Hooray for musical marriages! Each item in this week's column is a pairing: either
two cast albums on one compact disc or a recording with two artists working in tandem.
With CDs able to contain over 75 minutes worth of music, some record companies are
generous and savvy enough to pair two shorter cast albums on one disc. We feature two
such "double features" here. But let's start with some newly-released examples of two
artists joining forces, proving that the whole can be more than the sum of the partners.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN & GEORGE SHEARING
"At Last" is not only a song title on the Hopeless Romantics album; it also expresses the achievement of two long-held goals. Before he became a full-time entertainer, Michael Feinstein worked as an archivist for one of his favorite composers, Harry Warren, and became his friend. (They met in 1979 and Warren died in 1981.) Michael wrote lavishly about his admiration for the man and his melodies in his memoir, and has always wanted to do a Warren tribute album. At last he's done it, and at the same time has checked off another item on the to-do list: to record with a longtime friend, the legendary jazz pianist George Shearing, now in his eighties. Once upon a time, Shearing had a huge hit with the Harry Warren song "September In The Rain." This particular September, it has been released in this new, slower version with Michael's contemplative vocal, complete with the rarely heard verse.
Although Harry Warren wrote many light and lively melodies among his movie musicals (he scored 81 of them), you won't be tap dancing to this as you would to most of the albums of 42nd Street or a Busby Berkeley movie extravaganza. This is a low-key, languorous ballad set. Unlike most of Michael's songwriter tributes, this one does not yield buried treasures. It includes romantic classics such as "I Know Why (And So Do You)," "There Will Never Be Another You," "Serenade in Blue," "You'll Never Know," "The More I See You" and "I Had the Craziest Dream." Like "At Last," all of these have lyrics by Mack Gordon, the especially dreamy words matching the elegant melodies, sounding even more rhapsodic than usual with the Shearing touch. The arrangements are extremely respectful, even conservative by jazz standards (and many of the tunes are jazz standards). It's indicative of the solid construction of the melodies and the literate lyrics that - even devoid of any bounce, band or brio - they "work," rather seeming thin without the trimmings.
"I'll String Along With You" (lyric by Al Dubin) always struck me as a cute but lightweight number, but it's revealed to be almost as heartrending as the others when taken more tenderly. "You're My Everything" is given two different treatments, one letting the sole instrumentalist stretch out a bit and play more notes in a brighter, looser mood. However, I would have preferred letting the slot go instead to one of the several songs recorded and left out, as reported in the liner notes.
Anyone familiar with the two artists knows this is a tip-of-the-iceberg experience. Neither is showing all he can do, having decided that understatement is the way to go. Although I miss Michael's ebullience and the full George Shearing versatility, this is very pretty listening that's more than "pretty good." To my ears, there's a sense of holding back as if to honor the songs with reverence at the expense of relish. There's certainly no "showing off" but the skills of each as a storyteller come through. The pianist has always been one who can play the mood in a way that convinces a listener he knows and understands the lyrics line by line, not just the melodic line and chords. This has been demonstrated for decades, as a soloist, group leader, or accompanist to stars like Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, his many recordings with ideal partner Mel Torme and a great recent outing with John Pizzarelli.
If you are a hopeless romantic, too, you'll find this to be a good album for holding hands to while gazing at the moon.
What more can be said about two of the biggest singing stars of the twentieth century except that Bing Crosby and Al Jolson together are even more entertaining than they are separately? These songs from radio shows aired between 1947 and 1950 (the last year of Jolson's life, whereas Bing performed for more than a quarter of a century beyond that) capture the camaraderie, good spirits and good singing. The 2-CD set is a big, overflowing treasure chest.
Bing's voice is one of the most recorded ever, with decades of making records and many radio performances preserved. The song selections don't concentrate on his hit songs, but many of Jolson's hits are reprised. Among those are "You Made Me Love You," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "California, Here I Come" and "April Showers," so this would also serve as a good overview/introduction to someone unfamiliar with his repertoire and style.
Broadway and movie tunes include "Bye Bye Baby" (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), "The Best Things In Life Are Free," "Lullaby Of Broadway," "Give My Regards To Broadway," "I Only Have Eyes For You" (also on the Michael Feinstein/ George Shearing album discussed above) and groupings of numbers by the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. Berlin himself makes an appearance to chat with the stars and sing his "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Oscar Levant appears in the Gershwin segment to play some brief piano passages. A good time, apparently, was had by all.
There are a few curiosities such as a commercial that has a song (more a real song than a quickie jingle) by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, who wrote numerous movie songs for Crosby, and that non-classic, "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula." The banter is mostly in the category of teasing each other, with Jolson's legendary ego being the usual target. Bing's easy, breezy affability is in evidence throughout and the two seem to have a real mutual admiration society going. Their singing together is relaxed and non-competitive. Jolson's high spirits often seem to energize Crosby, who was famous for being oh-so-relaxed and could be offhand and very casual in his singing. His relaxed and more vigorous vocals are both showcased here. But he always made things appear to be easy. That was part of his appeal.
And appeal is what this double album is loaded with, whether the gentlemen are extolling the small pleasures of "Carolina In The Morning" or asking the musical question, "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?" A few Stephen Foster folk songs and jazz numbers add to the variety. Many are short versions, under two minutes in length, keeping things briskly moving along.
The desire to make this a complete look at their radio teamwork means there are a few songs repeated. This makes the listening experience slightly overwhelming, but in a good way, like a big Thanksgiving meal. And I'm giving thanks that all this still exists, especially with such clear sound. All the singing and talking adds up to two hours and thirty-three minutes of good company, and adds up to a lot of musical history from two icons.
Two scores for Broadway revues by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz have been paired in a new release from Sepia Records. This CD has 25 tracks, many requiring a footnote to explain that they are not original cast performances. Nevertheless, it's a delightful mixed bag. The company of 1948's Inside U.S.A. included the uniquely gifted comedienne Beatrice Lillie. Also in the company was Jack Haley, forever known as The Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz. He shows plenty of heart in his two numbers: "First Prize at the Fair," with a female singer whose identity is lost to history and the still hilarious "Rhode Island Is Famous For You." Both his songs are encored by pop vocal versions. As the liner notes explain, when the show neared its debut, a strike was looming which prevented regular recording in 1948. Therefore, before the opening, the aforementioned stars were rushed into a studio to get some of the songs preserved and on the market. To cover some of the material, pop singers were brought in. As a result, what we have are recordings of the tunes by vocalists such as Perry Como and Buddy Clark (each does a rendition of the big ballad, "Haunted Heart"). For the collector, the advantage of recording before the show is in its final form is that songs that get cut (and might have been lost forever) are preserved. In this instance, we get to hear two such numbers: "Protect Me" by Pearl Bailey and Miss Lillie telling the tale of "Atlanta."
A chorus's patriotic, perky paean to the presumed perfection of our country serves as a title song. In "Come, Oh Come," Bea Lillie (sarcastically) and chorus (sweetly) croon an ode to the beauty to be found in a city where "the sun shines" (but only "in your heart") and nightingales "sing through the livelong day" and where the cough-causing "chimney sparks inspire love to set your heart on fire." It's Pittsburgh.
The Band Wagon tracks are a combination of recordings made in 1931 and three samples from the 1952 MGM film which borrowed the title and some songs. Both starred Fred Astaire. The listings for two medleys from 1931 might make you think that more titles will have vocals by either Fred or his co-starring sister, Adele, but some are instrumentals. Although the clever lyrics for "Confession" aren't heard (they might have been considered risque in 1931), the instrumentals are full of period charm. On "White Heat," the composer is at the piano.
Recorded in 1953 are studio renditions of the score's famous "Dancing In The Dark," in a formal rendition by George Britton who also duets with Edith (better known as Edie) Adams on "High And Low." Harold Lang, familiar to cast album fans from Pal Joey and Kiss Me, Kate, etc. exuberantly covers two songs. The 1953 non-soundtrack cuts have an orchestra led by Jay Blackton who had a Broadway resume, too. It's all good, bright fun, with sound very nicely cleaned up (I had long ago tracked down some of these older tracks on old vinyl and the improved sound is impressive).
It's nice to have these Schwartz-Dietz numbers collected. With ironic timing of this release, one song from each show feels bittersweet just after the tragedy of this month's hurricanes. The celebratory "Louisiana Hayride" and "At the Mardi Gras" feel very different at the moment. However, it's part of the unavoidable package that comes with hearing recordings from the past through the prism of the present. One is also reminded that there was a time when new Broadway shows with brand new scores were a very frequent event. We haven't been able to bring you a newly recorded cast album for quite a while. Hooray for the past.
STAGES & TOGETHER AGAIN
There's no business like show business and there's no show quite like a show about show business. This CD reissues two such musicals. The new label, Kritzerland, is run by producer Bruce Kimmel and Stages (1978) and Together Again (1982) are two California musicals he appeared in - plus, he wrote the music and lyrics for both. They are full of songs about the joys and frustrations of being a performer. Lifelong lovers of musicals (and Mr. Kimmel is clearly one of those) will especially get a charge out of numbers like "Opening Night" (about the jitters) and one song praising "Musical Comedy" while another professes to hate the genre.
Each show has a strong title song. A love for theater pervades the proceedings, as does a kind of innocence, even more so in retrospect. Overall, I find the music more satisfying than the words, although there are some especially good and clever lyrics.
If Stages reeks of wide-eyed youth and broad strokes, it's intentional. It was written for Kimmel's alma mater, Los Angeles City College. The cast included students and professionals, among them Sammy Williams who had recently won a Tony Award as Paul in A Chorus Line. The story involves the ups and downs of students studying theater in college - their experiences in preparing a show and their offstage relationships. It's a mostly light-hearted, affectionate look at its subject, not deep or penetrating. I think people starting out in theater (or remembering their start) will especially relate to it. The cast sings with energy and joy. A newly recorded duet, "Opposites" had been added to the score but not recorded when the vinyl album was issued. It's a bonus track, and the passing of the years is underscored by the fact that one of the singers is the grown-up daughter of one of the original cast members.
Together Again concerns itself with a comedy group and its attempts to reunite after personal differences caused them to break up. The on-again, off-again romance of a central couple takes up much of the attention. Bruce Kimmel plays the male half the couple and is especially effective in a well-written song about spending (wasting) time alone, "I Guess I'll Go Home." It stands out among the showbizzy and humorous songs as the one with the most real emotion.
The liner notes are chatty and recount the story of putting on the shows and recording them. The problems in recording the original LP versions makes me understand how this man who became a record producer so dedicated to production values and good sound. He details how the master tapes for a few songs could not be found, but how he managed to rescue and remix the rest. Those of us who have had these on two separate vinyl albums will notice the changes, including some added percussion on a few songs and overall improved clarity and presence. Each album had a four-person band which plays simply and very much in the enthusiastic spirit of the proceedings. I enjoyed revisiting the songs from Stages and Together Again again, together.
UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly "disc-overy," like their better-known singer-pianist counterpart-ners above seem to be a good match. There's just one vocalist and one instrumentalist on all the tracks - artists who are likely new to you, but the songs are familiar.
Poised and in control of her voice and material, Stephanie Sivers is a graceful gift to find. With a vocal sound that can be clear and bright or appealingly throaty, she's the good news of the week. She is partnered with pianist John E. Douglas, who is with her every step of the way, whether they are embracing a ballad or seductively toying with one of the sultry melodies alluded to in the album's title, such as the Peggy Lee trademark "Fever." Trained at Julliard and with experience via opera companies, Stephanie is secure in her vocal placement, allowing her accompanist to do more than accompany. He plays figures and musical phrases that go off on their own adventures sometimes, but always embellish the mood. He takes a particularly cool solo on the Gershwin classic "But Not For Me." They are a wonderful team.
The liner notes say that Stephanie has a "nearly four-octave range," and I'd love to hear a number that exploits that and has her soaring all over the place. She doesn't do such showpieces here. These are mostly tasteful, very jazzy treatments (Douglas provided the arrangements). She doesn't belt or wail, and even "Orange Colored Sky" with its "flash! bam! alakazam!" is kind of restrained. She resists going operatic even with the most obvious invitation to do so: "Summertime" stays in a jazz-based, moody treatment.
For me, far and away the most impressive cuts are Marc Blitzstein's "I Wish It So" from his 1959 musical Juno and "Lonely House" (Kurt Weill/ Langston Hughes, from Street Scene). Both are serious, emotional songs and vocalist and pianist bring the necessary weight and drama to them. Additionally, they are emotionally detailed and exceptionally vulnerable. Neither is easy; they demand understanding and musical twists and turns to be scaled. They succeed brilliantly, making me think the lighter fare doesn't sufficiently challenge them and use all their skills.
I enjoyed stumbling upon this recording on which neither performer stumbles. However, I'm even more intrigued by the potential and very interested in a follow-up that will showcase them more fully.
It's been a good week for listening and I'll be listening for you again next week.