LADY IN THE DARK and
England-based Sepia Records brings back older musical theater fare and pop recordings, putting on CD some things previously released only on 78 rpm records. A recent issue includes the television cast recordings of Lady in the Dark and Down In the Valley, both with music by Kurt Weill. These are not actually the NBC TV soundtracks, as both were recorded in studios after the actual broadcasts. The lady in Lady in the Dark needs to think (and consult a shrink) to figure out who her lover should be, whereas the other story concerns two lovers who are sure of their love despite all odds. The album is topped off with two non-Weill Broadway songs of love.
Lady in the Dark opened on Broadway in 1941 and made it to TV in 1954. In between there was a movie version. Gertrude Lawrence originated the title character on stage, Ginger Rogers got the movie role, and Ann Sothern was chosen for television. This version is quite enjoyable. The chorus, which carries more of the singing than in most shows, does solid work without being especially distinctive. Carleton Carpenter is a cheery presence, although those familiar with other recorded versions will likely find his contributions less memorable than the hammier, more idiosyncratic Danny Kaye or Adolph Green, especially in the tongue-twisting showpiece "Tchaikovsky."
I like Ann Sothern's crisp and breezy take on the title role. Her phrasing and admirable enunciation bring out Ira Gershwin's witty words in his first score after brother George's premature death. In the musical's centerpiece, "My Ship," taken at a relaxed tempo bringing out the emotion, she has sensitivity. Though more of an actress than a singer, I think she's a good fit for this magazine editor having troubles, fantasies and dreams and undergoing psychoanalysis (all sung!). She's delightfully haughty in bits of dialogue and anchors the production of the show, where the lady in the dark sees the light and figures out who her best bet as a lover should be. A happy ending! The orchestra, conducted by Charles Sanford, is quite good, as is the sound in the CD transfer, as is love.
Weill's Down in the Valley is subtitled "an American folk opera" and is the melodramatic tale of a convict awaiting execution and his loyal true love. The old folk song "Down in the Valley" is woven throughout the tale. The piece, which was not written for the professional stage, includes a good amount of dialogue and recitative along with some tender and ardent love songs. The man knows he'll soon die, but he and his lady need to know their love never will ("you are the darling of my heart ..."). The lovers are reunited when the man manages to escape from jail for a farewell reunion where they express their feelings (now it's called "closure"). Romantic in a brighter way is the flashback which shows how they met.
The saga, with lyrics by Arnold Sundgaard, dates from 1948 and the TV version was broadcast two years later, just weeks before composer Weill's death. Heading the cast of 11 are William McGraw and Marion Bell as the lovers (there's another studio version boasting the glorious voice of Broadway legend Alfred Drake, recorded the same year), both singing well. Pardon the puns, but McGraw as the convict sings with conviction and Miss Bell is as clear as ... well, you know. She's best known as the original lead in Brigadoon and being one of the eight wives of that show's lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner.
Also on the album are two bonus tracks of then-recent show songs recorded as singles by Marion Bell in 1947, the year of Brigadoon. Singing with a more noticeable quick vibrato, she is heard on Carousel's "If I Loved You" and, in duet with Jimmy Carroll, "They Say It's Wonderful" (Annie Get Your Gun). Both are traditional, straightforward versions that are nice extras.
Oh, if only NBC and television stations still had regular broadcasts of musical theater productions! It sounds like a Broadway lover's dream, but it was once a reality. That would be my kind of "reality TV".
David Vernon's style and song choices make him come across as fragile but ardent and determined ... and oh-so-serious. Some will find him self-indulgent and overwrought, but I'm willing to bet money that he really is that fragile soul who wears his heart on his sleeve because that's just who he is. His own liner notes, talking about how he relates to each song, support that theory. My fellow New Yorkers and I can find out by seeing his next nightclub performance, at The Hideaway Room at Helen's in September. He's undeniably intense, with a quivering and throaty style in the Edith Piaf tradition - he revels in her trademark "La Vie en Rose," sounding more at home than most do. Delicate David shows a vulnerability not many male (or female) singers dare reveal. I admire that and it seems to suit him, and it pretty much works for me.
In his Broadway song selections, there's the lost soul's anthem, "Corner Of The Sky" from Pippin. David says he especially relates to the lyric "I don't fit in anywhere I go" and that sense permeates the album. The title song, by Schwartz and Dietz, began onstage in a 1937 show called Between The Devil before being put in the film The Band Wagon. Other songs that found their way to Broadway are present as well. The arrangement of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," heard in the very old Broadway shows Oh, Look and the 1973 revival of Irene, nicely shows its classical music roots (its melody is lifted from Chopin). "I Don't Care Much," a song intended for Cabaret long ago which belatedly found its way into the score in revivals, is here, too. "The Sweetest Sounds" from No Strings, one of two full scores Richard Rodgers wrote alone, ends the album on a more hopeful note. These last three are among the eight included numbers Barbra Streisand has recorded over the years, and it's quite clear David has listened to those recordings. His memory for her phrasing and shaping of some notes shows that. If such things could be copyrighted, he'd be arrested for thievery. But I'd rather use the word "arresting" to describe the unusual sound and timbre of his voice, because it is unusual and attention-grabbing.
Three more of the Barbra borrowings are songs written for her, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, that you haven't heard many others do. From the movie musical Yentl there is the inquiring (no, make that demanding) "Where Is It Written?" and an unusual choice, "Between Yesterday And Tomorrow." It's a pleasure to hear those spiraling Michel Legrand melodies in another singer's voice. The third Bergman lyric is "Ordinary Miracles" with Marvin Hamlisch's music; its optimism is a bright, refreshing moment.
There are some interesting song choices like Randy Newman's sad portrait "In Germany Before The War," a tune from Cirque du Soleil and the classical "Après un Rêvé" by Faure. Brave choices all, and they come off quite well.
If a healthy dose and a half of dramatic emotion doesn't put you off, I recommend taking a holiday from cynicism, irony and fluff with David Vernon. There are sound samples, some from recordings with lighter fare on his website, www.davidvernonnyc.com, and you can hear songs from By Myself on www.CDBaby.com. He sings for all the lost souls who don't have an easy time "fitting in" and could well be their president. And maybe even their hero.
FRANK MANTOOTH ORCHESTRA and
Twelve different looks at love and lovers from a dozen top-drawer female jazz singers - what could be better? Ladies Sing For Lovers is an elegant orchestral beauty. Frank Mantooth was a musician who worked with the non-profit Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, a jazz education and performance organization in Pittsburgh. A portion of the sales from the album go to their work bringing music to underprivileged youth. (Information about their mission and music is at www. mcgjazz.org.) Sadly, this was Mr. Mantooth's final project, but it's a beautiful legacy. As pianist, arranger, orchestrator and producer, he spearheaded this project with some loverly love songs "for lovers." It seems like a labor of love in all ways, with 30 string players, brass, woodwinds, rhythm and singers recorded over a year, in three different countries.
Some ladies are singing about the loss of love and lovers, others are living happily ever after for now. About six of one, a half dozen of the other. Even the sad songs could make one glad to be unhappy since they're so well done, vocally and instrumentally. For example, the "Ballad Of The Sad Young Men" (from an Off-Broadway show, The Nervous Set) is done with grace and conviction by veteran jazz singer Sheila Jordan. "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" is good in the hands of of another singer who knows her way around a tune, Diane Schuur. (It's another song favored by jazz artists, but this Duke Ellington-Paul Francis Webster standard came from a stage show, Jump For Joy, in 1941 and came back to the stage decades later in Bubbling Brown Sugar). The regretful 1940 Rodgers and Hart torch song "It Never Entered My Mind" is another stage song (Higher and Higher), dramatically delivered by Jay Clayton, taking her time with Hart's broken-heart lyric. Those who worry that jazz singers sometimes play with the melody to the detriment of the words will be relieved to know that the producer "planned the whole project to be lyric oriented" and chose singers with "the ability to get inside of a lyric." He chose well.
On the happier side, the ever-marvelous Ann Hampton Callaway combines "You're Nearer" (Rodgers and Hart again) with "The Nearness Of You" for a "near" perfect medley. Like Ann, Paula West often melds jazz with cabaret smarts and does "You'll See" (but "You'll See" is also on her first album - I would have preferred a fresh choice). There are other understated, pensive readings from Karrin Allyson, Rebecca Parris and Oleta Adams (with a tune she wrote) plus some singers whose names might not be very familiar but do very good work.
This album is a pretty - and pretty terrific - surprise. For people who think they don't like jazz singers, it's a gentle mind opener. Those who like jazz will be happy too ... even if the lovers and songs aren't all happy. Thanks, ladies.
UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly call-to-attention as another CD emerges from under the radar. Here's another item well worth a listen:
It's always great to discover a new singer. Well, at least new to me. Apparently, Eileen Bertsch has been around for quite a few years, making some recordings and doing theater around the country (her website, www.eyesong.com, even mentions being in a production of The Music Man with Robert Preston and such things). The acting experience shows in her phrasing and ability to really get inside a song and tell a story. She has a strong, rich voice which she uses to wrap around a song and, in the embrace, she pulls in her audience. She can wail, she can croon, she can belt, but best of all, maybe, she can act a song. Her interpretations are thoughtful and intelligent, mostly songs of contentment with love.
More good news: she uses real instruments (good players who support what's going on). I especially like the trumpet work from Dan Jacobs, who is also the producer (and I'm guessing is related to her son Jonathan Jacobs, the drummer). There's classy work from all 14 - count 'em, 14! - listed musicians. Different instruments featured on various tracks lend variety to this well-done album.
A litmus test for me is how much I enjoy a new recording of a "mega standard" I've heard dozens of versions of over the years. Eileen passes with flying colors. Even "Over The Rainbow" and "My Funny Valentine" sound fresh - and they're all on my Top Twenty list of songs I still love but have heard so many singers do that maybe enough is enough. Well, hooray and hallelujah! She sings these (and many others) with great affection and even a sense of discovery that communicates, not taking them for granted as well-worn warhorses.
The arrangements were fashioned by five different band members, with pianist Edgar Struble doing half of the fourteen charts. I especially admire the cello on "My Funny Valentine" (John Catchings).
I try not to be picky about mistakes, but four song titles are listed inaccurately and four songwriters' names are spelled wrong. Even worse, the Nat King Cole hit "Unforgettable" is credited to famous theater writers rather than Irving Gordon. The songs themselves, though, are treated with respect, although on several occasions Eileen changes or embellishes lyrics a bit (nothing too drastic, although I think changing the fun sound of the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful" to "It's wonderful ..." misses the intent of the playfulness with language). She also takes on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" and "Summertime" and makes friends with both. Other Broadway standards are the title song from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "People," wherein she sings about lovers as "the luckiest people in the world" in a thoughtful, deeply felt way. This Streisand signature song, now over 40 years old, hasn't been recorded much lately. Of the non-theater songs, I think the Eagles hit "Desperado" comes off best.
Eileen also sent me a recording called Songs I Love To Sing which I am enjoying, even though she has a major case of Streisanditis mentioned in a review above (it's contagious!), this time borrowing arrangements. But the CD also has powerful and terrific singing and, again, about half the songs are from the Great White Way and half from the world of pop. She seems happy in both and I'm happy to hear them and tell you about this strong singer.
I'm always excited to hear (and hear about) talent. I'll be listening for you, so here's hoping you'll be surfing back as summer ends and fall comes around.