Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Focus on songwriters
Reviews by Rob Lester

Where would we music lovers be without the songwriters–those who are composers and/or lyricists and sing their own work or have it interpreted by others? Let's explore a few.

CD | Digital

Projecting simple open-hearted sincerity with a warm voice, California-based singer and actress Dianne Fraser, making her debut recording, has chosen to present a survey of material that Leslie Bricusse wrote on his own or with collaborators. It's a nice match and a rewarding listen. Four of the ten tracks are two-song medleys, so a total of 14 songs get an airing, reminding us of some of his higher-profile scores for the stage and films (including movies with his own music and lyrics that were later adapted for theatre with many songs making the transfer: Dr. Dolittle, Scrooge and Goodbye, Mr. Chips as well as Victor/Victoria with Henry Mancini's melodies). You and I: The Words and Music of Leslie Bricusse is a welcome reminder of the breadth of the oeuvre of the man who passed away two years ago at the age of 90.

Bravura belting with soaring climaxes is not the M.O. here. Dianne Fraser presents a more modest, cozier, sensitive style, and her phrasing sounds invested and thoughtful on ballads. Here and there in less flowing passages of trickier tunes, the singer seems to be pushing beyond her most solid comfort zones, but sacrificing some potential pristine perfection is a trade-off for exposed heart in the moment. An optimistic and guileless attitude is suggested, epitomized by the sentiments in "Happiness" from Scrooge ("Happiness is smiling upon me, walking my way, sharing my day ...").

The amiable trio accompaniment consists of arranger/producer Todd Schroeder on keyboards, bassist Adam Cohen, and sister Denise Fraser on drums.

Those familiar with the material chosen will find the most notable creative touches applied to two of the medleys. It's surprising and refreshing to hear "This Is the Moment" without the usual grand, throbbing melodrama applied to this proclamation from Jekyll & Hyde with Frank Wildhorn's music. Who knew it could work in a slower and even gentle manner? It's paired with another carpe diem anthem, "Once in a Lifetime," one of four representatives here of the fruitful songwriting partnership with Anthony Newley. Their "Look at That Face" is mixed with "Something in Your Smile" from Dr. Dolittle and balladeering baritone Damon Kirsche guests on that as the two vocalists take the songs first as solos, then overlapping blends, with a counterpoint section. Another interesting "marriage" of material fuses the mixed feelings facing a somewhat troubling "Crazy World" (Victor/Victoria) with the utopian-esque ideals of "If I Ruled the World" (written with composer Cyril Ornadel for Pickwick).

Dianne Fraser sings numbers from this recording on Wednesday night, December 6, in Manhattan at Don't Tell Mama.

Shanachie Entertainment
CD | Digital

Cynics and curmudgeons begone (or be warned)! The empress of empathy is here to articulate, with loving care, perspectives of our common human experiences, deepest feelings, and philosophies. Gentle souls who strive to be joyful instead of jaded or open-hearted instead of closed-off emotionally will find an inspiring kindred spirit in Ann Hampton Callaway, finding beauty in Finding Beauty: Originals, Volume 1. Her artful, sumptuous and unabashedly original songs unspooled in her rich, velvet voice are uber-earnest and uplifting.

Although some of Ann Hapmton Callaway's self-penned numbers have appeared on her albums over the years, this is the first full collection of things she wrote on her own or in collaboration (six of the 16 selections are co-writes). Some of the tracks have been issued as singles in recent times and there are songs that may be familiar from earlier recordings by her or others. Those histories and geneses (several began as poems) are discussed in the singer's liner notes in the CD's booklet. Arrangements are by the project's bass player, Trey Henry, in conjunction with guitarist Paul Viapiano on four tracks. The two men are also the producers and do some "additional keyboards"; eight other musicians participate in various combinations or are guests on just one or two numbers.

Several songs are presented with colleagues joining for vocal duets or background harmonies, for both new and revisited material. Melissa Manchester is the singing partner and co-writer for the new "New Eyes," a striking blend, while the delicate "You Can't Rush Spring" with Tierney Sutton was first recorded by AHC as a solo on her early (1994) album Bring Back Romance. Kurt Elling invigorates the urging to "Love and Let Love," written with Michele Brourman. Serving as a tribute to loved ones who've passed away, the ethereal "Wherever You Are" is an achingly pure and poignant performance done in tandem with sister Liz Callaway.

A kind of mantra-filled manual for living and appreciating life fully, resetting priorities and celebrating love and Nature, Finding Beauty: Originals, Volume 1 presents a serious series of rhapsodic reflections. And, singing seriously, or seasonal songs, or songs of the 1970s, busy Ann Hampton Callaway's tour takes her to six different states with eight different programs this month and next. And, speaking of "next," since this cornucopia is subtitled Volume 1, I'll be looking forward to the Volume 2.

CD | Digital

Sometimes, indeed, less is more–especially for overburdened senses. Soft pastels can please more than flashing bright neon. Music floating into a room on a soft breeze, making the curtains billow, can be more affecting than the hurricane that makes the rafters ring. Taking the subtle, understated approach, Minnesota-based Maud Hixson can be the "sorbet" of singers with her especially soothing sound that caresses a listener's ears. With her latest release, she devotes her winningly winsome way to the compositions of a Renaissance man of music she befriended (including some songs with his own lyrics). The 10-track Permanent Moonlight: The Songs of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett is a graceful glide through classy material with elegant melodies, worldly-wise observations, and some sly humor.

During his lifetime (1936-2012), the subject of this salute wore many musical hats: scoring films, composing in classical and jazz styles, live performances, and recordings as pianist, vocalist, and accompanying other singers. So it's not surprising that some of that eclectic mix is reflected here, with material drawn from song cycles, settings of poems, cabaret fare, something from an unproduced musical, special material written for specific performers, even a musicalized last will and testament with words by The Phantom of the Opera's lyricist, Charles Hart ("Goodbye for Now").

Everything benefits from the attentive loving care, creamy vocal sounds, and simpatico small-group accompaniment that blankets the songs. Rick Carlson is the versatile pianist on most of the tracks; Dan Chouinard takes over for "Song of the Shadows" and a nifty number that's about a pianist toiling as entertainer in a bar facing audience requests ("Come Buy" with RRB's own LOL words), name-dropping repertoire from classical relics to old pop warhorses. Guitarist David Singley helps elevate "The Bird's Lament" to the level of a captivating art song. A low-key, streamlined approach lets the melodies float and lyrics are phrased with what can feel like a secret, knowing smile. The set list's demands range from the accessibly short-and-sweet "Early to Bed" (lyric by Franklin Underwood), with its irresistible charm, to the lengthiest piece: the song cycle called "Soliloquy" (words by Julian Mitchell) that runs more than 10 minutes and has some real oomph and neurotic venting about a love/hate relationship that may or may not have reached its expiration date.

Permanent Moonlight shines its own light on the talents of a multi-faceted man and a very engaging lady.

Resonance Records
CD | Digital

The long career and prolific output of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins, creator of intoxicating, tender, and sultry melodies gets a marvelous retrospective on My Heart Speaks with new versions of many of his creations. He sings in Portuguese (or just hums or does some vocalese) on many tracks, present as an instrumentalist just a little. And has three notable guest female jazz vocalists on board, each handling a number in English to great effect. A core band is joined by a (recorded separately) huge orchestra–91 pieces!–providing the lush and evocative melodies with a bed of strings. It all remains mellow to the max.

The tender tones of the Lins voice create a pillowy romantic atmosphere. Portuguese lyrics and English translations are helpfully provided in the CD's accompanying booklet (along with the perspective of liner notes scribe James Gavin, derived from conversations with the composer and indicating song/recording histories). Sometimes these reveal the more complex emotions in a song that may only have otherwise suggested a hint of melancholy or wonder. But, sorrowful or rejoicing, there's delicate beauty and often a hypnotic effect. In some cases, the song title and the liner notes' info give a reliable clue as to what we can expect in style and mood: "MIssing Miles" is a memorial to jazz giant Miles Davis, written at the time of his death; "Congada Blues" references a religious dance; "Corpos" ("Bodies") is an unsettling indictment/lament about deaths under a local military regime–it's the only sample of a lyric by the composer's most frequent lyricist, Vitor Martins.

Jane Monheit, one of many jazz singers who've recorded Lins works, sings a gorgeous tune reflecting on a time in "Rio" (the city Rio de Janeiro). She provided the English words heard here, as well as a new set of words for "Antes e Depois," here titled "The Heart Speaks," which gets a commanding rendition by Dianne Reeves. Tawanda is the vocalist for another potent entry called "I'm Not Alone" with a lyric by Will Jennings.

Let the dreamy music just wash over you or delve into the specific stories and emotions spelled out in the words. Either way, it's a treat.