Cook, Wopat, Morton:
Very welcome indeed are solo CD releases from the sterling artists Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat and Euan Morton. Their voices are distinctive and their CDs are distinctly different in style: we have a Cook's tour of (mostly) standards and show tunes, Wopat concentrates on bluesy pop (though both swing, too: she with a bounce, he with a gutsy drive) and then there's Scotland's native son returning to his roots. These three singular singers, who came together not long ago on Broadway for Sondheim on Sondheim, sound convincingly deep into their material.
The radiating joy of Barbara Cook bouncing blithely through cheery material or her very present, nuanced, dignified drama exploring ballads makes for especially rewarding listening, live or on disc. Here's the latest sample of her many live-in-performance recordings. Recorded one night last June at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, she's in fine voice; the intimate nightclub setting and accompaniment by a quartet make for a somewhat more low-key feel than concert hall presentations. The oft-repeated comments about how mind-bogglingly sublime she sounds for a soprano who made her Broadway debut six decades ago apply. Add the word "hip." She swings breezily here. The infectious delight of the light and light-hearted material makes the opening number, "Are You Havin' Any Fun?," a rhetorical question. If you're looking for more evidence, just hear the pleased, natural laughter from her under the applause as the chipper, rollicking numbers conclude.
In the one section of included patter that isn't mostly in praise of the songs, songwriters and musicians led by pianist Lee Musiker (who did many of the arrangements), and the material itself, she talks about living alone versus having a partner, seeking audience members' shared experience while revealing her own. This leads to the sole Sondheim number, the plucky "Live Alone and Like It." I like it, I like it. Otherwise putting aside her justly acclaimed devotion to that writer, Barbara explores some musical theatre writers and other kinds of music she's "neglected" in her long career. However, the zippy skip through "This Can't Be Love" brings us full circle to her very first solo album, in the 1950s, a collection of Rodgers & Hart songs that did not include that one. "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" from the back-on-Broadway On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is absent the in-plot/character-context anguish and frustration familiar from the cast album and soundtrack versions by leading ladies also given her first name, Harris and Streisand; this Barbara makes it a calmer, wiser litany of queries, but loses something of the stakes. Still, it highlights some great lyric craftsmanship (like the internal rhyme "the trick I did par-tic-ularly well before").
Note that the more serious material is introspective, ruminative and subtle, not leading to "big" singing with bravura high notes. As I noted when attending the engagement, the ballad singing is riveting and haunting and, even on lyrics we know by heart, the phrasing is so involved and laser beam-focused that hanging on every well-shaded line is a frequent feeling. "I'm a Fool to Want You" is most illustrative of that, with palpable pain, without making it a soap opera and self-pity party. And in "When I Look in Your Eyes" her coloring of words like "wisdom" and "deepness" and "love" makes CD listeners hear the feelings engendered by what she sees in her lover's eyes (and what also comes through when watching her relate them).
The opening line of "Here's to Life" nearly and neatly sums up the typical reaction to a Barbara Cook CD: "No complaints and no regrets." She is, without doubt, a treasure and arguably the best working interpreter of lyrics who illuminates them without overhaul and overdramatizing, and makes an audience experience them along with her. If there are any such "complaints" and "regrets," they might be unrealistic and minor. But, to get them out of the way, as happens on many live albumsespecially hersa few songs that were done in similar ways on earlier albums reappear, including "Here's to Life" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," both on her album from just earlier this year, a live set at the same venue, sharing the bill with Michael Feinstein. They combine forces again there, beginning on the 29th of this month, with Barbara also off to our nation's capital to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. It's always an honor to be in her presence as she sings with such grace, beauty and intelligence.
Seemingly very much comfortable in his own skin, and "owning" his material, Tom Wopat is an increasingly compelling singer as the years go by. Agreeably rough-hewn of voice, a lot of emotion comes through, and it never sounds calculated. He is the "Natural Man" he sings about in the song of that title. Surrounded by excellent musicians and arrangers, where the instruments get to "breathe" between vocal phrases, he's got a cool mix of restless energy and mellow confidence. There's a likeable down-to-earthiness quality. There's nothing coy or showy, he and his musicians (not the same group for each track) settle in and settle down to some music-making that sounds as natural and unforced as his storytelling. Moods are well and instantly set in inviting instrumental intros. The album's top-drawer bass player, David Finck, is also the producer, and he arranged a tasty "You Fascinate Me So" (Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh) and co-arranged Bobbie Gentry's rural story ballad "Ode to Billie Joe" from the 1960s, with some artistic license invoked to slightly change/adjust lines here and there and for a gender switch to make Billie Joe female.
The song choices are eclectic, from a standard by the Gershwins ("But Not for Me," expanded with additional material) to Dave Frishberg's comical but pointed calling-out of a pessimist who resists emerging from his dark cloud ("You'd Rather Have the Blues"). These two have arrangements by John Oddo, although he's not one of the musicians, nor is Rob Mounsey who provided three of the bluesier charts. The album title may be a bit misleading in that this is not simply a succession of hard-driving or frenetic and fizzy big band swing-along songs where it's all somewhat mindlessly about the beat or jazzing things up just for the sake of spice. But the gentlemen have more than a kick or two up their sleeves. This is cool stuff that goes down smooth, but hardly the musical equivalent of sweetened sweetened Kool-Aid - more like whisky.
Arranging half of the CD's 14 tracks is Tedd Firth, who is on board as pianist, resulting in richly creative and evocative results in both job duties. The approaches are marvelously varied. One is a Wopat original which suggests a folk ballad of yore. Wistful, gently tugging at the emotions, it elegantly tells the legend of separated lovers who become mountains on the shore of the "Thailand Sea." Another compelling story-song painting loneliness with restraint rather than button-pushing to cue heavy tear duct action resides in "2 Grey Rooms." From the pen of Joni Mitchell, whose work has steadily made its way into cabaret shows and CDs (but more often by women), it paints pictures of bleakness and survival. Winningly performed here is "Fifty Checks," the song written for Wopat's character in the recently departed-from-Broadway Catch Me If You Can, but cut from the show. He had included it in his cabaret shows before the musical's debut, but the cast album that includes the number as a bonus track beat this solo CD to the marketplace. (Released this year, Consider It Swung was recorded in 2009.) Also representing Tom's Broadway history is the title song from 42nd Street, performed in a surprising manner: slower, moody, intoxicating. Successfully laidback but without danger of getting wimpy or whiny or woeful are the CD's first and last tracks: a laidback, casually philosophical "That's Life" that owes virtually nothing to the Frank Sinatra hit version or its numerous copycat renditions, and "The Last Night of the Year." Closing the disc with just sensitively simpatico piano to accompany the voice, it's appropriate to the lyric about being alone on New Year's Eve when quiet solo reflection substitutes for hoopla. But the CD itself is ample cause for happy celebration.
It's a safe bet that we'll soon enough be hearing crowds of sentimental New Year's Eve revelers sing "Auld Lang Syne" again this year, but it's a pretty safe bet, too, that few will have as sweet a voice, the depth or the lineage that make Euan Morton's sincere rendition so moving. The perennial is one of four contributions here dating back to 1700s, courtesy of the pen of Scotland's Robert Burns, with history sometimes a bit muddled about original wordings and from whence came. Scotland is also the homeland of singer-actor Morton, and a trip back home after a long absence inspired this return to his roots for respectful renderings of traditional airs and songs from the past few decades. Burns is also represented by "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose," "Ae Fond Kiss," and a spoken-word bonus track including Euan charmingly delivering the poem dedicated "To a Mouse" and directly addressing (and thanking) listeners of the hard-copy CD. (This section is not available for download.)
Homesickness and Homecoming result in a beautifully sung album, the graceful singing often exquisite without sounding precious or falsequite the opposite. The emotion and universality that cross time lines and geographical lines bridge the gap, making it not some esoteric curiosity piece and piece of antiquity but an accessible recording whose nostalgia and warmth provide touchstones for more generalized memories. The emotion is there, as is the integrity. Some might fret that there's distancing caused with Euan giving full reignand then someto his Scottish accent, with traditional pronunciations and words invoked and embraced in some older songs. Though the lyrics and modern equivalents and histories aren't included, ye shall tak some time and afore long, 'tis no big deal. If it's a hurdle, it's a mini-one, not ever-present by any means. Careful listening and context clues suffice, and the "bonny" vocal sound compensates. Some weaned on a limited diet of pop or show tunes (which Euan has in other projects proved he can handle well) may resist, but, given a chance, the CD proves captivating and quite disarming.
Jon Carroll's opening piano strains are so soothing that I was hooked within seconds of pressing "Play" and the mellifluous Morton tones sealed the deal as his longing for "The Dark Island" is viscerally communicated. This number was adopted for the theme of a TV series of that title in the 1960s, popular in Europe, though the song originally had another title as an independent song some years earlier. There are mostly attractive and spare musical accompaniments, with Christina Wheeler's violin and a bit of accordion by Carroll adding atmosphere. Perhaps it is part of the fabric of the tradition, but I found the insistent percussion in the first sections of the folk classic "Loch Lomond"and its so-steady beat in generaldull. But the arrangement becomes more vibrant and interesting as it goes on. Other instruments heard on the CD are are mandolin, bass, organ and guitar. Less is more in basic approach, but with half of the mostly simple songs going on for well over four minutes in length, there is some risk of feeling like they've gone on a bit too long. The loveliness of the sound and the fact that Euan doesn't drop the ball as far as focus and involvement prevents much damage.
Also present is one the mega-hit (in Europe, anyway) "Mull of Kintyre," written and recorded by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine, his bandmate from Wings, celebrating that area of Scotland where McCartney settled, post-Beatles. Borrowed from the neighboring Brits and Irish is the familiar old "Danny Boy," one of the numerous unpretentious examples of scaled-back simplicity and cut-to-the-chase (or heart) performances. Here and elsewhere, Euan's vocals are rewarding and right, whether in lullaby-like mode or opening up for a little more passion and pleading.
Euan will join Tom Wopat and others in a night of performances when Barbara Cook receives the York Theatre's Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement on Monday at the Edison Ballroom.