Sound Advice Reviews
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All aboard for an eclectic musical journey with companions of international origins. At our first stop, a duo of an Israel-born singer and a bassist from Japan explore iconic American songwriter Cole Porter's work. Then there's a provocative performer from Australia whose repertoire includes hits from a compatriot pop star and material with German roots. Yet another vocalist surveys the late Canadian Leonard Cohen's songs and poems, notably colored with passion, pain, politics and pathos. Finally, poems by children in a World War II concentration camp in Czechoslovakia are set to music.
NOA LEVY (SINGER) & SHIMPEI OGAWA (BASS)
Durable, moldable, and still lovable are the standards of composer-lyricist Cole Porter, despite their age and the long parade of singers and instrumentalists who have tackled them. Jazz performers have often been attracted to his songs introduced in Broadway and film musicals, sometimes liberally bending and reshaping, changing tempi and emphases. Joining the parade with fresh energy are vocalist Noa Levy from Israel and bassist Shimpei Ogawa from Japan, talented young artists who relocated to America a few years ago. They have chosen a full platter of Porter classics to reimagine with their own arrangements. Yes, it's just the two of them and their own 10 tête-à-tête treatmentsthus the title You Me & Cole.
The bassist, plucking or bowing, is especially nimble, and the singer's voice and personality demonstrate range and variety. It's adventurous and invigorating stuff that they do with these numbers, all of which are from the more famous of the writer's large output. I would have liked a more obscure one or two, but the arrangements and performances are so vital and involved that I don't ever get a sighing, sinking feeling of facing a yawn-inducing tired warhorse.
Never-jazzers and purists may balk at some of the many liberties taken. The resistant with only iconic, beloved cast album or soundtrack imprinted on their brains may scratch their heads and question pitches and keys that are landed in during riskier rollercoaster rides, preferring staying firmly on musical terra firma. But wait: some gear shifts result, rewardingly, in new musical stresses applied to words in the oh-so-familiar lines, underscoring what are arguably the crucial words. One example of this is the phrasing of the title line in "In the Still of the Night" where the melody played normally and formally stresses "night," with such focus increased by a pause before the next word. Here, the singer instead dwells on "still," making us realize that the quality of stark silence is what's being referencedand we feel it.
"In the Still of the Night" and "So in Love" are the most respectfully straightforward renditions, offerings that are radiant with long-lined legato beauty and convincingly unabashed sincerity. They are devoid of the florid sentimentality and stickiness that some performers get trapped in while attempting these big ballads. And, in an otherwise breezy "What Is This Thing Called Love?," they include the usually omitted ruminating verses that set up and deepen the pondering. Feelings and character come through in the less languid renditions, too, as this singer who has studied musical theatre as well as jazz seems to delight in Porter's witty words, as in "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Speaking of words, there are some non-Cole cute updates/substitutions in that selection and elsewhere, like name-dropping movie stars and offering up the downers of "fake news" and vexing messages on Twitter (as evidence that, still, "Anything Goes").
Shimpei Ogawa can really make his instrument "sing" and be attractively prominent, with engaging reactive back-and-forths with the sung lines as well as some hip solo stretches. His role as solo accompanist never feels tired or "not enough." Noa Levy's prior release, an EP, foreshadowed this one-accompanist concept, with each of its items (one also by Porter) finding her accompanied by a different solo instrument.
Some tracks on You Me & Cole have as their most prominent feature an off-to-the-races uber-fleetness, emphasizing dexterity as both members of the Levy/Ogawa duo kinetically keep a peppy pace. It can be a joyride (and impressive), though earning points for showmanship at the expense of a seemingly cavalier approach to potentially emotion-tugging lyrics. But listen beyond the speed drill and gymnastics and the gist (and then some!) of the story and words is there. Throughout the recording, there's a strong sense that Noa Levy and Shimpei Ogawa really feel the magnetic pull of Porter. In performing it, they make the case that, still, Cole is cool.
How do you describe the special M.O. of Kim David Smith's attitude-drenched stage characterizations? Teasing! Tongue-in-cheekiness! Twinkle-in-eye Tempting Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for: provocateur, playful persona, poseur. Vividly recalling the times I've caught his act (with much of the same repertoire presented herein) Live at Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village and via videos, I must say that the slinky, sassy Smith is very much a visual performer. However, I am glad to report that a fair amount of the personality and panache come through in the audio recording. Maybe it's the unflinching commitment to a bold stance and stylization shaping the bravura divo manner and mannerisms. There's a focused fierceness here. He commands attention and builds steam not with belting or big musical climaxes; he simmers instead of exploding.
Kim David Smith's suggestions of self-aggrandizement or self-pity come with a wink. It's all part of the accomplished art and artifice, drawing the audience into his drama-drenched world. That world involves deep, dark dives into his beloved Weimar-era kabarett (cabaret) and the Kurt Weill melodies from The Threepenny Opera ("Barbara Song" and "Pirate Jenny"). He sings some of that vintage material in German, and even uses that language or trademarks of that kabarett intensity with unlikely success to audaciously re-brand songs from other genres. (The pop songs of fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue are featured prominently, with her "I Should Be So Lucky" in German, and the old hit by The Supremes "You Keep Me Hangin' On" gets a vampy re-vamp ramped up to become accusations of more ominous emotionally tortured territory.)
Included brief bits of patter from this live set show hints of the singer's self-aware mask-dropping. While in character, gender identity varies, and a cocky kind of subversive flamboyance laced with danger or decadence can take precedence, with steps into vulnerabilitylike the exquisitely wistful "A Little Yearning"seem all the more striking and revealing.
The instrumental accompaniment/arrangements serve the singer and his honed, owned, tailored material well, with the band of two: adept bassist Skip Ward and the versatile veteran pianist Tracy Stark. (She, long a choice of so many New York City cabaret folks, a performer in her own right, also adds a bit of effective vocal harmony on "All the Lovers.") In shaping the songs and creating dramatic tension, the renditions underscore the power of a pause and the "Less is more" axiom. Whether presenting the narrator of a piece as coy or coiled, as brittle or broken, Kim David Smith is a force to be reckoned with.
The legacy of singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen, Canada's distinctive native son, finds a posthumous advocate and soulful soulmate in singer Gay Marshall's refreshing, accessible approach. Even if they might acknowledge the impact of the man's gifts of gravitas in storytelling or witness-bearing, some find his own performances distancingly dreary and dirge-like. Granted, his limited, basement-deep, dark voice intoning confessional tales and pained observations can be experienced as almost unrelentingly morose mutterings. I was gratefully converted to that acquired taste years ago, but meanwhile have been well aware and glad that singers with more chops and more colors and warmth in their voices, such as Judy Collins and Jennifer Warnes, have opened many ears to the dense, articulate verbiage and revealed more fully the melodies' potential lilting qualities. The Marshall plan is much the same, and even more personal and creative in Back on Boogie Street: Songs of Leonard Cohen. While her affect is brighter and undyingly life-affirming, that doesn't mean diluting the drama. She brings her own intensity and involvement that illuminate the varied, well-chosen songs from across the long Cohen career. It's the best of both worlds.
Juicy-voiced but spot-on serious Gay Marshall is no stranger to performing from a place of real-deal passion, ardor, or pleading. Her background includes pet projects with the songs of Edith Piaf, playing Morales in A Chorus Line, Grizabella in Cats, and this century's Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. (I'm told in promotional material that because of the pandemic, planned CD release events and performances had to be cancelled, and the singer left the country for her adopted home, but note that Gay Marshall is alive and well and living in Paris nowadays.)
Ross Patterson, pianist/ arranger/ co-producer (with the singer), brings rich texture to the settings, enhanced by the work of several other musicians, and their mood-enhancing, empathetic contributions all deserve due recognition: cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf; violinist Bryan Hernandez-Luch; guitarist Gary Sieger; accordion-player Rachelle Garniez; bassist Don Falzone; and percussionist Gabriel Globus-Hoenich.
The repertoire includes four songs with melodies by Sharon Robinson and one with music by John Lissauer (a touching treatment of "Came So Far for Beauty"). All others were written solely by Cohen, and also woven in is some spoken material from his published work as a poet, which pre-dated his entrance into the world of music. Some liberties are taken with published song lyrics, opting to eliminate some verses, substituting a word here and there (plugging in non-religious words for "pray" and "Christ" in "The Land of Plenty," one of the Robinson collaborations, and elsewhere removing a mention of abortion and adjusting a specific sex activity reference). But original gender-indicating verbiage is no barrier as she takes on the male role in "I'm Your Man," delightfully delivering it with a jaunty attitude.
After so many bittersweet testimonies that some might dismiss as downers, and decades of drowning his sorrows in song and acknowledging downing anti-depressants, came more optimistic outlooks. A harbinger of better days is "Anthem," from a 1992 Cohen album, with its mantra-worthy key line acknowledging the literal ray of hope, celebrating the presence of "a crack in everything" because "that's how the light gets in." This balm-like reassurance resonates so well in current times, and strikes me as an anchoring point of view for all of Back on Boogie Street. The performer finds the sunny side of that street and other well-trod roadsadding the silver linings to Leonard Cohen's many dark clouds. Gay Marshall's silvery voice finds those elusive silver linings, and a sunny disposition challenges the inherent gloom and dourness. Plus, Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" is still in the musical wardrobe to repel raindropsand tears.
If indeed "context is everything," then everything about the unavoidable, inseparable context of tragic history enveloping the words and music heightening them on Dana Sandler's recording is everything to induce tears. Yes, it's nigh on impossible to experience the aural pleasures of the sung poems and instrumentals inspired by them without being weighed down by the chilling grief of knowing that the poems were written by children and teens who were among the many Jewish people killed in the horrors of the concentration camps during World War II. Listeners will vary in their abilities to succeed in the Herculean effort of trying to drink in the merits of the components: the lovely, pure Sandler voice; a fine band that executes the melodies she composed in settings of the poems; and, of course, the disarming guilelessness and pith they contain.
The 12-track I Never Saw Another Butterfly is named for one of the memorable texts, as was the book collecting some of the youngsters' words and drawings (saved by a teacher and found in a suitcase when the camps were liberated). Others have gotten to the task of setting some of the poems to music over the years, some designed for choir performance, and the clutch of souvenirs and the history have inspired theatre, too. But Dana Sandler finds her own way: an in-character match for the directness and simplicity of childhood, rather than blowing up things to attempt operatic scale or arch "art song" territory. Her music and singing don't manipulatively milk pity or condescend to soften or sweeten the pain pronounced in the poems. That's quite a few possible traps side-stepped.
Topics of the chosen poems emphasize the presence or absence of natural wondersroses blossoming, birds, dew, sun, chestnut treesas well as acknowledging "Tears" and missing "Home." Most of the original pieces are very short (as brief as eight lines, or just 18 words in the case of "Tears"), but some are expanded by repeating lines or stanzas (as material conceived as songs do) and incorporating instrumental time.
Cohesion for this song cycle is achieved by reprising some bits of the elegant melodies. A five-member band is featured, accompanying vocals and on its own for graceful instrumentals dedicated to each of four poets represented. (A guest clarinetist comes in for the one non-Sandler item, the 1942 Azriel David Fastag setting of Judaism's 13 principles of faith.) Piano presence (Carmen Staaf) is often dominant, sometimes driving and other times dancingly fluttery, perhaps to suggest the titular butterfly. Two other participants make Dana Sandler's I Never Saw Another Butterfly a family affair. Husband Austin McMahon appears on drums and percussion, and their child Rory provides the second female voice on two tracks (her contributions are impactful and charming). It is her voice which is the last heard, repeating the final line of "Birdsong," by an anonymous child: the haunting yet hopeful "You'll know how wonderful it is to be alive."
Children can teach us a lot. This earnestly thoughtful, well-considered endeavor offers power and perspective.