With the exception of the upcoming season when we will be deluged with songs filled with the words "merry," "mistletoe," and "manger," concerning snow, sentiment and Santa, most weeks find us looking at songs about love. That sometimes means lots of loss, longing or loneliness. But don't reach for the tissues just yet. There are a few sad ballads here and there, but this time around, the balance is tipped in the direction of the happier, the hopeful and the hip - meaning a jazz sensibility.
Sunny is the sound of Marlene Ver Planck. Even when the subject is regret or a romance that hasn't ended happily ever after, there is more than a glimmer of hope. With her clean, clear voice and lack of melodrama or histrionics, a gloomy song comes out more reflective and reasoned than mournful. In two broken-heart lyrics with a saloon setting, the old Nat King Cole hit, "I Keep Going Back to Joe's," and "Drinking Again," she drinks in sadness as well. However, you sense that she's doing more thinking than drinking, and she'll be fine. She does, however, dig into the Johnny Mercer lyric for the latter, and has an all-Mercer album on her resume.
Marlene has been releasing tasteful and understated albums for quite a few years. She's very much a musician rather than a weeper or a belter. Her sound is refreshing and her intonation and sense of rhythm have been strong, going back to her early records. A few of the album titles actually describe her sound rather well: Pure and Natural, A Breath of Fresh Air, Quiet Storm. Throughout her long recording career, she has graced songs from stage and film musicals, but those are not the focus here, though she does get to "Moments Like This," by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser from a film called College Swing. It's an especially romantic moment indeed.
Sophisticated and classy, the album is also full of catchy rhythms and mood-setting beginnings that don't waste time or notes. Clutter and self-indulgence are not in the vocabulary even though half of the 14 tracks go past the four-minute mark.
The singer has chosen some interesting songwriters. For starters (literally) there's a song by Francesca Blumenthal and Ronny Whyte called "The Party Upstairs," and this team returns with a very optimistic song simply titled, "Yes!" Respected jazz names like Johnny Mandel, Dave Frishberg, and Meredith D'Ambrosio are a good sign, of course. Two veteran pianists sit in to play songs they co-wrote: Billy Taylor on "Something Always Happens," and Norman Simmons with the attractive "Pretty Blue." Otherwise, the pianist is Tedd Firth whose work I've been appreciating lately - especially on the Barbara Brussell album reviewed last week and guesting on Johnny Rodgers' CD. He really swings here. Bucky Pizzarelli, who has worked with Marlene on other albums, is back - featured prominently on two numbers. Billy Ver Planck, Marlene's partner in music and marriage, does terrific work as arranger, conductor and producer - and composer of the melody for the title song. "Now!"'s lyric is by Leon Nock and this sweet number is just the right ending for this set by a vet: Thanks, Ver Plancks!
Following his recent CD of Leonard Bernstein music, jazz pianist Bill Charlap has turned his attention to composer George Gershwin. To be more accurate, I should say that he also turns his attention to brother Ira Gershwin and other lyricists who, long ago, wrote the words to these love songs. No, there is no singing on this album - but this is a pianist who can play in a way that invokes the words. Extraordinarily skillful and sensitive, he has the gift of being able to explore a song without yielding to the temptation of getting esoteric, overly abstract or showing off endlessly. He appears here with his usual collaborators, bassist Peter Washington and and drummer Kenny Washington, but is joined on six tracks by four other heavyweights. They are two sax players he's worked with in the past - Phil Woods (alto) and Frank Wess (tenor), plus Slide Hampton (trombone) and Nicholas Payton (trumpet). This makes for some sensational listening.
The sprightly takes on "Liza" and "Who Cares?" with just the trio are great fun. So is an energizing "Nice Work If You Can Get It" with everyone and it finds the players improvising more. "'S Wonderful" is a big party where host Bill is generous to his guests. These are major jazz players who get ample time to take center stage. It's not a case of sidemen in supporting roles. But it's the contemplative and longer, generous visits to familiar Gershwin material that amaze. They are dripping with emotion and musical intelligence. I find myself appreciating even the smallest musical phrases and nuances in melodies I know so well. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is the best case in point. The tenderness of the love pledge is brought out rather than going for the grand operatic proclamation.
Of special note among the super hits is one of the very earliest Gershwin melodies, "I Was So Young (And You Were So Beautiful)." It dates from 1919 when the composer was 21. Played by the trio with Bill at his thoughtful best, it's a real treasure. The final track is another surprise of sorts. The tune "Soon," played just by Bill at a slow tempo, provides a different look at something that's usually done as statement of sweet celebration. Though under two minutes long, the stripped-down version finds a quiet and appreciative contentment.
The sound quality on this CD is excellent. Joel Moss is the producer on this and Bill Charlap's other new album, reviewed below.
If I had to make that proverbial desert island trip with a small pile of CDs to play over and over, I'd include this one by Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap. It's heavenly. Besides, I have always pressed "repeat play" when listening to this lady's elegant singing. However, I would be frustrated if my desert island trip were to take me out of New York between November 8th-19th because that is when Sandy and Bill will be performing in town at The Algonquin. Their last engagement was a joy to witness. Their simpatico work is truly special, in addition to (or because of) the fact that they are mother and son.
The two recorded together on the 1994 album Sandy Stewart and Family where one of the new album's songs, "Here I Am in Love Again," also was included. It's even more of a family affair since the melody was written by Bill's father, the late Moose Charlap (Peter Pan, Whoop Up). Sandy makes the most of the Charles Sweeney lyric while luxuriating in the melody line. It's also fascinating to hear "I'll Never Go There Anymore," a dramatic and powerful number from the score of Kelly by Moose Charlap and Eddie Lawrence. Her recording made 40 years ago was included as a bonus track on a 1998 studio cast recording of the original score (she sang two other numbers on that Original Cast Records CD). Bill recorded an excellent instrumental version of "I'll Never Go There Anymore" on his Written in the Stars album. Their version together is searing and in person it is even more devastating.
The title song of Love is Here to Stay and Irving Berlin's "Always" both quietly but assuredly convince in their statement of commitment. Almost breathing as one, singer and accompanist take their time but there's no wasted moments. Whether pausing for effect or hanging onto a note, they are judicious. Sleek but never slick, their often minimalistic approach finds the essential truth in each phrase. It's the musical equivalent of a laser beam. Sandy can take what could seem to be the least necessary word in a line and make something out of it, as she does with even the "oh" in "oh, my dear, our love is here to stay." As an actress, she finds moments others would pass by; as a singer, she knows the potential of an open vowel.
I always find myself holding my breath in anticipation of the next high note, for her head tones are glorious. Delicate and graceful, she strings notes like jeweled beads on a necklace. Although her voice does not resemble Barbara Cook's, she sings with the same care and attention to detail. Her appealing vibrato adds to the beauty of her interpretations, and Bill is graceful in his accompaniment. Although he gets top billing on the album cover, he does not take any extended solos, and tour de force playing would be out of place with the reflective, gentle singing. It's quite impressive to hear how much emotion he can get while willingly reigning in his full jazz potential. Sandy does not adopt many jazz singer mannerisms, although she plays with notes here and there, as in the medley of two ballads by the Gershwins: she does a pleasing twist on the word "Romeo" in "I've Got a Crush on You" and is looser with the time on "Do It Again." "Exquisite" is the word that may best describe the basic sound and the fruits of their labor.
"Where Is Me?" is a great song about a woman's identity crisis and comes from the revue New Faces of 1968. Sandy previously recorded the song with Arthur Siegel, on his Live at the Ballroom CD. He co-wrote the reflective number with June Carroll. Sandy captures a sense of awe in "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "A Sleepin' Bee."
This new album is a welcome and overdue addition to Sandy Stewart's all too small discography. Hearing this may well make you search out her earlier work if you haven't heard it. Her tracks on the expanded CD versions of the Ben Bagley Revisited anthologies of little-known songs by the great theater songwriters are all worthwhile and her all-Jerome Kern album with Dick Hyman proved twenty years ago how superb she can be with just a pianist. Back in the 1960s, she recorded a studio cast album of Irving Berlin's last score, Mr. President with Perry Como and Kaye Ballard. Both ladies sang on Como's TV show where Sandy introduced Kander and Ebb's first hit, "My Coloring Book," heard on her first album.
Love is Here to Stay is here to stay on my play list and I can't get enough of the creamy sounds. Together or separately, this genetically linked twosome represent the cream of the crop.UNDER THE RADAR
With all the love songs in the air, some quiet moments are bound to have escaped your attention. Here's our weekly look at one, an independently released "labor of love."
Rounding out the look at love songs comes the debut album of Richard Malavet. His choices lean toward the happier side with standards like "Time After Time," which benefits from the wise choice of retaining the tender verse: "What good are words I say to you/ They can't convey to you what's in my heart ..." It's a simple but sincere version with a strong piano solo by Ross Patterson whose work is outstanding throughout.
I'm not sure this singer has quite found himself. On the back of the CD it says, "File under Jazz," but he sounds least comfortable in the jazzier, more rhythmic cuts. As I hear it, he sounds like he's being careful when he should be free and loose. For example, the album begins with with the standard "Sometimes I'm Happy," in an arrangement that does not put his best foot forward. The self-described "Nice 'n' Easy" finds him in a more comfortable tempo and the guitar work there by producer George Walker Petit is cool, getting things into a real groove.
Richard seems to favor the low part of his voice and makes some effective use of that. I actually was more impressed with moments where he showed his prettier tones. In the second track, he reveals that, with a vulnerability in "Make Believe" from the score of Show Boat. He presents this in a medley with an upbeat "Lucky To Be Me," where I kept wishing he would have stayed on the pretty path, rather than going with another upbeat number with short phrases. He tends to "clip" his words and avoid sustaining notes, the way some aging singers do as they are losing their former strength. He doesn't need to do this, as some tracks reveal an attractive vibrato and thoughtful phrasing. I admire the choice of "The Right to Love," the Lalo Schifrin/Gene Lees song about someone determined to pursue a frowned-upon relationship. It could use a bit of fire, as it loses some momentum in its languid tempo. The album's title song is another "acting" moment he appears to fancy. Two ballads in Spanish are included as well.
A Ray Charles number, "Ain't That Love," is out of character with the rest of the album, but turns out to be a surprise winner. Coming as the next to last track, I was startled but delighted to find him so animated and bluesy. He sounds more at home and vocally powerful than anywhere else. Despite my reservations, there is something inherently likable about this singer and when he plays to his strengths, something clicks. Another of the CD's songs, the standard "Autumn in New York" is my cue to mention that this autumn in New York, the young singer is performing. You can catch him at Helen's on November 1.
Despite having all these "mostly hopeful" love songs ringing in my ears, I'm hopeful about the ones I'll be investigating and writing about in the coming weeks. Love is here to stay. I'll be listening for you ... and loving it.