Porter and Pater:
Two singers, different as night and day: One is grand and stylized, full of flamboyant flourishes, recording with a sizeable orchestra; the other is singing simply in a minimalist setting, with just a piano and bass. One's from Pittsburgh (Billy Porter) and the other is from Poland (Beata Pater).
Once upon a record, back smack in the middle of the 1960s, Sammy Davis, Jr. celebrated his return to musical theatre by recording an album of then-recent show tunes called Sammy's Back on Broadway. The back cover showed the Golden Boy star relaxing, looking happy, surrounded by mementoes and photos, his outstretched, crossed stocking feet up on his dressing room table, beverage in hand. Just shy of a half a century later Billy Porter, born four years after the Davis album that inspired his own, recreates the pose on the back cover of his own enjoyable and similarly titled album heralding his own return to Main Stem stardom. Both gentlemen included "Take the Moment" from the Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim score of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Billy's is more a gentle general life philosophy about always living in the moment, rather than about urging a decision at a specific crossroad. Sammy's album included a new version of his current show's big song, "I Want to Be with You," and Billy follows suit with another take on "I'm Not My Father's Son" from his own current hit Kinky Boots.
The new version of "I'm Not My Father's Son" is mature and thoughtful, another sweet taste of personal victory, though this one feels hard won, battle scars not a distant memory. It's quite moving. Still, on an album with only ten tracks (granted, this and others are generous in length), some Porter fans might wish even more for another choice from this talented and self-styled vocalist who has only released three CDs under his namethe others back in 1997 and 2006.
He also includes one of entertainer extraordinaire role model Davis's trademark hits: "I've Gotta Be Me," which originated in the 1968 show Golden Rainbow where it was introduced by Steve Lawrence. In Davis's memorable version, we sense that it's about a guy still gathering strength and finding his courage, his eye on the prize not yet in his reach; Porter seems more settled, already there, simply and serenely explaining the philosophy that got him to a successful peak a while back. A chorus joins him to continue an extended, hand-clapping groove, reveling happily in the repeated mantra that is the titleand adding "Can't be nobody else." (Both men recorded the song in their mid-40s.)
Two ladies Porter credits as inspirations are also represented. Porter has talked about Jennifer Holliday's work in Dreamgirls (on the Tony Awards telecast) as the turning point that piqued his interest in pursuing Broadway. On his live album, he took on her "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and this time he, now a Tony winner himself, closes the recording with another item from the same source, "I Am Changing." (He also appears on the recorded anniversary concert CD of that show.)
Barbra Streisand's Broadway album was a model of what he wanted to someday do in the studio and her history makes its presence felt more than once. There's "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls, included on her Back to Broadway CD. We also get the famed 1963 counterpoint duet of Streisand and Judy Garland on the latter's TV show, in a move that's bravely brash ... or ill-advised ... or just plain fun (can it be all three? I think it is some of each). He takes Garland's role singing "Get Happy" and his guest partner, none other than Kinky Boots's songwriter, recording veteran Cyndi Lauper, takes on Streisand's first hit, her rethought "Happy Days Are Here Again." Another nod to Streisand is "Don't Rain on My Parade" from her star vehicle of Funny Girl. (Also saluting that score, Davis's album treated people to "People.")
Billy's Back on Broadway and he's joined by lush strings and some tangy brass and reeds among the orchestra. Taking on theatre material out of some high-stakes stage/plot contexts, the material sizzles and simmers with comfortable confidence rather than raging with fire sparked by tenacity and tension. Don't look for the explosion of anger or determination bordering on desperation. Slower tempi than songs usually got in their theatre origins adds to this rather more mellow approach. His voice may not be blaring at full blast and bombast, but there's still a sense of vigor and pride.
There's no doubt of success in Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses"the roses have bloomed, the champagne has been ordered for the victory party which is already in full swing. Rather than being defiant or fighting for victory, it seem he's already won and is savoring success in "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "I've Gotta Be Me" and perhaps is presuming it in a slinky, slow "Luck Be a Lady." Despite the lyric "So let's keep this party polite," this and other numbers don't get so pleasantly polite that they lose all their bite. Billy Porter, with his cool flamboyance and embellishments, is commanding and present, even in low gear. The most interesting of the more relaxed excursions is a more strolling pace with "On the Street Where You Live." This one, with involved phrasing, replaces the usual exuberance of "that towering feeling" with a real sense of consistent awe and wonder, breathing the rarefied lilac tree-perfumed air on his beloved's block.
While the album doesn't give us a whole lot of wildly over-the-top, fiercely belting divo Billy Porter of his younger days, it's still unmistakably B.P. with his individual panache and stylized ways, breathy swoops and swirls, bursts of joy and gutsy strutting. Like Peter Pan, he's gotta "crow" proudly in his own way.
Born in Poland, finding success and a recording contract in Japan, influenced by American jazz singers and Brazilian writers, Beata Pater is an intriguing vocalist who's toured around the world, landing in Birdland in New York among many other places. Unlike other albums she's done with bigger ensembles, here she's just accompanied by pianist Hiromu Aoki and bassist Buca Necak, both of whom she's worked with for over two decades. Golden Lady, named for the Stevie Wonder song treated with grace and a glimmer of mystery, the CD has its own unique glow. It follows a series of recent Pater albums named for colors (Red, Blue). One track references "golden days" and images involving other colors, about how one's life has "Turned to Blue" and is the setting of the poem by Maya Angelou. (The album doesn't credit the person who wrote the melody, but it's Jay Ashby's setting.)
Beata Pater, while interesting and often indisputably commanding of attention, may well be an acquired taste. Some may find the accent distancing, and sometimes her diction seems effortful; at other times one wishes for more attention to diction. It's not only the foreign accent that's strong; so is her assertive personality and approach. Starting off with the very first track, the forcefully punctuated arrangement of the movie title song "Wild Is the Wind" insists on unblinking attention with its daringly simple motif and use of pauses between short phrases. Neither wild nor lush, it grabs hold. Though it becomes more romantic later on, its first lines, "Love me, love me/ Say you do/ Let me fly away with you," feels like a no-choice command, rather than a plea to a beloved one. Likewise, "Save Your Love for Me," usually handled as a gentle if fervent plea, comes off as almost more of a stern demand. At other times, the phrasing feels methodically married to the melody, with little insight into some lyrics with the potential to be far more communicative or needing characterization and a sense of storytelling. With repeated listenings (and if you start off knowing the lyrics of most of the songs), these things should become less disconcerting. The two musicians pull more than their weight as accompanists and are real mood-setters/sustainers. Their interludes are attractive and engaging.
There's a no-nonsense approach to some of these 11 numbers, but the vocalist can project vulnerabilityeven delicacy, particularly on the Brazilian pieces (sung in English, not Portuguese). For example, take "I Live to Love You," which spins out like silk, the held vocal tones and the pianist's meditative accompaniment providing a warm elegance. Long-lined melodies with one note or phrase flowing into the next are especially satisfying. The standard "This Is All I Ask" begins with the whiff of an art song's weight and formality, and just when you think it will be a bittersweet reflection on aging and appreciating life's "simple pleasures," the piece starts to move and gathers strength, the instrumental interlude becoming quite muscular. No rocking chair on the porch for this lady! The song's final declaration of "And I will stay younger than spring," repeated and the last word, cried out musically one more time strongly, sounds so assured as to make the eternal youth a literal state of defiant being, rather than a state of mind.
Hypnotic at its best, and that's quite a bit of the time, Golden Lady is a welcome entry.