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Irving Berlin: The Early Songs

Yes, during December days Irving Berlin's perennial about "dreaming of a 'White Christmas'" has predictably been in the air, and his "Easter Parade" surely will show up in March of the new year, and his evergreens will be on some upcoming CD releases (Broadway's Tony Yazbeck's, for one). But what about Berlin's early material, which we don't often hear? Two new releases concentrate on that period—with gusto. Several titles appear on both albums, but with quite different stylings.


New World Records

Response to the singing and instrumental work on New World Records' new CD could reach a new world 's record of cheers from music fans who love to hear the old songs the way they were first heard. The names William Schulz and Mornay Helm are not well known, but they are among the heroes making Irving Berlin: "This Is The Life!": The Breakthrough Years: 1909-1921 so cheer-worthy. They were two of the men who first arranged songwriter Berlin's early work and those arrangements have been lovingly and delightfully recreated for this 21-track disc. These charts and the vibrant playing by the 13-piece Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin (also one of its pianists) are the stars of this recording.

In these original settings, it's a revelation to hear the more familiar pieces like "I Love a Piano," "Say It with Music," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!." To borrow the title of another one—"You'd Be Surprised"! (all these are with vocals, but for me, it's the instrumental sounds that are the big attraction). It's like a trip back in time that is an eye-opener, ear-opener, and mind-opener for those who only know these numbers in different styles and tempi. And the disc is full of things not well known these days, such as "Home Again Blues," "Tell Me, Little Gypsy," and "The Girls of My Dreams"—all from 1920 and presented as engaging instrumentals.

Some of the more formal singing may seem stodgy and thus distancingly operatic for those who want their show tunes more showy, splashy, or conversationally vernacular. But the voices are quite fine and let us hear things in the different light of history, so the lyric "Won't you 'Play a Simple Melody' like my mother sang to me?" has a quaintness and resistance to modernisms that is all the more effective and strongly contrasting to the counterpoint vocalist singing of the joys of ragtime music. And who better than this Ragtime Orchestra for the authenticity? Soprano Bernadette Boerckel and tenor Daniel Marcus are the vocalists for that duet (or is a duel?); they loosen up even more when they team again on the lively "The International Rag," boosted by the snippets of national anthems in William Schulz's 1913 orchestration. And Marcus very successfully approximates the Al Jolson joie de vivre and hamminess for "This Is the Life!" from the next year, with a contagious exultation about the thrills of city life versus life in the slow lane back on the farm.

The operatic chops get their ideal opportunity in the big "Opera Medley" that invokes and pokes fun at famed opera composers' most recognizable snatches of melody. Joining the above-mentioned singers are baritone Edward Pleasant, tenor Thomas Carle, and soprano Heather Hill (her name cries out for her to record a certain Brigadoon ballad). This seven-minute piece is quite the production, and if you don't have the 2002 album of the Watch Your Step score, it is likely new to you, as will be most of the melodies in the included (and, happily, even lengthier) overture to this 1914 show. The aforementioned "Play a Simple Melody" is the hit from the score.

And speaking of a sweet, simple "melody," it's nice to hear just the melody of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," so often treated to stentorian male tones and mere excuse for a parade of lovely ladies, this number created for the 1919 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies and becoming the annual revue's theme song. Here, featuring Paul Murphy's cornet and Diane Scott's piano, it's genuinely tender and just plain "pretty" rather than schmaltzy or grand. And Miss Boerckel's vocal of "My Melody Dream" accompanied by Maestro Benjamin taking his turn at the keyboard is graceful, an atypical Berlin piece that is an elegant art song from 1911.

This album, which includes a valuable fact-filled booklet of over 30 pages with much perspective and history, is just the latest in a series of releases by New World Records that celebrate and recreate the music of decades past. The past is indeed in good hands when the baton is in the hand of conductors such as musicologist Rick Benjamin. Perhaps those curious about lyrics they don't know at all may have piqued curiosity turned to frustration in hearing "just" the melodies to more obscure pieces like the fox trot "Nobody Knows (and Nobody Seems to Care)." Well, perhaps almost "nobody knows" it nowadays, but with such a splendid orchestra and record label bringing new attention to such still-shiny old gems for the pleasure of newly alerted fans of musical theatre and good songs of any vintage, the "Nobody seems to care" phrase will not apply. We'll care—because so much care has been put into this great-sounding package.


Garret Mountain Records

Director/producer/playwright/historian Chip Deffaa is certainly doing yeoman's work in bringing attention to the songs of Irving Berlin. He has five—count 'em, five—theatre pieces related to the great composer/lyricist. And here is the third cast album from these shows to come along in the space of two years, with some overlapping of material. (His two cast albums centered on the career of Fanny Brice have some of the songwriter's work represented, too.) The new release, Irving Berlin & Co., includes some cast members heard on the recent Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue CD and Michael Townsend Wright again portraying the older version of the tunesmith, the role he played in the two-man Irving Berlin's America, bringing the same effectively low-key folksy charm.

As in other works, there's something quite charming—and encouraging—about hearing quite young actors singing early 20th century music with vim and vigor. It makes it seem less dated and the effort to sound "fresh" is not the issue it would be with actor-singers with more mileage and familiarity with such material. Rather than being musical fish out of water, they seem to raise their voices with joy and energy.

Not everyone in the younger set is equally polished, and a couple of them are shakier with musical values. Boys whose voices may be changing or recently changed can be a danger that comes with the territory of such casting. (And, having seen some of these performers on stage, I can vouch for what listeners might guess: that they come across better in person with the big smiles, dancing, and eyes aglow, whereas the recording studio is by nature less dimensional.) So, discerning CD listeners who've heard numerous more seasoned performers over the years tackle the more famous numbers ("I Love a Piano," "Simple Melody," "Mandy," "All by Myself," "Alexander's Ragtime Band,") may not be bowled over—and no one is more endearing in the song about army life than the limited singer, Private Irving Berlin himself, when he did his own "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!" which he premiered in all-army shows and preserved for posterity on film and a record. But a large share of the material on the album is little-known, rarely recorded stuff, including three premieres. It's an impressive overview of mostly very early Berlin, including the beginning stages when he wrote just lyrics.

Some lines of dialogue from the biographical show have been preserved on disc, with the occasional snippet of a scene showing Berlin as a beginning songwriter struggling for success, grateful for the endorsement of established show biz folks, meeting his future wife and demonstrating a new number for her, etc. We also get a brief re-enactment of a true story: the Christmas caroling night Mr. Deffaa almost took part in when his friends serenaded the reclusive then-95-year-old songwriter outside his home and were invited in. An early encounter with role model and later friend George M. Cohan allows for a Cohan classic "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to appear, too, the company led by an enthused Matthew Nardozzi. But by far, it's almost all about the songs. And what a pleasure it is to have these rarer songs unveiled.

"There's Something Nice About the South" lets peppy young Jonah Barricklo, with an in-character boost from Deffaa himself, be the first to record an obscurity well worth discovering on its own and as evidence of the songwriter being in step with a then trendy theme. Speaking of steps, Jonah also tap dances on the album and, yes, "Everybody Step" is another selection, sung with panache by Jeffrey Sewell, who leads the company.

Mr. Wright and Missy Dreier furnish "In Our Cozy Kitchenette Apartment" with true sweetness in the way that only old-time songs seem to make near-poverty and shoestring budgets romantic. But there's much more for the seeker of the rare and famous Berlin, including Richard Danley, the usual hand on the keyboard in Deffaa shows, reliably spot on for not just period-right accompaniment, but a pleasing solo on "Say It with Music." (He sure does!)

A couple of the best treats come right at the end with bonus tracks by the solid singer Will Conrad: "I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway" and I'm Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind." Indefatigable Berlin booster Deffaa deserves a medal himself for bringing so many such rarities to new light and new audiences. And with 28 tracks in all, that's quite a bounty of Berlin!

- Rob Lester

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