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Bows to songwriters: the recording of a California concert that honored Stephen Sondheim on his 75th birthday, Barbara Fasano's all-Harold Arlen program based on the act she did in tribute to the 100th anniversary of his birth last year, and Mary Foster Conklin's renditions of songs by composer Matt Dennis whose own recordings first hit stores 50 years ago. After the tributes, we go under the radar for a look at vocalist Marcus Goldhaber's first CD.

Simply SondheimSIMPLY SONDHEIM
VARIOUS ARTISTS

Kritzerland Records (2-CD set)

The latest of many concert tributes to the very tribute-worthy master composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim comes via a San Francisco event recorded last December. Part of the celebration of his 75th birthday, it features a dozen performers, including those with Bay Area credits such as the revivals presented by 42nd Street Moon.

The reason for the title Simply Sondheim is that the material is presented "in a straightforward, unadorned manner." (Translation: Don't expect new arrangements or interpretations that stray far from the originals, and the accompaniment is bare-bones piano, bass and drums.) Simply Sondheim is simply uneven. It has some high points but too many that are underwhelming or just OK. But there's some strong singing, like Kelly Ground's angrier take on the title song from Sunday in the Park with George and she more than holds her ground with some other challenging assignments, too.

In several cases, a singer does perfectly well with one number but falters with another. Some of these pass by quickly as they are in big medleys. Examples: Steve Rhyne and Tom Orr each struggle in duets ("Tonight" and "Happiness" respectively) with women in the big Love Medley but when singing together as the princes in "Agony" they do fine. Producer of the concert and the album, James Brewer, sounds overwrought and over his head with a medley of Merrily We Roll Along's "Good Thing Going" and "Not A Day Goes By" whereas all three men are in synch and in character, complete with appropriate Brooklyn accents for the title song of Sondheim's very early show Saturday Night. Here they are joined by Kim Larsen (who is on the cast album of Shopping! The Musical reviewed in this column last week). Kim and Steve duet on the underappreciated title song from Bounce which, alas, is over in 90 seconds. But the good news is it goes into another recent Sondheim example of brilliant wit, "Hades" from The Frogs, led by James who's quite terrific raising hell.

Young Judy Butterfield, who recorded a sweet CD in tribute to Judy Garland, is an asset here, and her "Lovely" is, well, lovely and it's nice to have her provide more loveliness with another version of the 1951 "I'm In Love with a Boy." It had been a long lost song until it emerged in another birthday concert for the songwriter, preserved on a highlights recording, Wall To Wall Sondheim. But the real news for Sondheim completists is the recorded debut of the broad and showy "Farewell," a comically long goodbye written for the 1971 Los Angeles production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for the character of Domina). It's sung here to a fare-thee-well by Shay Oglesby-Smith. Big laughs are heard, apparently in reaction to some stage business. Hannah Rose Kornfeld, who was 11 years old when this was recorded, is a brassy belter who seems to steal the show with "Back in Business" from Dick Tracy with an arrangement by Bruce Kimmel, who brightly belts out "A Parade in Town." Like the other performer billed as a Special Guest, Lisa Vroman, he just does one number. Lisa's is "The Girls of Summer" and it's classy.

The booklet has photos of the concert but no biographical information on the cast, which also includes Amy Dondy and Stephanie Rhoads. I found bios and a little more at on the concert at the website www.a-jproductionsonline.com. All profits go to a charity that helps seriously ill theater performers, the Mary Mason Memorial Lemonade Fund (more information at www.theatrebayarea.org).

If you're a Sondheim addict needing more, more, more (such as another version of "More," which is here, too), here you go.

Barbara FasanoBARBARA FASANO
WRITTEN IN THE STARS

Human Child Records

There's no doubt that Barbara Fasano has a luscious and lovely voice and knows quite a bit about phrasing. Her previous work, including her only other full-length album, The Girls of Summer, proved that. The singer's new album won't be in full release until the end of the month, but it's currently available at www.CDbaby.com. Sound samples can be heard there and more information is at her website, www.humanchild.com.

The CD finds Barbara in a mostly laidback frame of mind: relaxed jazzy settings, mostly ballads, as she sings Harold Arlen melodies. She's been performing an act of the composer's material and recorded this studio version during his centenary year of 2005. It's all very pretty indeed, although it rarely showcases the full range of her voice or dramatic skills. I'd prefer more oomph, but languid seems to be the order of the day by and large. That works best for the well done lazy-mood "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" which really takes its Johnny Mercer lyric up on its suggestion: "Wish you'd make the music dreamy and sad." The muted brass commentary played by Tim Ouimette is tasty here, too.

The gem of the album is "Here's What I'm Here For," written for the 1954 film musical A Star Is Born. It is exquisitely sung, with an intimacy and the sense of something at stake dramatically which I find lacking in some of the looser outings. The guitar accompaniment by John Hart is marvelous on this track. Also especially noteworthy is the seldom-heard and nobly sung "I Had a Love Once," a late-in-the-game (1980) song with Arlen's own lyric.

With a few exceptions, the album has a kind of velvet pillow feel: cozy, luxuriating in the music, smooth. The bittersweet songs downplay the bitter and favor the sweet, but things don't get sticky. Throughout the CD, there are many sinuous and slinky slides along the melodies that are pleasing or teasing and work well.

About half the 15 tracks are on the l-o-n-g side: well over four minutes. Nobody was cracking a whip here and there are some generous solos for band members. But if you're going on a longish journey, you may as well be in the company of these players and this vocalist who provide ear-pleasing sounds. A lively change of pace comes when Eric Comstock appears for a duet as this talented husband and wife renew their wedding vows in effect with "As Long As I Live."

The couple will be appearing in New York clubs singing solo and in tandem (with Eric on piano): October 21 at Danny's Skylight Room and on November 15 at The Metropolitan Room. I caught them this past week at Danny's where they put on a wonderfully varied show, including samples of Arlen and Jule Styne, along with the fine bassist Sean Smith who is also on Written in the Stars. Joel Frahm is the sax player, and the arranger/pianist on the album is John di Martino, who co-produced with the singer.

Co-production is also the situation with the next album, featuring John, Sean and Joel again in a tribute to another composer.

Blues for BreakfastMARY FOSTER CONKLIN
BLUES FOR BREAKFAST:
REMEMBERING MATT DENNIS

Rhombus Records

One of the rewarding and rare songs on Blues for Breakfast is "That Tired Old Routine Called Love," but there's nothing tired or routine about the interpretations by Mary Foster Conklin and her musicians. This is thoughtful, detailed work; the songs are richly explored and mined for meaning and emotion. Composer Matt Dennis (1914-1922) is saluted in a serious way in this collection of 14 of his melodies with various lyricists. The album is a nice balance of the well-known, well-covered items like "Angel Eyes" and those new to most ears.

The treatments are intriguing in any case, but especially if one is familiar with Dennis's own singing and piano playing on his several albums. He had a light touch and an ingratiatingly relaxed singing style whether performing his songs or someone else's. Even the sad recollection of "The Night We Called It a Day" in his voice sounded like he was mostly over being broken up about the break-up and had recovered enough to have some reflective distance. Mary's version of the lament brings all the hurt up to the surface, very much relived. But Mary and company never content themselves with one broad stroke - what makes this version more than just a Kleenex-clutcher is the clarity of the images. The person recalling that night is keenly observant and remembers every detail. Her feelings and painfully etched memories are echoed and embellished by the instrumental figures. There's pain in the voice, but it's modulated rather than self-indulgently let loose. The same skill at storytelling and painting vividly recalled moment-by-moment pictures is at its best in the album's closer, "Violets for Your Furs."

The happy side of life is not ignored in the song choices. Like the blue-hued chapters, the sensibility is very adult and real rather than oversimplified. Even when Mary sings "Let's Just Pretend," about encouraging the fantasy of a storybook love, there's a lingering grown-up tugging at her sleeve doing a reality check. But she can toss care and caution to the wind on a few upbeat numbers that come as needed pick-me-ups.

Teamwork by the musicians is first rate. John di Martino's arrangements and piano playing are elegantly laid back or a forceful engine as suits the moods. Sean Smith on bass is as solid as can be and the same goes for drummer Ron Vincent. Others guest here and there, with Joel Frahm's sax an especially welcome visitor. Tony Romano's guitar is particularly graceful on "Where Am I To Go?" as both he and the singer relish and underline the turns in the melody. (Despite Mary's skill at coloring words, this is after all a tribute to the composer and she's clearly in love with the music as well as the lyrics. When liberties are taken, it's to draw attention to the song, not the singer or instrumentalist.)

As Mary has shown on her two prior albums (one has another Matt Dennis number, "Everything Happens To Me"), she's a singer deeply entrenched in the music and not interested in fluff or histrionics. This is her most impressive work. More information at her website, www.maryfosterconklin.com.

UNDER THE RADAR

And in his CD debut.....

The Moment AfterMARCUS GOLDHABER
THE MOMENT AFTER

Fallen Apple Records

"Gentle" is the operative word for Marcus Goldhaber's singing on The Moment After. He comes across as modest and tasteful, dreamy-eyed and sensitive. Since he has musical theater roles on his resume, one assumes he has more voice than he's using here, but this is low-key, quiet time. It's a pleasing sound and soothing atmosphere, especially when his trio also stays on decaf. Sometimes they cut loose and move with a drive and swing he seems to almost resist. But at the end of the day, it's a fair balance. They feed him some energy that he gets into on the quicker-paced "Lulu's Back in Town," one of several songs from films.

Other songs that were heard in movies decades ago get the tender touch: "Like Someone in Love," "Be Careful, It's My Heart," and "That Old Feeling," all romantically warm and fuzzy. Another cinema tune, the Previns' "You're Gonna Hear From Me," has a blatantly forceful lyric, but Marcus's treatment sounds like he'll never get an A in the Assertiveness Training Workshop. It ends up being wistful and oddly compelling. Jon Davis's piano playing here and elsewhere is especially supportive and delicate. There's good balance with the all three instruments so you can really hear what each skilled player is doing. Paul Gabrielson is on bass and Kyle Struve is on drums except on four tracks where Will Terrill takes over.

There are turns where Marcus comfortably plays with notes and time, but here and there his toying with pitch is less sure-footed. There's definitely something very cool about him, though he's not aloof. He's all sweet, no swagger. If you associate the songs "Honeysuckle Rose," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" with lively, sassy interpretations such as those in period recordings or on cast albums of Ain't Misbehavin', it may take a while to adjust to the Marcus plan. He's far more innocent-sounding and non-winking. On "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," you're convinced he actually means it. The intimate singing has a positive cumulative effect as the album goes on, with the jazz accompaniment becoming seductive and calming.

A doctor might prescribe The Moment After as a hangover cure for the morning after, but it's too good to be just that. Marcus plays regularly on Sunday nights in Manhattan at Penang on Columbus Avenue. There's more information at his website, www.marcusgoldhaber.com.


- Rob Lester


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