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Sound Advice Reviews

Gentlemen of Song
Messrs. von Essen, Gari, Culver
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here are three quite different men handling varied repertoire: musical theatre leading man Max von Essen with a range of mostly Great American Songbook classics; pop singer-songwriter Brian Gari with the story of his marriage; and cabaret crooner Tom Culver culling a collection of jazz giant Duke Ellington's work.


LML Records

Memo to fans of terrific, proven old songs given energized new life: Prepare to jump for joy. Musical theatre veteran Max von Essen has released a recording and it's a wow. He sounds sensational, in full command, full of joie de vivre, and it's fully satisfying. It's a compliment to all concerned that even the most overly familiar, very frequently recorded selections are reborn because they seem fresh and inhabited. There's no dust on the older "relics." We get that evidence right away with the opening track: a neat combination of the the soon-to-be-proven theory/perspective that "Everything Old Is New Again" and the ballad suggested by the recording's unapologetic title invitation to Call Me Old Fashioned (the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer 1942 classic "I'm Old Fashioned"). Full steam ahead!

Credit much of the drive and dazzle to the skills of Billy Stritch (pianist and arranger, co-producer with vivacious von Essen), who adds icing to a delectable cake by raising his voice in song—counterpoint a specialty—as the men pair on two tracks. They are "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree" from Maury Yeston's score to Death Takes a Holiday, one of the many musical theatre productions on the resume of von Essen, though he didn't do it in the production. And the strong, step-by-step Stritch accompaniment is so very connected that, on piano, too, he feels very much like an essential spotlight-sharer. There's real simpatico co-starring presence. Added to the mix for Max are three more top instrumentalists: bassist Steve Doyle, drummer Daniel Glass, with cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf very impactfully guesting, adding her own arrangements for her instrument.

The elegance of the cello playing and the decision to slow down and remove all the heavy layers of smarm and goo and from the original Evita context of "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" makes for a miracle I would not have predicted. Shorn of its schmaltz, it's revealed to be sincere, sweet and simple. Less is more. Also breathtakingly gorgeous and tender in ballad mode is "Fly Me to the Moon," with introductory verse intact for the sake of pure beauty (and the lyric set-up for those who think the number, often done up-tempo without the introductory section, actually is literally about a desire for space travel).

Although the subtitle The Broadway Standard may be taken in more than one way, not all the material debuted on Broadway. However, there's no need to be nit-picky about what was picked that didn't originate there, especially since several made their way to the Great White Way one way or another ("Can't Take My Eyes Off You" in the jukebox musical Jersey Boys and the aforementioned opening combining a 1974 Peter Allen favorite recycled for The Boy from Oz and "I'm Old Fashioned" appearing in three Broadway productions). Two numbers introduced in films by Judy Garland and castmates are combined: "The Trolley Song" (which took its own trip to Broadway when Meet Me in St. Louis was adapted for the stage) and "Gotta Have Me Go with You" from 1954's A Star Is Born. Call it an homage or open-armed robbery, but the rendition owes a whole lot not to Garland's initial imprint but instead to Lainie Kazan. On an album in the 1960s, she offered the same combo platter, and the same slicing and dicing is done here, complete with the little lyric changes she'd made (and he keeps the original pronouns so that the object affection on the trolley is another male for von Essen). I suspect he also listened to another Kazan cut, since he adopts her inserts of "Come on!" before some utterances of the title phrase of "Show Me." And that's more than fine and dandy, and the inclusion of this My Fair Lady item is notable as it's not often approached by male singers.

We get to gorge on Gershwin for over ten minutes as the recital draws to a close, a generous nod to Max von Essen's recent splash on Broadway in An American in Paris. The savvy Stritch stitches together a massive medley of the Gershwin samplers, with his piano snippets of the instrumental composition that gives the piece its title weaving in and out. Who could ask for anything more? Well, me, for one. And other "greedy" appreciators of recordings that bring out the best in artists and material will hope for another such robust and romantic release sooner rather than later. When done with style, being old fashioned never gets old.


Original Cast Records

Jeanne is musical Renaissance man Brian Gari's wife and his new album is his charming and touching tribute to their relationship and the renaissance of their health. Each had a serious major medical crisis over which they triumphed; the struggles and resulting relief and new perspectives inform the song cycle that chronicles their story. If this sounds like it's going to be heavy and angst-ridden, forget it. It's not. Like much of his past work, Gari has a cheery and cheering affect, his short-but-sweet pop-styled collection of originals making for an enjoyable glide down the lovers' lane of memories.

Beginning when the relationship was new, with songs written back when events described were actually unfolding, we go chronologically from chapter to chapter of the appealing musical memory scrapbook. The gregarious Gari sings, wrote all the music and lyrics, plays piano and guitar, and shares responsibilities in most tracks for arrangements, production, and backing vocals with multi-instrumentalist Peter Millrose. Dean Bailin sits in on guitar and does co-producing chores on two cuts.

Indeed, the loving but grounded material plays and builds, in some ways, like the storyline of a play. That's not surprising, as it comes from a man who has written musicals, including one about a Hard Time Being Single, a Late Nite Comic, and another about his grandfather, the legendary Eddie Cantor. Among his strengths as a writer are capturing specific little moments, reflecting on them, and sympathetically portraying human foibles. As a singer, he can be an everyman who makes it convincingly low-key in the world according to Brian. He unspools a kind of typical romantic saga, except when, after the "boy meets girl" phase of contentment (like "Busy Enjoying You") and a cute pout about a bout with poverty ("No Checks"), when we get to the point that could mean "boy loses girl," the usual scenario does not come. Here he might lose her not in a break-up, but to cancer. Losing something else—one's hair, due to chemotherapy's side effects—might seem an unlikely subject for a successful musical number, yet "Whose Hair Is Longer?" meets the challenge in a down-to-earth way that is fueled by devotion and support ("What matters the most is that you're still here").

Arguably, indulging in more drama and tension could benefit the material, with more aural variety; the subject matter could support such reasonable indulgence. Brian Gari has his own musical comfort zone. The catchy pop music ambience is strongly present throughout, with pillows of cushy sound, things rarely rising above a medium boil.

The songwriting takes in many aspects of relationships in the real world, acknowledging doubts and insecurities, old memories and disquieting new feelings. That the history of prior relationships is not a slate we wipe clean is accepted in the early-morning, drowsy double-take realizing "Sometimes You Look Like Diane." A naturalistic inner monologue with believability is cemented in such understated, understandable moments that avoid melodrama ("I'm feeling fine and so relieved/ It's just for a moment/ When I laid there and faced you/ I thought that I might have been deceived."). And how convenient for a songwriter than his muse's surname rhymes with words he might not have otherwise come up with: In "Jeanne Zoppi" we get "copy," "my poppi" and the wickedly forced stretch so he can say "That'd be awfully crah-ppy."

Honesty and subtlety in approach are partners in later musical monologues that address impatience and loneliness during separations ("To Wait for Hello"; "A Short Time Gone"). Mood and musings never get too morose, but just in case more bursts of happiness are needed after the maturity and hope as things wind to a close, there's a "Christmas bonus" in two likeable postscript tracks about that season. But what's implied elsewhere, too, is that when one goes through a health scare, every appreciated day can feel like a Christmas gift. The gift of Gari is appreciated, too.


Cafe Pacific Records

Things often feel road-blockingly tentative when singer Tom Culver and the assembled band gamely sift through the hefty, historic Duke Ellington oeuvre (with various lyricists). Oh, there's a "happy to be here" feeling that is indeed ingratiating and respectful, but they don't all seem fully at home At Duke's Place, making them appear to be out of place visitors with visas instead. A comment in Culver's track-by-track liner notes provides a reason for those "seeking a clue," to quote a phrase from the Billy Strayhorn lyric in question—"Something to Live For": he states that, "None of the band had heard it before." It surprised me that not a one of them would have come across this gem which has been recorded/ performed live not just by its writers, but by dozens of vocalists such as Lena Horne, Mel Tormé, Carmen McRae, Diahann Carroll, and Jane Monheit, as well as those dedicating whole albums to the writer(s), like Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, and Darius de Haas, many instrumentalists, plus being sung on Broadway in the Ellington-centric productions Sophisticated Ladies and Play On! and TV tributes. To his credit, the balladeer here shows attention to diction and seems to relish the artfully crafted words and images, letting us drink them in on this number and others. In the case of "Everything But You," the singer states that he "had never heard of" the number, but perusing the wry text made him smile; the smile comes through in his joy crooning the word-play on the line about being left with "a knife and a fork to spoon with."

Like most performers as they age, Tom Culver has some rust on his pipes and proceeding with caution is understandable. The most successful vocal renditions are those with modest melodic challenges that lend themselves to breezy, relaxed style for the easygoing manner of the amiable guy at the mic, as was the case with his previous albums and EPs. Thus, "Love You Madly," "Duke's Place" ("C-Jam Blues"), and most especially "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So" with its Mack David lyric about gratitude are so much better fits than the several that are about loneliness or romantic dissolutions and disillusions. Don't expect many tears. When Culver professes to have suffered bouts of post-breakup misery in "Mood Indigo," the blues seem more powder blue than deep, dark indigo hue. Too, when he claims "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues," gloom and doom don't convincingly envelop the atmosphere, and it's more about restraint than convincing complaint. (It also distracts me when he kills the rhyme in the line "Believe me, Pappy/ I can't get happy" by replacing the word "Pappy" with "mister.") At least "Sophisticated Lady" is about someone else's disillusion, so it's not a confessional from the first person point of view, and that "sells" it better.

The recording is produced by fellow West Coast singer Mark Winkler, who is heard as duet partner to add welcome energy and his jazzy, lived-in coolness to spruce up "Caravan" and steer it into a hipper, looser vibe. The eight musicians, heard in various combinations on the dozen tracks, provide generally enjoyable if feisty-free backing, although there's way more reserve than I'd wish for with the juicy Ellington melodies. Arrangement duties were shared by alternating pianists Rich Eames and Josh Nelson, with Rick Hils (not in the band) credited as "co-arranger" on all but two selections. The absence of longer instrumental solos is a missed opportunity for the competent collaborators. As with the singer, one senses that they truly admire and dig the music without fully digging in.

The nagging bottom line, though, could best be expressed by a ghost—a trademark Duke Ellington creation that is not present, but its concise advice looms large: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." This musical tip-toeing where others have Olympically high-jumped makes for one of those cases of "big shoes to fill," but the quality of the repertoire and the affection for it shine through. Point of evidence: While Tom Culver shrugs off melancholia with "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," you can bet this fellow always has a song in his heart and loves what he's doing. And that, I'll admit, can be infectious.

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