The past takes center stage again this week with a salute to the cinema part of
Jule Styne's career, two wildly different albums with "rhapsody" in the title, and two
singers who have engagements at the same New York night club this week.
JULE STYNE IN HOLLYWOOD
Famously prolific and with a high batting average of attractive melodies, composer Jule Styne has a songbook full of durable items. Since he was born on the very last day of 1905, this year is being celebrated as his centenary, hence the arrival of Jule Styne in Hollywood . Most of Styne's movie and TV scores preceded his writing for the Broadway stage, which he graced with Gypsy, Bells Are Ringing and many more. This album of movie songs is a mixed bag, with most of the tunes' tones veering toward quite sentimental or cute. Although the CD employs some fine theater singers, the lighter material doesn't call much upon their acting muscles. The album has a bit of an identity crisis. It does not feel all of a piece, lacking an overall "feel," neither getting fully entrenched in nor recreating the musical styles of the 1940s any more than it makes them feel especially contemporary. You might think it's one of those ubiquitous compilations pulling old tracks from many albums over the years, but it's all newly recorded by PS Classics Inc. Tommy Krasker is the producer, and the label's co-founder, Philip Chaffin, takes a break from executive producing this and other projects to sing a delightfully perky "Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are."
The musical theater's Mr. and Mrs., Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie, get the most time (almost eight minutes) with a rather formal six-song medley of Academy Award-nominated songs. All have lyrics by Sammy Cahn except "A Change of Heart" with words by Harold Adamson. (All but six of the 21 songs on the CD have Cahn lyrics; those not identified otherwise here are his.) Jason and Marin are accompanied by a 29-piece orchestra also heard on other tracks.
The inclusion of several rarely done numbers is big news for collectors. Sutton Foster is anything but drowsy blasting out "There's Nothing Rougher Than Love." Also in the belt department and scoring a knockout punch is a real highlight from Klea Blackhurst, who has a ball with the super-lively "That Ain't Hay (That's the U.S.A.)," a rather obscure collaboration with Frank Loesser. It was written for the movie Sis Hopkins from 1941. Another swell oddity is "The Lady Who Didn't Believe in Love" (lyrics by Kim Gannon) from a film called The Powers Girl the following year, presented here by singing group The Lascivious Biddies. A rollicking "10,432 Sheep" for Audra McDonald finds her in a loose, brassy moment. More subdued, Johnny Rodgers (piano and vocals) with his band scales "The Brooklyn Bridge." His vocal shows genuine affection for its subject in this satisfying rendition.
There's some welcome drama with emotionally invested readings by Victoria Clark and Rebecca Luker, both enhanced by David Loud's musical touch. He arranged and conducted Victoria's "Winter Was Warm" from Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (with words by Styne's Funny Girl collaborator, Bob Merrill), and as pianist is the sole musician for Rebecca's yearning "The Things We Did Last Summer." There's a sad verse not included in other recordings of this standard and that gives permission to bring out the factor of loss otherwise only hinted at in the song. It has been chosen as the final cut, making for a downbeat ending to the collection of mostly brighter moods.
Interest and experience in both jazz and classical music, having played percussion in addition to piano as well as doing some composing himself, seems to have served Michel Camilo very well. A multi-tasker like the composer whose music he plays here, George Gershwin, Michel sounds comfortable with the jazzier, rhythmic elements and the grander symphonic ones. He blends them well, not a stranger in a strange musical land either way. Like the highly skilled and attentive pianist, The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Martinez Izquierdo sounds superb on this Telarc CD, well produced by Elaine Martone. The woodwinds sound especially elegant and stand out. The album contains not only the famous Rhapsody in Blue but also the exciting, jangly and joyful Concerto in F. Its calmer middle section provides respite and lets one really appreciate the orchestra's quality when the pianist sits out for a while. After these two major works, the recital ends with a shorter piece for piano alone, the Prelude No. 2.
Having heard many versions of these Gershwin glories, I wasn't prepared to be impressed all over again. Many pianists tend to be overly showy or, alternatively, stodgy with these pieces. Some melodramatic players can exhaust a listener and others make things drag here and there. Michel has found a happy medium that feels fresh, avoiding melodrama and neurosis, and he's never dull. He and the conductor successfully find many shades of energy and tempi to provide variety without resorting to extreme, jarring contrasts.
After the theatricality of the two large works, the Prelude may seem a bit anti-climactic, especially as played here with more leisure than Gershwin conceived. It is in parts less involving, and feels introspective. Just another recording of well-traversed Gershwin? Not this time.
Some people will find this album oddly compelling. Others may find just odd. I like most of it, especially because of singer Theo Bleckmann's unique, quirky sound and the quaint approach to the material. Theo's high, airy voice can de described as ethereal, not quite androgynous, but disarmingly sweet. The CD was recorded mostly in Germany, with the piano and orchestrations of Fumio Yasuda, who shares billing on the cover. The orchestra is conducted by Bernd Ruf. Forty musicians are listed, including 16 in the string session providing a bed of sound that Theo floats upon. To quote from the song "Las Vegas Rhapsody" (written by Bleckmann and Yasuda) which begins and closes the album, it's "lighter than a butterfly." In one brief a capella section, the pitch is shaky, but much of this is quite musical and endearing.
Show tunes and movie songs abound. Two Rodgers and Hammerstein classics get the super-sensitive treatment that evokes a sense of naivete and fragility: "Out of My Dreams," and "We Kiss in a Shadow," with the team's ever-optimistic "My Favorite Things" (understandably) becoming a bit sticky. Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady" and Mary Poppins' "Chim Chim Cheree" are more playful and have more of a solid underpinning and rhythm. The vocals are so liquid they sometimes melt into the orchestra. They don't disappear, they work in tandem.
The press release calls the singer "experimental," but there's a sense that he is gushingly in love with the songs and respects their basic intent. Gigi's "The Night They Invented Champagne" is, well, light-headed and fizzy, and another lyric that mentions champagne's effects, "You Go to My Head" is lightheaded, too - but not wrong-headed.
A veteran of the early days of New York cabarets and saloons, classy singer-pianist Charles Cochran is back with a new live CD of old songs that he clearly loves and knows inside out. The recording, made in 2003 but just being issued now, was made at Danny's Skylight Room, where he has been holding forth again. (His engagement wraps up on this Sunday and Monday, Memorial Day weekend.) I caught his show this past week and found him very much as he is on this album: a pleasure to hear, with wise and warm, no-nonsense versions of intelligent material. It's tempting to characterize him as "sophisticated" and "elegant" - he is, for sure, but there's nothing aloof or snobby in his style. He communicates directly and affectionately, radiating with an appreciation of the well-constructed music and lyrics he chooses.
Charles' approach is direct and without frills. He presents the songs as much as he sings them. You'll hear every respected word, with diction crisper than almost anyone I can think of, and a listener focuses on the words. Legato and held notes are not his usual way. Only on "Here's That Rainy Day" does he allow himself a real piano solo. Although his understated piano style and the tasteful playing of his sole musical companion, bassist Steve Gilmore, let you appreciate the uncluttered melody line, too, it's the lyrics that take the spotlight. In a few numbers, he uses more voice, and this makes for a refreshing change of pace from the more staccato approach.
In his liner notes and spoken commentary, he mentions that he's recorded a few of the numbers over his long career. (He'd been entertaining since the 1950s, although he was retired until fairly recently, and it's a treat to have him back.) One, from his enjoyable album Haunted Heart, is something he wrote himself, "I Love You Again," an autobiographical tale of a failed second chance with a lover. It's a highlight and it seems perfectly logical that he would be as eloquent in his songwriting as he is in interpreting the work he so admires. "Birmingham," from the film musical The Girl Rush, swings lightly and persuasively. Two Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh pieces, "On the Other Side of the Tracks" and "My How the Time Goes By" are nifty (Leigh's punchy lyrics suit Charles' sensibilities especially well). Other shining moments are two Irving Berlin selections, the charmer "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" (Miss Liberty) and "You Keep Coming Back Like a Song," sung with great feeling. The golden age of cabaret is still very much alive whenever Charles Cochran meets a song.
UNDER THE RADAR
I've seen this artist perform, so she wasn't a singer under my radar, but the fact that she's released her first solo album was news to me.
"You Go to My Head" shows up on Lynne Halliday's CD and she effectively luxuriates in its romantic melody and lyric, but the album title should not be construed to make you thaink this is a one-mood album. Not at all. Lynne has variety on display, ranging from the upbeat and appropriately assertive "You Came a Long Way From St. Louis" to and "Lean Baby" to a few comic turns, like Christine Lavin's witty, not-so-passive-aggressive wink at "Regretting." I like the way she bites into the title song (Pete King/ Paul Francis Webster) and soars through the melody, too. A few other numbers could use more of this kind of sharp attention and shading. Although I don't doubt her sincerity, "What a Wonderful World" gets an uninspired reading . The accompaniment is just the piano of her able musical director, David Brunetti, and without other musicians to add accents, there is little detail and musical color. The tracks are mostly on the short side, with only three of the 16 exceeding three minutes in length. Lynne's voice is likeable and she is mostly vivacious here.
I first became aware of the singer in a three-person revue at the York Theatre, Porterphiles, spotlighting the lesser-known Cole Porter canon. Porter doesn't appear in this set list, except to have his name dropped in Noel Coward's comical story-song "Nina," which Lynne and David romp through with gusto. In a serious vein, Irving Berlin's wary plea "Say It Isn't So" is combined with the title song from the Charles Strouse/ Alan Jay Lerner show Dance a Little Closer. Showing a wider vibrato on this slower-tempo track, Lynne is passionate and deadly serious.
Lynne Halliday is performing at the Manhattan cabaret, Danny's Skylight Room on West 46th Street in a return engagement. The remaining performances are tonight (Thursday, May 25) and May 31. Expect some big-hearted singing and a little sass from a singer with sparkle.
Next week's column will bring us to June first already and will feature the new London cast recording of Sunday in the Park with George and more recently released theater music.