Sound Advice Reviews
Change of Heart: Feinstein Sings Previn
Two of the most heartfelt albums I've heard in quite a while make their gentle way to the column now on a calm April breeze. Not that singing romantically and tenderly is anything new to these two, but it's appreciated in a world of blazing belting, musical ranting and raving, and "American Idol"-ized wailing. Enter Michael Feinstein and Jane Monheit, each with a new album that takes a sweeter ride.
Due to the success of this new album as a whole, and the welcome explorations of its rarities, I'd want to shout hooray, but it's mostly such an intimate, hushed affair, that the "hooray" may be more appropriately sighed or whispered. Michael Feinstein's Change of Heart is not quite a change of pace, as he's always been Mr. Sincere Balladeer, though some of his recent work (especially in person) has showcased his exuberant, big-voiced performances and swinging with a band. This more low-key and reflective set turns the spotlight on the music of André Previn; and Previn himself very much shares that spotlight as pianist. The A-list veteran David Finck is the bassist as well as co-producer with the singer. Whether drenched in melancholia or flickering with somewhat tentative hope, Change of Heart comes across as a heart-to-heart communication between singer and accompanists and then performers to listener (or, if you will, sometimes a confession or plea to the loved one addressed in the lyric). Even when things have a bounce or sway, easy-going is the way they go.
Over the years, Michael has made albums of songwriters' catalogues and had the veterans play pianoand occasionally sing a bit. There was Jerry Herman and there were also those joining him late in life who are now gone, resulting in some fine Styne, Lane, Livingston (and Evans) collections and an especially felicitous one with Hugh Martin. Although Previn does not raise his voice in song, there's something very present and personal about his accompaniments, and he's the one among this impressive list who has had a major career as a pianist (in addition to his conducting). As one who's collected Previn's jazz piano/trio albums and other souvenirs of his work across the decades, I find it especially endearing and emotional to hear his loving, focused and understated playing at this point in time (he turned 84 earlier this month). And coming just a year after the death of his onetime wife and lyricist, Dory (Langdon) Previn, it feels that much more emotional, as all but two of the 13 numbers heard have her words.
Marilyn and Alan Bergman supplied the images for "Quiet Music" (the kind that "only we can hear") with their trademark poetry and personification of favorite aspects of Nature and the heavens ("The moon approves our love affair ... Sweetly, the wind caresses us/ Discretely the night undresses us ..."). Johnny Mercer's words are featured in "Little Lost Dream," which might be considered a little lost song, although a writers' demo of it has been previously released on CD. The wistful number was written for, but not featured in, the original score of Good Companions, the 1974 London stage musical. (Previn's other songs for the stage, a slim but nonetheless interesting oeuvre, remain unrepresented here.) Songs written for films by the two Previns are included: both the well-known and the unknown. Inside Daisy Clover's "You're Gonna Hear from Me" is a brooding, muted announcement, a smaller but intent flame rather than celebrational fireworks, compared to Feinstein's treatment of the song in the live recording of a night when he shared the bill with Barbara Cook. It's more psychologically complex here.
From the rather infamous film Valley of the Dolls, we get the encouragingif simplistically sunnymantra, "Give a Little More" as well as an unused number, "The Easy Way," taking a sultrier and darker road (but irresistibly seductively swingin' jazz with low piano notes dancing with the bass). Its 20/20 hindsight intrigues: "Two little roads were waiting ahead/ One pink as roses that grow/ But nothing, I think/ Is duller than pink/Take it from one in the know/ The easy old way ain't the way to go".
Particularly compelling are two samples of songs the Previns wrote for the Goodbye, Mr. Chips musical film score, but their contributions to the projected movie disappeared when the intended star, Richard Burton, had a change of heart and stepped out. The film was ultimately made with a new star and a new score (from Leslie Bricusse). It is quite interesting to imagine these two emotionally-laced trunk songs working for the tale of the shy but dedicated schoolmaster, his wife and students: the honest revelations in "Empty Is My Room" and the mixed feelings of saying "Goodbye" to an old way of life and beginning a new chapter with a hopeful hello. Three other Previn pieces were on a long-ago collection of their work by jazz arbiters of good taste Jackie Cain and Roy Kralthe title song, "Just for Now," and "Yes" (that one was also addressed by Judy Garland as well as Doris Day on perhaps her best recordher Duet album accompanied by Previn himself).
Previn's presence, especially in such graceful form, gives the CD a sense of history, gravity, authenticity.
The ever-busy Mr. Feinstein can be found tonight at Jazz at Lincoln Center saluting one of the figures of music Previn himself got to on one of his memorable albums: Duke Ellington. But, just for now and forever private in-your-ears enjoyment, I recommend this new CD. I find new subtle pleasures in each new listening session. No bells and whistles, no sturm und drang, no showboating showiness, just subtle and substantial elegance.
The liquid voice of Jane Monheit flows again in a satisfying album. No matter the style or sound, getting to the heart of the matter in communicating a song's story rests on interpreting the lyrics. In interviews, the mellifluously voiced Monheit has said that was her intent here. While one can be mesmerized or even distracted by the lush prettiness of her voice, the stories and moods come through indeed, covering the words with emotions and vulnerability here. There's palpable pain and plenty of pleading as she navigates her way around "The Long and Winding Road" bookended with "Golden Slumbers" (with its lyric's desire "to get back homeward"). There's lots of investment on these tracks, most evident in "When She Loved Me" (the Randy Newman ballad of remembrances from the Toy Story film), with convincing teariness in her voice as she phrases the recollections. To be sure, she still indulges in some languid lush vocal sounds with melisma and elastic, gymnastic vocalizing: such habits make "Born to Be Blue" not all that dreary and droopy as its lyric's glut of gloom and assumption of misery past and future indicates. In "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," there's a kind of mixed report card: some of the needed sorrow seems transparently translated to song with hesitations and heavy-heartedness feeling in moments more premeditatively deliberate. Others may well disagree and be swayed.
Jane is the mom of a little fellow named Jack, and the world of small boys make a big impression on the CD, with some of the coziest and most connected performances: the old, lighthearted "Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day" and her own "Night Night Stars" about prizing the moments being with a child who's growing up, the parent all too aware that it's a finite and sweet, fleeting time. "Sing" from TV's "Sesame Street," doesn't overdo the perkiness and bounce, as it's infused with jazz juice; however, the old "La La La" feels blah and overdone, embellished with extra layers of the singer's voice.
Producer Gil Goldsteinwho also plays some keyboards and accordionanchors an appealing and clear sound with great ambiance and little clutter. The eclectic choices include Brazilian numbers, pop and standards. Romero Lubambo's guitar is especially evocative and crucial to the dramatic landscape and simply compelling on its own at times. A variety of sounds adds refreshing surprise and tasty moments, with Neal Miner's bass embrace and Michael Kanan's piano almost dancing, with cello and flute sounds adding to some scenes.
Two bonus tracks, available on only some editions fill out the disc (which is also released with just 12 selections). Look for the longer disc, as those extras are more than frills. In fact, for me they are two of the strongest tracks of all: "I Wanna Be with You" (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams, from Golden Boy) is potent and rich, a melody that suits her strong suits vocally and the phrasing and accompaniment are thoughtful and dramatic. "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" (Michel Legrand/ Alan and Marilyn Bergman) is similarly intense and interesting, at least for the first half or more. It may feel over the top emotionally in its latter part, romantic wishing being overtaken by a sense of desperation and anguish. Gasps and suggestions of struggle and worry weigh it down, with pregnant mini-pauses galore, as if someone suggested that she lose the legato lushness so that individual words stand out and a sense of things being tense will preclude the "just a pretty voice pretty much just making pretty sounds" syndrome. It happens a bit in the opener, "Until It's Time for You to Go" from the 1960s world of folk music's Buffy Sainte-Marie, but original phrasing and more judicious drama and bending of notes rather than stop/start angst save the day easily there. And there's so much that's good and achieves gorgeous tones and accompaniment as well as effective mood-setting/sustaining.
Jazzy Jane, who has been picking up awards from the cabaret/jazz overlap award organizations lately (including a Nightlife Award to start her year) is on tour: Texas this week, then Las Vegas, and she'll be at Birdland in Manhattan next month.