Sound Advice Reviews
It's always interesting to hear the new perspective that a vocalist can bring to an established song. Here's what I've been listening to, beginning with an album simply called Perspective, with familiar material and two songs written by the singer herself. Then, a vocalist opens the theatre songbook of Maltby & Shire whose rich, emotional, literate material zeroes in with specificity on a character's viewpoint. Lastly, a cabaret show whose theme is that things and perspectives change. And it lets me see the vocalist in a new light.
"Stop looking back and find the life you know is meant to be," states Sarah Partridge in her self-penned CD title song. Perspective also features plenty of laidback, loose jazz takes on old standards, but she sounds most invested and persuasive on her two original pieces, both of which are about addressing a lover and valuing what their serious, caring relationship can be. "I Just Won't Let You Go" looks at the effect one person can have on another and reveling in that, and not wanting to lose it. There's a sense of being very present in the moment, feeling sensations, appreciating them, but being aware of the fragility of the future.
Sarah grabs my ear, with her very clear sound, her unfussy way of singing, and her jazz skills. She's centered. Another knack she has is to take a well-trod number that couldand has beenschmaltzy or preachy in other versions and make it work as a sincere message. The old Al Jolson specialty, "Back in Your Own Backyard," is usually done as a pushy, simple-minded homily advocating home, too-sweet home. Sarah is more at home with the sunny spirits here. She doesn't go cute or cavort but delivers the merry message with genuine joy. "I'll String Along with You," an old Harry Warren/ Al Dubin lighthearted, light-headed confection becomes a "real deal" love song. It's deepened here by treating it thoughtfullya wonderful surprise. We're also on safe ground with "'Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost"you know what heaviness of philosophy and tear-drying/ tear-causing that is likely to convey, and perhaps your red flags are already zipping up the flagpole. But this singer takes the seriousness seriously without letting it bury her in an avalanche or having that stiff upper lip inhibit her singing.
The direct, unfettered approach to singing style and delivering these cut-to-the-core personal perspectives is all the more evident because the accompaniment is just piano. Daniel May can be a supportive partner or a swinging one when accompanying, but, despite the spotlight of solos, things sometimes feel more perfunctory than full of personality or perspective. And for singer and pianist, a couple of ballads feel undernourished emotionally and, for me, dispassionate when perhaps "serene" was the goal on Rodgers & Hart's "My Romance." However, it becomes more interesting at the end. A couple of others also seem uninspired. "Well, it's a jazzy sensibility, not meant to be theatrical," might be the argument. I often happily go there. I'm a big jazz fan and often love the liberties and explorations. For me, there needs to be a jazz fleetness or extra inventiveness to fully compensate. "Wonder Why" is a juicy, lively treat where both are on the same just-right page and the energy crackles marvelously. And a brisker-than-most flight of fancy through "Never Never Land" may lose some sentimental value, but emphasizes the happy celebration of a perfect paradise.
Whether finding ways to re-examine old chestnuts to change our perspective on them, or presenting songs that deal specifically with perspective or seeking it ("Skylark"), Perspective and Partridge and pianist partner really do have a lot to say.
I've always found the perspective in many songs by lyricist (and director) Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire to be refreshingly grown-up. They don't go for the vague and vapid or the pat and pap. They often present the point of view of a character and let us know where he or she has been, is going, and involve some self-examination. Thus, they're often rewarding and challenging and thought-provoking, letting us in on someone's evolving perspective. Singer Christa Justus, who's worked with them in the past, gets it and has a good time digging into the kind of textured material that can be an actor's dream. Those perspectives may not be yours, but the lyrics and characterizations will let you see why people come to the conclusions and decisions they do. Chameleon Christa inhabits each person quite well, with a strong streak of optimism frequently radiating through and informing everything. Hers is an ingénue sound, brimming with hope, with feistiness and wryness ready for display. Things are quite convincing here, whether the speaker is a young contemporary married, happy with commitment in Baby ("I Chose Right") or Amelia Earhart in the recent musical Flight (the album's title song comes from that piece, as does "You and the Sky").
Head tones are attractive, but in some moments when the would-be-belted notes or emotions are high, some richness seems lacking. And there are times when I feel I am "catching" her at acting; some bits and twists draw attention to themselves and the performer rather than the song. Examples are a reactive chuckle or well-chewed consonant in an emphasized word. Like the unique perspectives of the characters here one might respect but not agree with, I can respect her thought-out acting choices in the nuances. Less is successfully more with a spare and simple and pure "Autumn" sounding vulnerable and realand awfully pretty to the ear too.
I'm impressed that her youthfulness sound does not hurt the believability, earned-by-experience strong opinions or wistfulness of the "Life Story" of a long-divorced 49-year-old woman with a son in college. This is a highlight and has emotional range and a real arc, presenting the guard-dropping of an strongly independent, fiercely confident woman. And while such a woman is shown to have battle scars and gets back into the ring, Christa is able to be true to adopting the mindset of a very young person just beginning life's journey without seeming informed by the potholes and pitfalls in the road.
Though some of the material was written originally for a wide range of early career, short-lived or even abandoned projects, half a dozen are familiar from having been in the revue of the team's work, Starting Here, Starting Now, which has had two cast albums. Many of the M&S numbers from shows have not been over-exposedquite the oppositeso it's a pleasure to have them here in new renditions.
It's not a surprise that a PS Classics album employs excellent musicians and is treated with care and class. Especially satisfying on this one are the prominent, enriching contributions by two violinists: Cyrus Beroukhim and, doubling on mandolin, Aaron Weinstein, whose work I've admired so much in the past on his own CD and in the band with the Pizzarellis of the world. There are nine musicians on the job, and there are just a couple of numbers where I felt a bigger ensemble would have brought that extra desired icing on the musical cake. It's hard to overstate what musical director, pianist and arranger Andrew Gerle brings to this project. What a talent! Creative without gimmicks or gloss, true to the original spirit of each piece and mood without allowing for the stale or pale to creep in, his playing and ideas are so very present and on target. He also has an appealing, adept singing voice, shown on one track: a delightful combination of "Stargazer" from Cyrano and Big's "Stars, Stars, Stars." There's some counterpoint action there and on the track with the other guest singersnone other than the songwriters themselves who step in for the patter section of "One Step," the exuberant, ultra-catchy vaudeville-style ode to getting past shyness and taking chances for happiness. Nostalgia meets nostalgia to have this old favorite that sounds like an older favorite revisited by the men who wrote it, and they come off as game, cozily likeable uncles in the top hats referred to in this treat.
For his recent act recorded live at the Manhattan nightclub The Metropolitan Room, Marcus Simeone chose songs around the theme of "change." Some reflect on and acknowledge how time and experience changes us. And people change people, as referenced in the song from The King and I included here, a very hip and contemporary "Getting to Know You." Most of the material is far more serious, pensive and catharticconfronting the pain and daunting challenges in life in general and love relationships in particular. For a world view and reality check of perspective realignment, there's "Be Aware." I'm very pleased to see a new recording of this powerful and haunting song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Barbra Streisand, who performed it on television with the composer. She did not release a recording, though the team's main muse Dionne Warwick did. It's a call to action and a reminder that we can become spoiled and myopic, becoming "forgetful" that others have more serious problems. Although act sticks closely to its theme, there's quite a variety of genres R&B, pop, soul, musical theatre, and singer and musicians don't ever seem to be slumming or wearing one more lovingly than another.
I've never been a big fan of the schools of major doses of melisma, melodrama and mannerisms, when the style takes over the substance. That has been a major problem for me over the years with Marcus, who I always knew had a powerful vocal instrument with some gorgeous tones, because he lost me with the way they all this was employed. There were embellishments and very stylized choices that I think can overwhelm songs and he can come off as overwrought in person, when there are accompanying distracting, intense facial expressions, gestures, gasps and such. He's always had his followers and resisters, as performers with strong styles and old choices will. So be it. But maybe, to quote one of the songs here, "A Change Is Gonna Come." This is a powerful listening experience with far, far less of what I'd described above which seemed self-indulgent. Leaner with his styling and cutting to the quick, he's showing genuine gutsy emotionrather than showboating. There's communication and a delivery of the songs' intents, not just intense performing. He hasn't abandoned some of his favored ways, but seems to have pulled back the attackas a result, the songs shine. And so does his voice, because we can appreciate the vocal qualities more when it's a laser beam rather than a flashing-lights show.
"Since You Stayed Here" from the Off-Broadway musical Brownstone moves in with Barry Manilow's "I Haven't Changed the Room." These musical roommates get along rather well, crooned attractively with thoughtfulness and some swallowed pain. But it's not just about interior decorationit's about the people changing themselves on the inside. When someone moves out, we need to move onthat appears to be the message. The album's title song tackles larger issues with grace, embracing the circle of life and the uncertainty of the future and is performed with dignity.
The very accomplished, in-demand Barry Levitt is pianist/ musical director/ arranger and co-producer (with the singer and Kitty Skrobela for Miranda Music). He's in top form here, joined by Jack Cavari on guitar and Morrie Louden on bass, who sound great, and the musicians get some spotlight, especially dazzling on the (rhythm and) blues. Tracy Stark takes the piano seat for the final cool-down track, another Bacharach/ David song, "I Just Have to Breathe," and brings just the right understated, hold-your-breath touch. There's barely any patter on the recording, but the songs say a whole lot and pack a punch.