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Sound Advice Reviews

Another Kind of Light &
Another kind of Sondheim CD

This time: one vocal album from someone currently lighting up one of NYC's most elegant nightclubs and another kind of Sondheim set—this time instrumental.


LML Music

Currently singing at the posh Feinstein's at Loews Regency in a return engagement, promoting her charming second solo CD, is the luminous Raissa Katona Bennett. She's a vocalist whose path has crossed my cabaret-going path many times, often a gravel-and-grass garden path, due to her hosting/performing in the award-winning free outdoor concerts at Tudor City Park (the next is September 12, if it doesn't rain on her parade of singers and musicians). This soprano has theatre credits which include time on Broadway in the female lead of the very long-running The Phantom of the Opera and first national tours of Cats and Parade. Her sensibilities and song choices on the new album evidence that mix of cabaret and theatre influences as Another Kind of Light reflects both sides of her. The 15-track offering opens with Seussical's "It's Possible," a cheering—even cheerleading—start that sets the tone for a singer and album with a definite focus on the positive and hopeful. But Another Kind of Light mostly spotlights the lighter, conversational side of her vocalizing more than any grand soprano heights-hitting or belting.

Fans of musical theatre writer Michael John LaChiusa—and those who have found some of his work more arty and abstract than accessible—will note that he wrote two numbers expressly for the singer, and both are more than accessible and more meat-and-musical-potatoes traditional. The richer of the two is a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee story number, inspired by her own actual experience and thoughts about moving past those dewy-eyed young maiden roles, called "Bye Bye, Ingénue." Wonderfully calibrated, the bittersweet tale spins and then name-drops such young soprano characters as Christine (Phantom ... ) and Cunegonde (Candide) before welcoming her mature self. The sense of self-analysis and awareness coupled with serenity informs quite a few of the selections. The other LaChiusa contribution is a comedy come-on novelty for our technology-changed times—whose seducing repetitive line is "Come on and text me"—and is sprinkled with those shortcut initials replacing words and expressions (LOL, etc.). Titled "Torch Song for Raissa," it's programmed near the middle of the set as a change of pace from a program which is largely earnest or pensive or romantic or all of the above.

My favorite track here is a sweet Beatles memory-tugger deepened by slowing the tempo to a pace that allows for a more serious and ardent take, capitalizing on the lyric's full potential and the melody's emotional sincerity at this pace and in this instrumentation. It is "I Will" with its pledge to "love you forever and forever, love you with all my heart." In fact, I think it might have made a better partner for the elegant song of wondering about the loved one's intentions for the future—with the same word in a two-word song title—"Will You?" from Grey Gardens, which is blended instead with the oldie "If I Love Again."

In any case, all are sung with care and a welcome sense of grown-up consideration and awareness of the fragility of relationships. On a few other numbers, a cuteness element threatens to take over, or serenity veers towards post-comfort zone complacency, robbing the listener of experiencing some drama and tension. And I can't help but think that a lot of this would be more effective emotionally and aurally in slightly lower keys. Despite the autobiographical reality check of "Bye Bye, Ingénue," there's a lot in higher voicings which don't reveal as much fullness or versatility as some excursions sung lower where things feel more gutsy and human than fairy princess. Also, some song selection and phrasing favor choices that allow for intimacy and conversational style without much vocal oomph (something we know she has). The two psychological exploration pieces from the pen of Amanda McBroom are more about words and thoughts, though "Make Me a Kite" with Michele Brourman's melody has more of a soar than the angsty, halting "Putting Things Away" (which I remember working quite well in person as cabaret drama).

The theatre "find" is "How Could I Not?" an expressive item from the little-known Alan Menken/David Spencer score The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, with some lyrics adjusted by Spencer for this singer. Raissa brings the same sense of lived-in familiarity and care to this as she does an old often-roasted chestnut like Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" which is dominated by featured percussion and some unnecessary (as I'd prefer to hear it) echo effects.

Drumming throughout the CD is by two special favorites of mine and many cabaret-followers: Ray Marchica and Mayra Casales (congas), both regulars in Tudor City singer/instrumentalist colleague Terese Genecco's long-running monthly shows at Iridium on Broadway, and another band member from both series (and so many other cabaret outings), guitarist Sean Harkness, adds much warmth and style. Any singer is lucky to have him on board, and I wish he had more opportunities to shine solo here. Raissa's longtime musical director, the versatile David Caldwell (whom theatre folk may know best from his years with Forbidden Broadway) is, with loving care, on keyboards on most tracks. He also wrote the sly "A Tomb with a View" from a musical inspired by and sharing the name of the best-selling book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." The somewhat quirky bit is ostensibly about buying a cemetery plot on sale, but the song's plot thickens to make pungent observations about the now and later. On a couple of tracks, Caldwell (who also set the e. e. cummings poem "I carry your heart" as the album's gentle closer) sits out. Then, the piano bench is taken over by the CD's producer, Ron Abel, whose "Waiting for a Westbound Train" with lyricist partner Chuck Steffan, is a strong story-song here, enriched by Abel's own orchestration and arrangement featuring Robin Batteau on violin. Strings are heard throughout the selections, including judiciously employed harp by Grace Paradise, adding an ethereal effect.

Experienced in Another Kind of Light, the grace and kind spirit of Raissa Katona Bennett dominates the overall undertaking. You can hear the smile.

TOMMY CECIL (bass) & BILL MAYS (piano)

In a world of recordings and concerts where there's a glut of vocal collections surveying the lyrics and music of the justly much-celebrated Stephen Sondheim, it's refreshing to find an album that is instrumental, allowing us to concentrate on his melodies rather than the cascades of words that give singers and singing actors their banquets. And, since the artists here come from the world of jazz, the outing is not at all some kind of retread of the tempi and arrangements familiar from cast albums and celebrated vocal performances. Bassist Tommy Cecil and pianist Bill Mays are inventive but respectful and, although full of delicious surprises, the essence of each song is fully felt, and improvisational excursions only happen after the melody has been clearly stated and given its due by the duo. It's nice to have such an item alongside memorable instrumental Sondheim excursions by Don Sebesky and others, especially the Terry Trotter Trio.

This is a splendid album and should be quite accessible to theatre fans who are more like strangers or occasional wary visitors to JazzLand. With just nine tracks (not to worry—they tend to be of generous length), there's much left unexplored, and it's the writer's earlier work that is the focus. Not represented is any of the material which debuted after the 1979 score of Sweeney Todd, the only score given two representative rather than one. One of those choices is the ballad "Not While I'm Around," which emphasizes the simple beauty of its melodic line without the tension and foreboding that in-context vocal versions have in the forefront and it's not the sentimentalized low-flame lullaby that some singers have made it. And "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is remarkable in its capturing of so much of the original drama and agitation without the slam-bang build to fear.

These veteran musicians often play standards and theatre material (Cecil is a participant on recent albums saluting Broadway's greats and Mays has been recording alone, with instrumental groups and with singers for many years). Both are masters who are not prone to showing off or venturing into esoteric/far-out improvisations that might leave the non-jazz entrenched bewildered. I find this CD to be a pleasure, on both the understated and more emphatic numbers. The original versions' moods are always a reference point.

The artists, who did their own arrangements together or separately, add variety by sometimes having the bass have prominence with the piano in support or punctuating, or vice-versa. And that applies not just to who takes the led from song to song, but taking turns within arrangements and often being equally prominent in joint playing—Side by Side. With Tommy Cecil's bass, it's not about bowing to bring a legato melody line, but rather a preference to pluck the strings to state melodic lines whose basic note value combinations we can newly revel in. Sondheim simple? Yes, and simply fascinating. With the big keyboard and a piano's many colors at his disposal, Bill Mays is a parade of variety in tones and colors. There are mini-cascades, flourishes, clusters, bare bones moments and richly textured phrases. Not a pounder by any means, nor an unnecessarily fussy embroiderer, masterful Mays finds ways to accent, introduce and sustain moods, and embellish through taking big liberties and small re-phrasing that makes one listen to these familiar numbers with newly alert ears and hearts.

Two numbers usually associated with a raucous, boisterous delivery vocally are more muted and relaxed here: "Broadway Baby" and "Comedy Tonight." They are perhaps the least successful in that toned-down choice, still pleasing, but you might well miss the lack of strut and sass—at least until this change grows on you. (I seem to hear quotes from the old "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" in the latter number from , ... Forum.)

Does it seem odd and missing the point of saluting Sondheim's melody magic to include two numbers for which he wrote only the words? Maybe so (especially with the dozens and dozens of choices available with music by Mr. S.), but they sound great, and it's the listening that matters. Leonard Bernstein's melody for "Something's Coming" gets less insistence and pent-up excitement than it usually has, but there's a sense of energy and fervor nonetheless with this West Side Story classic. As the CD's opening track, it made me think of it as a representative sample, but it isn't. It has more wandering away from the core of the melody than quite a few of the other tracks do. (But what's nice is that it goes back and forth, returning to home base a few times, rather than the cliché jazz formula of a strong if begrudging and concise "straight" first chorus after which there's a long, wild ride of new or taking off from reharmonized chords and many shifts in feel for most of a winding road.) Gypsy's "Small World" treats the Jule Styne composition to a rich retread with its coziness intact. And, as far as picking non-Sondheim melodies, can most musical theatre lovers hear either of these without the lyrics very much there in spirit and on our lips? The way Stephen Sondheim put words to those tunes made them such just-right matches that they are irretrievably linked.

It's a joy to listen to this, with repeat exposure adding to the appreciation factor with more details and interesting musical choices coming to the fore after one gets the general idea of each interpretation. I would have liked more wistfulness on "Anyone Can Whistle" and at least one number where all stops are out on a lively up-tempo piece. But the lack of such extremes perhaps keeps this in a wears-well category as an easy-to-live-with constant presence on your player. I'm already hoping for a sequel, maybe with a third musician added for company, to echo more literally the included thought on "three's company" idea from Company showstopper "Side by Side by Side" that gives the CD its title. Even wordless, even with only seven of his melodies, this Sondheim fest is a feast that's a very full meal.

- Rob Lester

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