Sound Advice Reviews
Fanny Brice ... and more that's nice
Let's begin our Sound Advice with Fanny Brice, with a mix of skits and songs, featuring her singing in rare versions of her old standbys. Speaking of Fanny Brice standbys, the performer who's been the subject of all that chat and cheers portraying that star in Broadway's Funny Girl revival, Julie Benko, has a new recording with husband Jason Yeager. Another married couple, Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki, have another recording of their original material. Moving on from a couple of couples, how about a party of three: a long-lost instrumental set led by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.
Surprise! The energized entertainer from days of yore, Fanny Brice, is alive and well, seemingly, jumping to life as we listen to vintage performances, sung and spoken, the earliest being circa 100 years old. Here's the star of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, films, and radio whose life story inspired the stage musical Funny Girl. Attention to its current Broadway revival, naturally, also sparks a revival of interest in the legendary woman whose story it is (albeit fictionalized in many aspects). So, the release of The Real Funny Girl: Rare Performances Curated by Chip Deffaa, is well timed.
If your main reference point concerning the signature Brice numbers is still just knowing them from those few that appear in the movie version of Funny Girl to complement the all-original Broadway score of 1964, here you can belatedly meet the original real deal. Feel the fun and take a trip to another time when ethnic humor and broad characterizations had broad appeal, and "cute" could be a hoot. If, like I did, you had your curiosity piqued long ago and became acquainted with the quaint sensibilities of Brice, perhaps seeking out surviving recordings, you're still in for some surprises. These aren't the standard versions of the Fanny standards issued commercially over the years. Clarity and overall sound quality vary in this rather ancient material, but much is pretty decent, gratifyingly, despite a few minor blips and a bit of scratchy surface noise. The unpretentious Brice singing voice never sounds forced or strained; she seemed at ease with the musicality, but attitude and hitting the jokey lines with zing would appear to be priorities over any display of vocal chops.
Take off on a safari into silliness and sass. Here we get plenty of the lady of laughter's glib, zippy songs–"Oh, How I Hate That Fellow Nathan," "Becky Is Back at the Ballet," "Second Hand Rose," "Rose of Washington Square," "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Be Happy with Somebody Else)," etc.–some delivered with a Yiddish accent. Goofy can be good. Some may argue that some of these haven't aged well, what wit they was has wilted as times and sensitivities change. Think of it as a vacation from sophistication. In these "woker" days when we know that a steady diet of serving up ethnic stereotypes can turn offensive, we proceed with forgiving caution when (similar to a song of almost the same title and situation from Annie Get Your Gun) Fanny Brice makes the musical assertion, as Rosie Rosenstein, suddenly "I'm an Indian." (The chief she met "dressed me up in blankets/ Put feathers in my hair/ Between the blanket and the feathers/ I feel just like bed.") In an extended non-musical routine, she goes for broke with the same mix, schmoozing up "paleface" Captain John Smith as a Yiddish-accented Pocahontas.
There are several song-free segments, including those presenting her most famous character, Baby Snooks, the off-the-wall cheeky child who drives her daddy up the wall. Note this pro's sharp timing and chemistry with the other players. One bit with Jack Benny finds the two trading quips and asides, with him breaking character and breaking into giggles because of what were probably ad-libbed comments. Other vignettes feature hammy ha-ha moments with such stars as Bob Hope, Martha Raye, and Tallulah Bankhead and appreciative spoken introductions by Al Jolson.
And then there's the legendary other side of the clown's coin when Fanny Brice surprisingly transformed into a tragedienne with one titanic signature tale of woe. The 18-track cornucopia includes three versions of her signature torch song, "My Man." It's interesting to know and hear how different they are. One is unabashedly dramatic and sorrowful, unspooled at length, and has some lyrics not usually done in cover versions ("... When my eyes get wet/ I must forget/ 'Til he gets hot/ And tells me not/ To talk such rot"). Another is surprisingly zippy in pace, almost banishing the "poor me" attitude. There is a live performance of the number, with phrasing and some of the lyric spoken, bringing new shades to the old words.
Brice expert/collector Chip Deffaa offers commentary and history in the liner notes for the physical CD and with some spirited spoken set-ups on the recording, all giving valuable context. And there's a whole lot more where that perspective came from ... in three plays he's written about her life and career, filled with period songs, both large-cast enterprises and a one-woman piece, One Night with Fanny Brice, which is represented by two different recordings of it.
Listening to The Real Funny Girl is a real treat.
JULIE BENKO & JASON YEAGER
Certainly, Julie Benko has been the cause of attention, buzz and cheers over the last few months for her performances in the role of Fanny Brice in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, first going on as standby, taking over full-time during recent weeks (through the first weekend of September), with all Thursday nights scheduled after that. "People," from that show's score, is a pensively phrased highlight (one of several songs that have been heard on Broadway) on the very enjoyable 13-track recording called Hand in Hand by the vocalist and her co-billed musician husband, Jason Yeager. Yes, it's just the two of them we hear, so performances often feel like back-and-forth conversations. With much style, he plays a variety of keyboard instruments and some percussion (including body percussion and a washboard necktie!) and she adds flair playing flute or clarinet on a few selections. They also share the credits for arrangements and are the producers.
The Benko voice is supple and has a youthful, open quality. Its smoothness retains a bright tone and there's no shrillness factor when things build. The intimate, pensive style so striking in her personalized "People" can be found on other numbers, too.
The repertoire is varied, but some songs have things in common. For example, two are Yeager originals, a few of the oldest pieces date back to the decade of the 1930s, and two sweet oldies effectively paint cozy scenes of Louisiana ("Louisiana Fairy Tale" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"). Two come from musicalized stories set in Iowa: "Another Life" (by Jason Robert Brown from Bridges of Madison County), about what happens to a wife while her husband and kids are on a trip to the state fair, and State Fair's "It Might As Well Be Spring." And two numbers have connections to the underworld, of all things: "All I've Ever Known" from the still-playing Hadestown and, from Randy Newman's take on the Faust story, "Gainesville."
You have to hand it to the Hand in Hand duo who not only do all the duties themselves and sound comfortable in all styles and periods, but are equally convincing in all attitudes and characterizations. Songs that need to sound like they bring back memories from the vantage point of much life experience sound sobered and reflective while we can also totally accept the youthful yearning and combustible confusion springing forth for "It Might As Well Be Spring." In that Rodgers & Hammerstein gem, keyboardist Yeager provides a jaunty, jagged accompaniment that suits the lyric's stated feelings of being "as restless as a willow in a windstorm" and "jumpy as a puppet on a string," and chameleon Benko becomes a hyperbolic but game wannabe romantic. It's a cute twist on this classic that usually wends its way wistfully–its befuddlement more on the calm side.
The two lovely Yeager originals are pleasures to hear. "Sweet Pea," an ode to Billy Strayhorn, is a tender tip of the hat to a jazz giant. It also appears in instrumental form on United, his recording with another Jason–violinist Jason Anick–released in 2017, the same year that saw the collection Introducing Julie Benko. The other Yeager-penned piece, "Just Begun," was created for their wedding. The honeymoon feeling seems to have spread to other sweet treatments, with a contented couple's cuddle-up to the simple joys of "The Nearness of You." Close your eyes and the drapes and all seems right with the world.
Julie Benko and Jason Yeager bring their personable presentation in person for one night at Manhattan's music landmark, Birdland, today, August 29, in person with a livestream option.
ANYA TURNER & ROBERT GRUSECKI
In their eighth duo recording, In This Raggedy Time, gentle spirits Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki are role models for ducking despair and fortifying oneself with selflessness, hope, and solid priorities. We hear and acknowledge their acknowledgment of contemporary consternation, but feel it is informed by an unshakable hold on life-guiding, old-fashioned values. There's no grandstanding here in these point made/move on cameos. While some numbers feel modest in their economy of focus and delivery, they may grow in impact as they grow on you the second and third time around listening.
Frustration-fed political catharsis written before the 2020 election anticipated a "good riddance" send-off: "Come November" and the more volatile "Dude Gotta Go." "Stay Home" is outwardly jolly, sounding like something the Andrews Sisters could have cheered us with if they were around now to make a lockdown less of a downer. The day-by-day dealing with the pandemic is also faced with face masks and unmasked regrets in the the list of "What I Miss" ("I miss meeting friends and wearing lipstick/ Tickets to a show/ Where's the world I used to know?") and in In This Raggedy Time's title song.
The wedded pair divides the musical labor, with him on keyboards as she does more of the singing with her multi-hued voice imbued with emotion and dignity, and an attractive vibrato judiciously employed. His subtler vocals are welcome, too, whether out front or in support. Other musicians joining them are John Putnam (guitar) Tod Hedrick (bass) and John Redsecker (drums/percussion), but it's the Grusecki piano and melodica that are prominent. Lilting melodies are ingratiating without pushing to get themselves on you, and different styles are evoked. The tune of "Don't Worry" is a soothingly sweet lullaby for grown-ups. Elsewhere, lyrics may get more weight; it would have been nice to have a mid-song significant instrumental passage on a couple of pieces, to shift the emphasis.
The cute, clever stuff evokes a smart nightclub revue of the 1950s (if you changed the identifying details). The sincere ballads expressing appreciation and awareness suggest they might wear not only their own matching pairs of rose-colored glasses, but also some magic coats of armor that prevent being wounded by the world's poison-tipped daggers of discouragement that destroy joy. Much among In This Raggedy Time's set of 15 recent creations creates an atmosphere of count-your-blessings optimism and perspective.
DAVE BRUBECK TRIO
Excellent sound quality and exciting interaction among its celebrated jazz colleagues are reasons to be grateful for the very belated release of a recently discovered recording of a 55-year-old live concert by the Dave Brubeck Trio. No, that word "Trio" is not an error made in haste or ignorance or an inability to "do the math." The Dave Brubeck Quartet was on its last European tour and the invaluable alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who handled so many solos and carried many a melodic line in the spotlight, missed the intended flight from Hamburg. So, the arrangements and solos of the remaining three musical musketeers brought a unique sound and energy, as emphasized in the liner notes by Chris and Darius Brubeck, two of the musician sons of pianist Brubeck (who died in 2012 one day shy of his 92nd birthday). To invoke a couple of old sayings, if "necessity is the mother of invention," especially when the necessity is that "the show must go on," there's no doubt that the playing is invented (and invested) on Live in Vienna 1967 as Brubeck, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello rise to the challenge.
The tracks feature driving, forceful playing, with the contrastingly (mostly) quiet and calm "La Paloma Azul," the Mexican folk song; the title translates as "The Blue Dove." Piano sounds so touchingly tender on this rewarding choice. On the others, swing is the thing and it's a great ride with some material growing ancient (or already well past youth) defying age and expectations from many cover versions. Nothing sounds tired, including the cheering crowd. Brubeck fans can find all the chosen numbers on other recordings, but these Desmondless versions make for worthy examination with the fresh ideas, solos, and improvisational flights of fancy substituting. Adding to variety and surprise that make the long tracks not seem so long are changes in tempo and surprising quotes from other melodies. Listen for "I'll Take Romance," "Let Me Off Uptown," and a bit of something written for a classic Broadway musical when the bass briefly quotes "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" from the score of South Pacific. These little interpolations are fun.
Also on the subject of interesting interpolations, here's some musical history about the repertoire (besides the folk song): Although the song list for this instrumental jazz set doesn't boast items written originally for musical theatre productions, it's notable that five of the six pieces played eventually found their way to major stages in New York City (and elsewhere). Broadway productions incorporated Duke Ellington's theme "Take the A Train" in Sophisticated Ladies, Swing! and Play On!. Disney's animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs introduced "Someday My Prince Will Come," but there was a live version that played such venues as Radio City Music Hall and the St. Louis Muny. And, speaking of that city, the 1914 lament that referenced it,"St. Louis Blues," has a stage resumé, too (including: Blackbirds of 1928, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Blues in the Night). The very old "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") had, at the time of this concert, a recent inclusion in a big production called To Broadway with Love at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, as documented on its cast album. And there's a generous 10-minute-long trip through "One Moment Worth Years," from a musical focused on civil rights written by Brubeck and his wife, Iola, The Real Ambassadors that played jazz festivals and, later, Lincoln Center. (Its cast recording has the vocal version by Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.)
It's tough to pick a favorite here, but I have a soft spot for "Someday My Prince Will Come"; anyone looking for a way to introduce jazz to kids and knows the value of a reference point should know about the delightful album that includes this one and many others from the same animated studio well: Dave Digs Disney.
A dynamic recording that truly explores melodies and ignites them, with muscular jazz chops on display, Live from Vienna 1967 is the second release from the label started by the Brubeck family two years ago to commemorate the pianist/arranger/composer's centennial, with more issues planned to celebrate and add to the legacy.