Jackson, Joyce and Jennifer:
From history with histrionics and rocking rage to two solo CDs with calm, classy and soothing vocals, we experience a hurricane of America's political past and then the Great American Songbook. Long-established Joyce Breach's CD is a collection of some marvelous Odds & Ends, many not often recorded, while young Jennifer Sheehan's album is more the well-known classics (with a few newbies).
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON
Blow the dust off those history books and stuff stereotypes in the trash. The in-your-face angst turned up to "high," along with the pumped-up volume, makes the high spirits and nose-thumbing rebellion bracing and brash. They say politics makes strange bedfellows, and the glomming-on of contemporary slang and music styles to life many, many decades ago for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is strange indeed. The novelty wears surprisingly well, with the man who became America's seventh President way back in the 1800s spouting verbiage like your neighbor's teenage son saying casually, "I'm so that guy" or, "My life sucks!". The lyrics are peppered liberally (no political pun intended) with phrases of irreverence and audaciousness, including curse words. Anger is what much of it is aboutno glossing over the harsh and ugly realities of the life and times of Jackson and his contemporaries, and the self-serving politics and conniving political machinery of the establishment are pushed into the glare of the no-apologies spotlight. Dark humor is expressed via bright youthful energy that refuses to die.
Perhaps it shouldn't work, but it does, partly because it is so vital and vituperative, and pain and outrage know no age or time barrier. Underneath it all, there is the constant reminder that history repeats itselffrom the senselessness of brutal wars to the contested, manipulated first run for President (he won the most popular and electoral votes but didn't become President; that had to wait for his second and third runs). It's all set to a rock beat with bursts of self-realization and self-empowerment while lamenting the hard times of individuals and groups. The 13 tracks stay on that track, with Michael Friedman's music and lyrics becoming variations on a theme and concept, diverting but ultimately not so diverse. Those looking only for traditional, toe-tapping, cozy and romantic musical theatre will find themselves in strange territory and they might run for those hills that are alive with the sound of more mellifluous music. For the adventurous, it's invigorating and, once you listen past the blare and brunt of the sound and style, there are more emotions than just defiance. The songs look open-eyed at sorrow, more contemplative frustration, survival, and the price of power-seeking. The perspective of hindsight looms and brings an aching dimension as events unfold, like a train you know is running off course but can't stop or look away from.
This is exciting stuff. The determination of people about their self-determination comes boldly to life in songs like the opening company number, "Populism Yea Yea," that is just an inkling of the strong medicine (and joking jabs) to come. Taking no prisoners, the songs and performers fight fire with the fire of burning righteousness and blind faith. There is swagger and posing. It should be pointed out that Jackson, though the hero, is not painted as perfect; his ownership of slaves, disdain for others, and forced relocation of Native Americans hardly go unexamined. But certainly his guts, desire to fight for others' rights and prosperity, his trail of tragedy (his family members dying one by one) make him sympathetic. Benjamin Walker as Jackson is one moment charismatic, the next clown-like funny, the next a fallen tragic herowailing and swaggering, snidely self-deprecating, lamenting. His voice takes on colors and stances appropriately to be fierce, flip or filled with coiled outrage or lingering lamentations.
The five-man rip-roaring band features indispensable music director Justin Levine playing piano and guitars and taking some major vocal duties, too. His "Second Nature" solo near the end, a painful cry asking "What was it for?" is haunting and powerful. Following this, as a postscript for authenticity, is a piece not written by Friedman, but an old song with words by Samuel Woodworth and the composer unknown, "The Hunters of Kentucky" describing of Jackson's awareness: "Well he knew what aim we take/ With our Kentucky rifles." For a show that seems to be at first a gimmick of strutting blatant anachronismand yanking off the cloaks that cover up the self-interests and spin of politics and powerit becomes increasingly emotionally complex. It is also unsettling and persuasive; it's the power of good theatre.
The man whose face is on our twenty-dollar bills is worth reconsidering. This fresh flash is entertaining and moving, and has now landed on Broadway, where it had its official opening last night.
Moving away from theme albums, the sublime singer Joyce Breach lends her grace, her understated but well-considered approach imbued with intelligence and understanding of lyrics, and her feathery vibrato to a miscellaneous melange of excellent songs. Using the Burt Bacharach/ Hal David "Odds and Ends" as a title song and an "excuse" to collect unrelated and mostly under-recorded gems, she's chosen well. There are a few better-known selections, like the ageless song that is somehow both extremely elegant and a lament, "If You Could See Me Now," and the old ray of sunshine, "Love Is a Simple Thing." But many are rare or rarely heard beyond their cast album origins (a medley of two songs from I Had a Ball, "Almost" and "The Other Half of Me," is a particular delight that is a prime example of Joyce's strong suit of tempering the sadness in a song so it becomes more powerful via its more subtle interpretation as yearning and ruefulness rather than sinking into the mire or desire and self-pity with weeping and wailing. Pensive, shaded, subtle, older-but-wiser or sadder-but-wiser after considerable reflection is where Joyce is often singing from.
We're in very good hands, especially with her being accompanied by classy musicians of kindred spirit and sensibilities: Jon Weber as pianist and arranger, Chip Jackson on bass, the great Warren Vache adding much to moods on cornet, and veteran guitarist Gene Bertoncini (I wish he had more solos). Put in the spotlight is the song itself, not the singer showing off herself. The joy that Joyce finds makes us appreciate singer and song: her phrasing is so loving and thoughtful, the treatment of the melodic line so respectful as she and the musicians cut to the core and eschew corniness, it's sculpting at its pure ivory best. Since the musicians come from the world of jazz, all well traveled, there's a creativity amid the maturity, but never ever at the expense of the basics of the song at hand, whether it be the delicacy of Grey Gardens' "Will You?" or something light and breezy that doesn't need to have its wind whipped up.
It's no surprise for this song-loving, song-searching vocalist with a long history of scouting out lesser-known well-crafted songs to have such a treasure trove. Esoteric or rare is not enough: they have to be classy and accessible and literate. Interesting picks, especially for show tune lovers, include "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want" from Celebration by Jones & Schmidt, and Bob Merrill's charmer from Take Me Along, "Promise Me a Rose." Miss Breach has an underlying optimismor at least sense of proportionthat flavors and tempers some potentially gloom-and-doom numbers and also shines through on happier tunes. However, it never spills over into gushing glee or belting. Though it's used as the opener rather than what others might think would be needed as a de rigueur change-of-pace switcheroo, the peppy and perky "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side" (Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer) is brisk and brimming with bright spirits. Though warm and wistful are the most commonly chosen tones, she can be wry or sly or slip into a more innocent mindset to suit the material. But don't expect big and bold or fast or furious. Restraint and decorum prevail.
The album is co-produced by composer Michael (Mickey) Leonard, four of whose compositions are included, each with a different lyricist.
Joyce Breach is appearing this month in New York City at the Metropolitan Room, featuring many of these songs from Odds & Ends, and she is a highly recommended experience for those who love grown-up interpretations of grown-up songs that grow on you. There's a two-drink minimum, but she and the songs are like fine wine themselves. When someone so skilled as song-caring as Joyce Breach glides through "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" (by Burton Lane and Ted Koehler, not the better-known, more recent movie song of the same title by Legrand and the Bergmans) you kind of want to spend the rest of your life listening to such high art performed by those with high standards, whether they are standards or not.
"What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?, "the film song by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, is one of the many fine choices in a collection by a singer who has quite a lot of the rest of her life ahead of her as she is young, not long out of school at Juilliard. Continuing to grow as an interpreter and blessed with a very pretty and pitch-sure voice, Jennifer Sheehan brings forth her second CD after coming onto the cabaret scene just a few years ago while still studying and under the wing of cabaret diva and ardent lover of the great standards, Andrea Marcovicci.
Jennifer marks the beginning of the 100 years (arguably so) of the Great American Songbook with Sophie Tucker's theme song, "Some of These Days." Far afield from tough Tucker, Jennifer's persona and sound are soprano sweetness and light, ingenue elegant. But this album shows she is stretching, with a couple of comedy numbers included and even a touch of sass on "Do You Miss Me?" (Bruce Roberts/ Diane Bulgarelli), one of several candidates as the contemporary pages of the sequel to the Great American Songbook. Including these is a wise decision that prevents her from being stuck in the past and recording just songs that so many of her more seasoned predecessors have put their more secure stamp on, and also means this survey has to leave out some of the giants of the Songbook. There's nothing from Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, Yip Harburg, Kurt Weill, Vincent Youmans or this year's own 100th anniversary celebrant, Frank Loesser. Instead, there are repeat appearances by the Gershwin brothers ("How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Love Is Here to Stay") and two from the interesting newer singer-songwriter Susan Werner (the wry "I Can't Be New" and "The Movie of My Life").
Though rather conservative in her treatments of the standards and gliding through rather than immersing in the more emotional and sorrowful corners of lyrics, there are glimmers of the ability to mine more drama, color and shape the landscape, and linger over phrases with active thought. Her pause and change of tone in Cole Porter's classic "In the Still of the Night" when, after expressing hope for requited feelings of ardor and life partnership, she considers the devastating but very real alternate possibility: "Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight, like the moon growing dim ..." It's a moment where we witness the in-the-moment experiencing of thoughts racing and colliding, rather than just enjoying an attractive voice hitting all the right notes but not hitting all the emotional possibilities. Still, "In the Still of the Night" is also worthy just because of the purity of the sound, the sumptuous accompaniment that makes it a ravishing rhapsody by skilled accompanists and a songstress who has the pipes.
The youth and freshness that burst forth on many numbers are not inconsiderable compensations for the depth that usually comes later. "When October Goes" (Johnny Mercer's lyric set posthumously by Barry Manilow), about the sadness and foreboding as yet one more October wanes, is ideal for this particular little chapter of the calendar year, but is not as convincing when crooned by someone who clearly sounds like she hasn't seen as many Octobers come and go, with cumulative regret and a long view, compared to many of her listeners and older singers who have been attracted to this bittersweet lyric. When the songs suit a younger perspective and sound, unscarred by skepticism and becoming blase, like the uber-romantic "All the Things You Are," there is aural glory to relish.
And Jennifer has some surprises up her sleeve: she finds fresh comic phrasing, reactions, and a cute accent to adopt for the slangy Comden & Green lyric (with Jule Styne's bouncy melody) denouncing an oft-cheating lover she's just shot, "If You Hadn't, But You Did." She has great fun with the lyric's litany of abbreviated rhymes for "if"such as being left home when the guy had gotten "two seats for South Pacif." South Pacif[ic]'s "Some Enchanted Evening appears, too, in one of the four tracks pairing two songs. In that case, it's the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic in a medley with "Fable" by Rodgers's grandson, Adam Guettel. Another Rodgers melody with Stephen Sondheim's lyric, "Take the Moment," is blended with the all-Sondheim "Take Me to the World" from Evening Primrosetwo Sondheim lyrics about desire. The combos also serve to get more songwriters represented, and some work better than others. Irving Berlin's simple "What'll I Do?" seems an odd coupling to John Bucchino's swirling "Unexpressed," but the yearning in both strike sort of a similar chord.
The chords on piano are played with assurance and discretion by musical director James Followell, with Jered Egan on bass, Antoine Silverman on violin and Dan Gross on percussion, all adding to the ambiance and nostalgia, with a special nod to their comfort with the latter-day songs. Longing back to the past or looking forward, Jennifer Sheehan has a glow and her real affection and respect for the material is evident, too. That's plenty to appreciate.