This week, we travel along very different musical roads. Two show albums take us off the beaten path, and both come from productions that have strong visual components. We're in more familiar territory with two solo albums, which feature some classic theatre songs.
HARVEY SCHMIDT PLAYS JONES & SCHMIDT
First the bad news: Harvey Schmidt says he has retired from composing and has returned to his native Texas to relax. Now the good news: to mark his milestone 75th birthday, Harvey Schmidt sat down at the piano he's had since the 1960s and made an album of his own melodies from that decade and beyond. It's a pleasure to report that it's a treasure. As Irving Berlin would say, he does "know a fine way to treat a Steinway." Although we don't get to hear the lyrics of his partner Tom Jones, this is an opportunity to marvel at 21 strong melodies that work very well on their own as solo piano pieces. The composer plays with theatricality and emotion, so most of this feels like musical theater rather than a side trip into jazz or pop, as some artists' instrumental takes on show tunes do. If you've heard his piano playing on the 1998 cast album of The Show Goes On, a revue of Schmidt and Jones songs, you know he plays with both spirit and tenderness.
The liner notes say this recording is in response to requests from friends who enjoyed four private recordings Schmidt made as Christmas presents. Although I'm not on his Christmas list, I was lucky enough to find two of these records in a sale when the public library began divesting itself of vinyl from its circulation and donations. They revealed Schmidt's skill in evoking mood as well as a love of melody (the songs are by other Broadway and movie composers). A little-known album of two film scores he composed and played as sole instrumentalist, A Texas Romance 1909/Bad Company also familiarized me with Harvey Schmidt's ways of setting a mood and building it. Therefore, I've been looking forward to this CD.
There are five selections from The Fantasticks, including an especially sweet embrace of "They Were You" and "Try To Remember" with some rhythmic and tempo surprises. I Do! I Do! is represented by four songs, two of them cut from the show (both previously saw the light of day, with their lyrics, on the CD Lost In Boston II). We get a song or two each from 110 In the Shade, Celebration, Roadside (the last Schmidt/Jones production, from 2001) and Grover's Corners. That last-named show, a musicalization of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town, is of special interest as the musical never got a cast album and didn't make it to Broadway. The melodies from this 1984 production are the sprightly and ingratiating "The World Is Very Wide" and "Time Goes By." They certainly make me long for a full recording of this score. The remaining tracks consist of material from various versions of the Colette biography.
On the Kritzerland website, it's acknowledged that there is some "ambient noise" on the recording, which was made in the composer's home studio, including the audible groan and cra-a-a-ack of the piano seat. It's not infrequent, but it's not a deal-breaker. I found it more intrusive when listening on headphones rather than in a room. The piano is over 40 years old and the performer is pushing 80 - both have a right to creak and squeak.
Many of the melodies are unabashedly romantic, but there are changes of pace such as "Never Say No," "The Honeymoon Is Over" and 110 In the Shade's jaunty "Little Red Hat," receiving its second recording of the season (the first being on Kritzerland's "Guy Haines" album). A booklet is filled with the composer's anecdotes, interesting tidbits on how each song came to be. I've been listening to the CD over the last couple of weeks and have found that it always puts me in a good mood.
THE BLUE FLOWER
If you're an adventurous music lover, have I got a cast album for you. Frankly, I have been stumped as to how to describe this piece, other than to cop out and call it "eclectic." The Blue Flower, presented at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, combines fictional and real characters from the first half of the 20th century, including Marie Curie and centering on an artist based on a real person, Max Beckmann. The play was a multi-media presentation with videos playing a prominent role. A tale of complex adult relationships in the shadow of war and a changing political landscape, part of it takes place in memory. The artistic movement which involves the characters is Dadaism. Just from the ethereal, insinuating music you get a sense of dreams and surreal experiences, even if one hasn't seen the show (I didn't) or reading about it (I did - the website www.weimarband.com is helpful and strongly recommended as a visual companion to better appreciate the recording). I didn't totally "get it" after several listens, but after seeing the creator in person (in another piece, Dagmar, in this year's Festival), I'm finding The Blue Flower more more accessible.
The music is both hip and hypnotic, sometimes unsettling, and full of twists and turns. It ain't Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it's dramatic and full of musical invention. Each time you think you know where you are, there's another surprise. You feel like you're in a German cabaret and then - wait a minute! - is that a country-western steel guitar twanging? Isn't that an accordion? Where are we going? A sudden switch from languid to harsh and back again - it's like being suddenly awakened from an eerie but rich technicolor dream by a jangling alarm clock, then pushing the "snooze" button and slipping into another, wholly different dream. It's quite a roller coaster. Rhythms are insistent and mesmerizing, occasionally nightmarish. Just as the intensity seems to be at full throttle, there's a gentle and romantic ballad, but they're singing about knowing their lives could end at any moment. That explains the sense of foreboding. There are moments of respite, a quiet breather here and there, and in a very traditional German-sounding tune even a sly musical quote from "Moritat" ("Mack the Knife").
The music and lyrics are by Jim Bauer who also sings and plays guitar and other instruments. He collaborated on the script and video direction with his wife, Ruth Bauer, who did the artwork. Listening to the CD alone, it's hard to get a handle on the storyline, but the mood, feelings and attitudes come through strongly. The versatile voices on the recording include Jim Bauer, Ben Schrader, folk singer Jen Chapin, Alice Moore and Meghan McGeary, each having a distinctive quality. This is an experimental piece which will exhilarate some listeners and alienate others. It would be oversimplifying and thus unfair just to say it's merely "edgy" or to cavalierly remark, "Well, it's different." With some lyrics not being especially satisfying or precise the way good theater lyrics need to be, some of this feels unfulfilled. Certainly, the stylization, tempi and instrumentation overwhelm the words. Nevertheless, for a gripping, intriguing change of pace, The Blue Flower is something to consider.
KÀ : CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Ladies and gentlemen, direct from Las Vegas, the music from one of the latest productions of Cirque du Soleil. These circus extravaganzas have yielded recordings in the past and much of what I'd heard struck me as too bombastic at times. The new album KÀ is more varied and has some pretty moments. Still, there are those drums and repetitive, repetitive, repetitive chanting choruses with what sound like incantations. Both can be relentless. With a 57-piece orchestra and a choir boasting more than 40 voices, there's a lot of sound coming out of your speakers, and there's certainly variety in tone.
Music written to set a mood for visual action and not upstage that action doesn't always hold up on its own and sustain interest as a listening experience. Such is the case with playing many a movie soundtrack (and indeed the album from the live show is labeled as a "soundtrack"). I like the "Love Dance" and its sweeping melody. René Dupéré is the composer credited for the 16 tracks, and his music has been featured in past Cirque albums. The last three selections (two are called "bonus tracks" or "pistes additionelles" if y'all parlez français) have English lyrics. No lyricist is credited on the website or on the advance copy I received (the CD should be in stores before the end of the month). There's a "making-of" documentary on DVD that is available at www.cirquedusoleil.com, too.
This kind of music has its fans and there's no denying the pulse-quickening effect of the sounds. Far from the bouncy and perky circus marches and calliope, this is alternately ethereal and pounding, resounding mega-soundscape.UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly look at someone not widely known. In this case, I think the performer's
days under the radar will be ending soon.
Three cheers for Josh Young's debut album ... make that four. If you've been waiting for a strong and exciting new voice on the scene, may I introduce you to Mr. Josh Young, age 25. He toured as Marius in Les Miserables and though he doesn't sing anything from that score on his CD, you can easily hear that he's got the "chops" for it and this recorded document would lead one to believe he could handle many a musical theater role. I've caught him singing a couple of songs in New York in group concerts and he made a favorable impression with his stage presence as well.
There are times I wish Josh would hold back a bit or show a little more vocal variety and subtlety. He's chosen mostly highly dramatic and emotionally charged songs and commits fully to them. He is very much an actor in his singing, but doesn't succumb to choosing "acting moments" at the expense of the notes. On the contrary, he sings in a powerful voice, letting the melodies forcefully weave and soar. Much of this album feels like a "live" recording, with numbers sung in full voice as if on stage in front of an audience. There's little sense of cozying up to a mic or studio tricks with tracks. A couple of songs end abruptly, which may have been a choice to not risk an ending with instrumental overkill after an already effective vocal ending. A few of the more familiar songs could have benefitted from a more original interpretation or variation, but I'll chalk it up as a desire to be loyal to the intention of the songwriters.
Josh has three duets with guest female vocalists, but it's very much his show. He is joined by Kate Shindle for "In Whatever Time We Have" from Stephen Schwartz's Children Of Eden. This ardent declaration of eternal love seems to be a favorite theme, as similar sentiments abound in other songs which proclaim the same feelings or lament the death of love that had appeared to be undying. Josh comes across as a true romantic, more than willing to wear his big heart on his sleeve. A medley of three West Side Story love proclamations cements this impression. Interestingly, he is not afraid to explore and exploit the highest part of his vocal range. It's also interesting that Josh is going on tour as Tony in West Side Story.
I was especially happy to see a Jason Robert Brown song included: Josh scores well with "Someone To Fall Back On." Kander and Ebb are represented by "Sometimes A Day Goes By" from Woman Of The Year. The longest track (6:24) is "Even The Pain," a big production with additional vocal back-up by by Sara Chase and a chorus, arranged by Greg Jasperse. All the other arrangements are by Brian Lowdermilk, who is overflowing with talent. He produced the CD and is on piano for everything except the Schwartz song (where Beth Falcone slides onto the piano bench). Peter Sachon on cello and violinist Christian Hebel do some splendid and simply gorgeous playing, adding palpable beauty. The band is rounded out with ace work by Randy Landau on bass, Juston Ahiyon on drums and Scott Murphy on guitar. The most interesting arrangement on the well-known numbers is for Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance." Normally a song of relaxed contentment, Brian's long instrumental intro sets up some tension and makes the whole thing a meditation, injecting some drama and casting a different light. The two songs he composed are perhaps the most satisfying of all here. "How To Not Be With You" is an achingly honest depiction of adjustment to a break-up, with Brian's own sharp and honest lyrics. The other, co-written with Kait Kerrigan, is from their excellent score to The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Samantha Brown, given a memorable reading earlier this year. The plea, "Run Away With Me" gives Josh a chance to start slowly and establish a vulnerable character, then build a whirlwind of emotion. It's a home run.
I'm eager to see what the future brings for Josh Young: I have a feeling it will be bright.
... As always, I hope our coming weeks of listening will be bright, too. I'll be listening for you, hoping you'll check in to see what there is to check out.