show overture.
Taking the Scheherazade stories within a story as their guide, the musical is populated by genies, royalty, sailors and Aladdin. (The original production had a 70-foot floating mechanical whale and a barge.) The actual cast album is a mix of straightforward operetta style and light-heartedness. There's comedy, including cute anachronisms in the lyrics. With "The Grand Wazir's Lament" especially, there are shades of Gilbert & Sullivan patter and spoofing of the pomp in the pomp and circumstance styles, with a chorus echoing Ralph Herbert's lines in a cheeky style. Twelve songs were preserved for the Jones Beach cast album. The packaging makes it look like some tracks are solos but there's often a chorus, too, such as the female group taking a lot of the song "The Bath Parade" credited just to Gloria van Dorp. This number has some delicious sauciness as the ladies sing of "that royal good-for-nothing, Whatshisname."
Just seven vocals are on the companion piece, plus one (the ingenue's description of "The Hero of All My Dreams") as an instrumental. Guy Lombardo's brother, Carmen Lombardo, and their brother-in-law John Jacob Loeb wrote the likeable score. Another brother-in-law, Kenny Gardner, is the longtime smooth-voiced band vocalist heard on several of the tracks with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. These chipper renditions emphasize the melody lines and cheer or romance. They are usually shorter in length. "How Long Has It Been?" for example, is not so long at all: 2:48 compared to 3:39 and the introductory verse is not sung.
The tunes are mostly catchy, though some of the lyrics are uninspired with predictable rhymes, others have flair. The lower fidelity sound quality shows the age of the 54-year-old recordings, but is several notches above acceptable. And it's interesting to go back and forth, comparing the more florid or dramatic cast presentations with the Lombardo candied textures.
This is a swell discovery of a lost delight that's on CD for the first time, thanks to Sepia Records, known excavator of such buried treasures and pleasures.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a recent jazz release of particular interest because its fine pianist is also a theatre composer, and the featured singer was in the recent Broadway revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical.
Larry Gelb is a songwriter who has written hundreds of songs that are just starting to pour out on CDs. Last year he released The Larry Gelb Songbook, Volume 1, the first in a projected series. Some of the selections on that were from his various musicals. It had vocals by several singers, including Amy Justman on six tracks. She played Susan in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Company, and is the sole vocalist here, singing on five of the dozen cuts.
Before a Volume 2 or some kind of full cast album of a show has appeared, quietly released is something called Song for Pickles. That song is simply called "Pickles" and Pickles is a dog, seen on the cover with his owner, Mr. Gelb. It's a relaxed and kind of funky instrumental, with the flute of Dick Oatts prominent. (This fine player is also heard tastefully on sax on the CD). The other excellent musicians are bass player Cameron Brown and drummer Matt Wilson. As a pianist Gelb is rather reserved, not one to hog the spotlight or be a showman with flourishes or dashing showmanship. Two attractive show tunes heard just as instrumentals here ("I'm Not Supposed to Fall in Love" and "The Honeymooners Now") are on the earlier CD with the lyrics sung.
Amy Justman's vocals are sung with great warmth or slyness, as appropriate. She's a delight, with a rich and well-controlled voice full of sensitivity. "Jesse" is an especially tender tribute to the songwriter's daughter and is sweetly proud without being corny or trite. The languid "August in Maine" paints an evocatively romantic picture of summertime sights in that state, while others are livelier: "The Rainbow Room" gives a nod to the New York landmark as a fine site for a marriage ceremony while his cozy story of the perfect post-wedding New Jersey abode "On the Hudson" tells of the creature comforts for a couple married happily ever after. "Evil Is in Vogue" from a musical called The Definition of Love is a playful piece with an insinuating lyric. Fellow admirers of the great Harold Arlen will delight in an older piece called "Harold Arlen," written on the day the composer died in 1986. This dear tribute references the titles of numerous Arlen songs into the lyric ("In stormy weather, in rain or shine, you hung a paper moon for me ...").
Non-jazz fans may not be thoroughly engaged by some of the longish instrumentals, but each has a different flavor and all are pretty intriguing in their own ways and played by top musicians. In any case, Larry Gelb is a songwriter and musician worth keeping an eye—and ear—out for.
... Coming soon: cast albums of Passing Strange, the 30th anniversary Annie with songs from Annie 2, too ... plus some reissues and solo albums from singers from Broadway ... and elsewhere.