Sound Advice Reviews
George Salazar with Joe Iconis /
Reviewed below, the new George Salazar collection of songs written byand performed withcomposer/lyricist Joe Iconis reminded me of a couple of earlier releases that are also surveys of tunesmiths with fortuitously matched interpreters. Josephine Sanges and Minda Larsen are New York-based singers who were, respectively, runner-up and winner of the now-shuttered Metropolitan Room's singing competition called MetroStar. One concentrates on songs written by Ann Hampton Callaway and the other is singing the words of Johnny Mercer (occasionally his own composer), with melodies by Harold Arlen represented on both recordings. These just-right pair-ups of vocalists and material are artistic marriages that might be the musical equivalents of marital partnerships that would be the proudest arrangements by Broadway matchmakers Dolly Levi of Yonkers or Yente from Anatevka.
GEORGE SALAZAR with JOE ICONIS
With the current New York City run of Be More Chill by Joe Iconis, featuring singer-actor George Salazar, and the online viral sensation that came alongside the 2015 cast recording (on the Ghostlight label, like this release) from the earlier New Jersey run, it's fortuitously welcome timing for an all-Iconis set by Salazar with the songwriter as pianist and occasional harmonizing vocals. With the studio disc based mostly on their nightclub appearance at Manhattan's Feinstein's/54 Below, with Two-Player Game they're game for bringing all kinds of quirky, fearless energies to entertain and sparkle.
Iconis' eclectic songbook is sampled from early projects, upcoming projects, abandoned plans, and stand-alone numbers. Fragile personae with myopia whether cloaked in insecurity or bravado seem to be the go-to protagonists. Coming into self-doubt or self-realization at that frazzled teenage/young adult stage is what's often put on the table. And, oh, this empathetic writer and singing interpreter bring much to the table to make crisp, detailed pictures of these "misfits" fit into a few packed minutes of song and story.
Even when a skewed or severely truncated perspective drenched with pessimism perhaps cripples practical reality checks, a sense of humor that is both dark and smart informs matters beyond the fourth wall. It's a saving grace that allows some material to be appreciated by those taking in a stage-bound piece at a stage of life close to, or years removed from the rites (and wrongs) of passage. Listeners may find themselves yanked back to those harrowing times and trials and how they taxed self-esteem and self-control. With talented writer/accompanist egging on and buffeting his amusing muse, it is symbiosis and we experience it all via osmosis. Playing devil's advocate, I can see how this might be anathema for those who escaped the emotional turmoil of high-stakes high school crushes and crises. Some are less the worse for wear for wearing their hearts on their raveled sleeves of care, getting by with Teflon-coated hearts and nerves and minimal damage from stressful times or have little interest in revisiting more frazzled days of yore.
The point is that the two men here know how to dive back into those shark-infested waters of high stakes and high anxiety and make it believable and compelling if you're willing to sit right beside them for a wild ride on their self-propelled roller coaster. And, duly noted: there is a range of stuff here, not all for dramatis personae of high school age. But surely there is a vibrant youthful, iconoclastic spirit sensed throughout, even in samples from scores we know little about or in the stand-alone items.
The thinking-outside-the-box character portraits of outsiders range from the daring openera frantic suicidal plunge ("Broadway, Here I Come!," which was used in TV's "Smash")to Salazar's showpiece from Be More Chill, the anguish of loneliness that is the saga of the frantic "Michael in the Bathroom." Our main singer has an unaffected vocal quality that is a good match for presentations of people whose tales and traumas are all about vulnerability. However, the presentations can run the gamut from low-key, conversational affect to brash bigness with a wail (the latter mode evident in full flush of youth in the aforementioned lavatory lament, locked-in literally and figuratively). The number builds and builds and explodes, intensified by the palpable ironic contrast of Michael's sorrow and the presumed carefree, happy party going on beyond the claustrophobic room and claustrophobic personal cage.
Also from Be More Chill are two more pieces: one for a female character in the show, but certainly a sentiment that will be shared by all kinds of fellow theatre geeks: "I Love Play Rehearsal," a delight that celebrates being in a theatre group and bemoans the pesky fact that in real life, alas, there's no script provided so that things are laid out and predictable (translation: safe and known, fewer decisions made). Salazar shared the song "Two-Player Game" with Will Connolly and here, of course, its author steps in and steps up for fine, frenzied effect. He's inarguably a fine and dandy salesman of his own wares and an unpretentiously confident performer. You can describe both gents as "fearless" here and many will wish that Iconis were vocally more prominent much more often. But Salazar holds his own, to be clear.
The eclectic-within-eclectic range of the baker's dozen of samplers here includes a wild "Norman" inspired by that Mr. Bates from Hitchcock's film classic Psycho (will anyone ever dare sing this in the shower?) and a plucky nugget aptly titled "Tiny Short Little Song" that winks its way to our smile muscles as the aural equivalent of a yummy appetizer. Tantalizing theatrically are two selections from an upcoming musical about Hunter S. Thompson in which Salazar is cast as Thompson's friend, lawyer and fellow writer Oscar Acosta: "Song of the Brown Buffalo," referencing one of the man's novels and the recital-closer; and the endearing "Kaboom," which is not just the fireworks (of any kind) you might guess. The latter also has an endearingly cute sort of surprisingly quiet cheekiness, part of its charm.
The ever-growing success and visibility of Joe Iconis is no surprise to this scribe. I've been enjoying his work as sole composer/lyricist or co-writer and performer for quite a few years. I've been quite entertained by his earlyish ventures of group holiday extravaganzas, showstoppers in cabaret shows, and a chipper children's musical a decade ago (The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks). On a personal note, I was pleased to be on a Manhattan Association of Cabarets (MAC) committee once upon a time that chose him for a songwriter recognition award with a cash prize. I'd like to think he might have spent a bit of the money on pencils with which he might have written some of these unique and clever creations. His songs are in good hands with this non-average Joe pounding the keyboards and in the hands and throat of cunning and savvy interpreter George Salazar. I look forward to more fine work from both.
I linger in the "s" section of the alphabetized flattering synonym choices to describe the voice of the gifted Josephine Sanges: sublime, silvery, splendid, sensational, supple, superb. And, for sure: sincere. The experience of discovering is synonymous with the title of her recording: Finding Beauty, the title track opener of this treasure trove of songs written or co-written (or simply previously recorded) by the object of her confection while Celebrating Ann Hampton Callaway. This collection is a respectful tribute to the writer, whose resume includes a stint on Broadway (Swing!), years of concerts and recordings (now and again with sister singer/musical theatre performer Liz Callaway), getting the unique permission from Cole Porter's estate to set one of his posthumously discovered lyrics, charity work, a TV theme (for "The Nanny"), and writing words for a wedding song 20 years ago at the request of a bride named Barbra Streisand.
The elegant, heartfelt creations that don't at all shy away from sentiment and sensitivity can be Callaway's kind of near-"art song" with their poetic sensibilities and rhapsodic rushes of romantic reveries, eschewing blatant pop hooks or predictable melodic lines. Miss Sanges doesn't milk them or risk mawkishness, nor does she sidestep the buttery layers of love or open-hearted tenderness. She embraces the scribe's own embrace of believing in dreams coming true and caring and acceptance. Step One: Ann believes. Step Two: Josephine believes. Step Three: We then believe. What a lovely chain of devoted optimism! We look, we listen, and we are hypnotized, losing jadedness and skepticism and are gratefully Finding Beauty. It's a silk-lined road. The trp is then a glide. Callaway's own trod down that avenue makes for big shoes to fill, as she is one of our consistently dazzling master singers. But, in her similarly glorious manner, without being daunted, Sanges doesn't imitate or try too hard to be different, but makes the material seem tailor-made. Repertoire is well chosen and varied, the lyrics thoughtfully and maturely examined and held up to the light so they are allowed to glimmer and glow. Words and music are treated with honor, but the singer is not on the outside admiring with handicapping humility: she is inside the material, arguably owning it while borrowing it. Can that be done? Yes, she can. The voice is so rich and smooth, seemingly effortlessly produced, that you might almost not really care what the words are as you let that sound wash over you like wave after blissful wave.
"Bring Back Romance" is given two treatments, the second listed as a "bonus track," and it's the kind of rerun that makes recycling cool. I'll take both gems, thank you. The positive outlook on life and humor are not mutually exclusive, so there's a neatly percolating vibe for the sly and conspicuously dry-eyed adviso that it's "Hip to Be Happy." And the Callaway collaborations are nicely represented too: "Love and Let Love," written with Michele Brourman, is a non-preachy plea for laissez-faire and acceptance. Ralph Lovland's melody is the one adorned with last-minute words for the aforementioned star wedding. The setting of Cole Porter's left-behind text "I Gaze in Your Eyes" is nicely done and could possibly make trusting in love and lovers contagious. A love beyond dedicated sweethearts' one-on-one valentining is addressed by socially/politically conscious Callaway, and her plea to "think of all the people" all over the world existing and experiencing life "At the Same Time" is powerfully evoked.
I was also reminded of this album this week because the singer is doing a cabaret show this Wednesday at Manhattan's Laurie Beechman Theatre/ West Bank Cafe on West 42 Street and on October 17 at St. Peter's Church across town. These presentations will be reprises of her memorable Harold Arlen evening, saluting the composer whose work is presented a few times to excellent effect in this repertoire. Two are part of Callaway's big book of standards she's graced over the years: we get a scintillating "That Old Black Magic," which proves that this lady who previously was primarily a church singer has earned her jazz stripes. It's a fearless romp that could almost be its own Olympic event with its musical high jumps and high-speed race. And then there's "Out of This World" which, in a word, is. These two classics, both with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (whose work with and without the composer is the subject of the recording reviewed below). Sanges is Arlen-ready and steady as she goes, lending her elastic chops to the great lines of glory like so many before her. One can hardly go wrong with this songwriter, with his muscular melodies and range (in material and note choices). Sidestepping his celebrated "blues" feel and melancholia, she sticks to the warmer, more joyful output, with a delicious specialty she apparently couldn't resist, including a specialty arrangement of the audience-pleasing thing that brought her a lot of attention in her MetroStar competition rounds and in two of her acts. It's "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead," a playful and athletic workouthigh-speed high jinx of the most delectable kind. With energy and spunk and bravado that could wake the dead (witch), she tosses in some other uncredited bits also from The Wizard of Oz: "Optimistic Voices" and some of Glinda's bits in the "Munchkinland" sequence. What a treat it is, even if it truly has no connection to the agenda at hand. For once, "off-topic" is no cause for complaint.
Coming belatedly into cabaret, the Sanges presence has made itself felt in performances honored with attention when it comes to annual cabaret award nominations and awards, including a prestigious one named for Margaret Whiting and presented at the Cabaret Convention (the concert series she'll return to in October on a Jerry Herman night). Thanks must go to the director of the live version of this tribute and the CD's creative consultant, yet another terrific and award-honored cabaret performer: Deb Berman. The Callaway choice was her idea and it comes to full fruition with this very satisfying album where the singer is surrounded by standout musicians: pianist/arranger/music director John M. Cook, sax man Dave Pietro, percussionist Todd Isler, Sean Harkness on guitar, Laura Intravia on flute, and Tom Hubbard on bass. Finding Beauty is "beautifully sung" with "fresh arrangements", says someone who also saw the show live and listened to the CD, and has those words of praise printed on the back of the album package and I agree with that someone. Her name is Ann Hampton Callaway.
It's not even quite September, so who am I to rush the year 2018 through its last our months, but I'm kind of eager for it to be 2019 so we song-lovers can start celebrating the centennial of master writer Johnny Mercer, assuming it will find us immersed in Mercer with cabaret tributes, concerts, and more recordings of his wonderful work. Minda Larsen got a head-start last year when she put out her own album of his gems. Here's a performer who has gotten better and better in the cabaret genre, as some of us witnessed her growth in Manhattan's MetroStar nightclub contest as she doggedly entered year after year. And at last she won, and did more performing, with Mercer a specialty and an especially good fit. Like the subject of her salute, she hails from the Southern part of the USA.
When Minda meets Mercer, it's a meeting of the minds; it's like she got inside in his mind, message-delivering as if she's the one originating the words, sounding especially comfortable and self-generated. There's a refreshing naturalness and ease that belies the well-known fact that these well-known numbers have been approached by so many songbirds for so many years. Without resorting to gimmicks that glob up the works with inappropriately tricky tempi or treatments desperate to be different for the sake of being different, she and smartly jazzy arranger/pianist Neal Kirkwood find ways to make us sit up with perked-up ears and really listen to what we thought we knew almost tiresomely well. Recalling Mercer's own disarmingly natural presence singing his or someone's songs back in the days when he was a record artist, too, her approach is shorn of sham or showboating. It's abundantly clear that this clear-voiced songstress is an actress, too. She ain't just singing: she is communicating, finding a point of view, an arc of a story, that makes the performances not just about the voice or proving she can be jazzy or coy or cute or belty.
Presenting much contrast in vocal color and mood, the artist serves each song to bring out its many facets, mining potential for perspectives and nuances other performers have missed. There's detail, with breezy songs given more depth and ultra-thoughtful phrasing leading to discoveries of new and valid stances and characterizations. There's vulnerability around the corner when we expect to find something that's simply sweet and serene. Oh, vulnerability and caution and tip-toeing are far more interesting and compelling. More is at stake. So, for example, "Moon River" is not just warmly wistfulthe river is not so easy to cross and the person addressing that body of water ("Im crossing you in style") sounds as if she's talking to another person as much as she does when singing to the lover who spurned her in "Goody Goody." And wait til you hear her pouring her heart out to that flying "Skylark" who knows something about where her true love might lurk. The moment she starts, with the the lyric's first wordalso the titlewe know exactly how she feels and where we are on the hope/hopeless spectrum. She pleads ("Won't you tell me..."); she confesses doubt ("I don't know if you can find these things"). Getting breathy and sighing sadly, she is burdened. It's all convincing because she is so very present.
When it comes time for recess and relishing rhymes and fun word choices, she and her musicians are game for gleeful respite from the the drama: they have a field day in a very cool "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" and the vocabulary jamboree "Too Marvelous for Words." But make no mistake: she can really deliver the goods vocally; this is most on display with the mournful "I Had Myself a True Love" with rich tones that flirt with operatic feel in the structure not shied away from. This choice from the score of the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman (with Harold Arlen's music) is, for me, the highlight in a 14-track set. Two of those 14 are song pairings, so a sweet 16 of the many possibilities are present, and they suggest the cross-section of the oft-remarked-upon large number of Mercer collaborators, with Arlen and Henry Mancini each showing up three times, and Johnny collaborating with Johnny is also well acknowledged with the charmer/conversational opener "Something's Gotta Give"which doesn't begin to give a real inkling of the more dazzling stuff to comeand the more-than-pleasant "Dream" that comes off, appealing, as kind of a philosophy, as I think it was meant to.
Note the sustained tones at the ends of some tracks: they are clean and pure, but with real color and character. Other singers, please take heed: To be effective or to impress with control, you need not get loud or push to be strong on that ending. I suspect she's practicing what she preaches (she's also a vocal teacher I've seen briefly at work when I was scouting for some kids for a concert for Long Island's annual Artists in Partnership Cabaret Festival).
The musicians on this recital add so much and it feels like a team effort. Thus, it is unfortunate and unfair that their names are printed in such a small font on the back of the album you might not notice them. But use your ears and you'll notice and know you're in the presence of excellence. Aidan O'Donnell is on bass and the drummer is Lieven Venken. And invaluable is the consistently impressive work of veteran Kirkwood (equally effective on pensive ballads where singer and pianist breathe as one moment by moment, as he is with fleet, zippy dancing over the keys when that's the order of the day).
Nostalgia and old favorites on The Long Way Home could have rested on their laurels and been re-heated comfort food; instead, Minda Larsen cooks up what strikes us as food for thought.