Familiar material? You might think so at first glance, but listen here. These are very new perspectives on: an old, oft-explored Greek myth; old happy songs; and the Cole Porter catalogue (not the same old chestnuts). Finally, a debut album from a singer with some fresh perspectives of his own.
ORPHEUS & EURIDICE
In the original Greek myth, the music created by Orpheus is described as being so mesmerizing that it could charm wild beasts, make the rocks and trees dance, and change the course of a river. I won't say that what we hear on the recording of Orpheus & Euridice by Ricky Ian Gordon will change the course of a nearby river or the course of your life, but it flows along quite beautifully. My advice is to let it wash over you, and go with the flow. There's something amorphous about the melodic structure of parts of this song cycle. Depending on your musical reference points, it may remind you of opera, art songs, a cantata or it may feel rather foreign. Though dealing with love, death and anguish, this is not melodrama with histrionics and musical excess. To the contrary: some may find there is too much restraint in the most highly charged moments of the story. That seems to be the considered choice.
Because all of the singing is done by a coloratura soprano, the opera world's Elizabeth Futral, the recording may seem formal. But "elegant" would be a better description. Infused with emotion, there's a warmth to the music and the singer's approach. Also preventing things from coming across as grandiose: the lyrics are lean and there are only two musicians. These musicians are not mere accompanists by any means. Clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the piece, is not just playing the instrument; he and the instrument are playing the character of Orpheus (in the production at Lincoln Center, he and the soprano were the title couple, and both danced and were joined by a group of dancers). The pianist is Melvin Chen. The singing is not constant; there is respite, a back-and-forth interplay, and three of the 15 tracks are purely instrumental. The playing is exquisite but also economical, starting with the "Prologue" that establishes a tenderly intriguing mood immediately.
As a listening experience, there is a certain emotional distance because the lyrics, although often wonderfully poetic, function to narrate the story in the third person form. When there comes an exception and a song (simply titled "Song") is sung in first person form, it becomes more immediate ("With you my heart begins to know ... I am part of something now"). This number is a standout, but closer examination of the seemingly simple but deft lyrics printed in the booklet reveal many phrases that impress. There are matter-of-fact plot summations like "They found a house. She loved to garden and decorate," followed soon enough by the more romantic description of the flowers decorating that garden's gate: "roses and morning glories which seemed to sing, 'hello!' even in the winter snow." These are from a piece called "Home."
At times, the singing is so rich or full of leaps, the instrumental phrases so delicate, that they give the more mundane lines more majesty or mystery. An argument can be made that now and then the operatic singing and its vibrato make the plainer sentences seem "overdressed," and that more variety overall might be welcome. But it's hard to fault the singer and two musicians who paint such lovely aural pictures.
Those who know and admire the heartfelt, intense, soaring work that Ricky Ian Gordon pours out (as opposed to churns out) will recognize the unapologetic waterfalls of feeling. With this CD, the writer, whose Grapes of Wrath written with Michael Korie opened just this past week at Minnesota Opera, continues to add to his varied recorded legacy. The consistent factor is a wealth of passion and melody.
The warm-sounding Orpheus & Euridice CD, so well produced by Joel Moss and executive produced by Kurt Deutsch, produces many effective moments.
He's a man with a mission. He likes to find and perform good, underexposed songs from Broadway and movie musicals. Mission accomplished - again. It All Belongs to You is Justin Hayford's third such effort. The third time's the charm and singer-pianist Justin has plenty of charm, as do these neglected nuggets. Each of his CDs has twelve numbers, and the dozen delights this time are all by the same writer. But don't take The Unsung Cole Porter literally in both senses of the playful title. The tunes have been sung, and some careful digging or long term collecting will prove that most were recorded and are still available on CDs you can find. But this is certainly a grand mix of the rarely recorded and unaccountably unheard - they're not regrettable forgettables or inaccessible things that can't be appreciated out of context from the shows for which they were written.
Justin has a light, sweet, breezy style. Gentle, rather than cocky or showy, he's unpretentious and he showcases the music and lyrics, never overwhelming them. He's never in danger of falling prey to the two traps that are the undoing of some who present Porter: he safely avoids sentimentality on the ballads; and on the clever Porter lyrics, he's never arch or brittle. He phrases naturally and though it's crystal clear that he has real affection for these well-structured, literate Porter picks, he never oversells them. There are times when I'd like a little more oomph or attitude, such as in the comical and very rare "Hasta Luego" from the movie Something To Shout About. The better known "Dream Dancing" could benefit from a more lost-in-reverie approach. He finds that tone in "Easy to Love" with some lesser-known lyrics, a very sensitively shaded reading that sounds most romantic and idealistic.
The title song that opens with concern for a sad someone and encourages the appreciation for nature on a beautiful night is a real highlight. Justin seems to own this one, singing more as if it's coming from his own sensibility rather than just presenting the music and lyrics. Rather than the basic piano-bass-drums trio elsewhere, he's joined by an oboe to great effect. He sings with open-hearted optimism, "It's a swell planet if you take time to scan it."
This album is a real find for anyone who likes Cole Porter and has already stocked up on the more famous songs or knows them by heart. Compared to most Porter sets that are the super hits, this is as different as night and day.
THE TIERNEY SUTTON BAND
The singer called her prior album I'm With the Band and, notably, the billing changes from Tierney Sutton to The Tierney Sutton Band for this sixth Telarc release. With the arrangements all credited to the band as a whole, On the Other Side is not about sidemen playing behind a vocalist. This is a tight-knit group working towards the same goal, and the goal involves some interesting and almost subversive re-examination of old songs about happiness. The psychological flashlight is shone on them, finding all those cracks in the smile and looking for the complexity that might lurk in a cheery tune's lyric.
Sometimes just slowing down a peppy pop platitude is half the battle. It's been tried before. In the early 1960s, Barbra Streisand got initial attention by singing the normally perky and simple "Happy Days Are Here Again" dirge-like, with doubt leading to determination. In a celebrated TV appearance, she sang it in counterpoint to Judy Garland performing "Get Happy" in a more low-key, intense way. Tierney takes on each song separately. They are the first two tracks on the album and she does a second version of each near the end of the CD. She and the band use the skills in their jazz arsenal as well, playing up the different aspects of the melody lines, swinging crisply, and building tempo and tension. A case in point to show this jazz singer caring about the lyrics is her reading of the line in "Get Happy": "Get ready for the Judgment Day" is dark and has an edge of tension. It implies you may not be ready at all and have reason to worry. Likewise, the heaviness and deliberateness of "you'd better chase all your cares away" has an easier-said-than-done tone and a cloud hangs over the proceedings. This is dramatically satisfying and lets the later, looser, lighter line readings feel like a release and victory. The nimble band - drummer Ray Brinker, bass player Trey Henry, and especially pianist Christian Jacob - are with teary Tierney every step of the way.
Not everything is heavy going by any means. Some cuts are jazz romps and lighthearted, and songs from musical theater are plentiful. Two Richard Rodgers melodies take on different priorities: South Pacific's "Happy Talk" is taken at a quick clip without shadows on the Oscar Hammerstein optimism. But the Lorenz Hart lyric for "Glad to Be Unhappy" is treated to introspection and a sense of loneliness. It's too bad Tierney doesn't include the introductory verse that sets it up so well as a hard but knowing look at oneself in the mirror. The track is accented well by the guest appearance of veteran trumpeter Jack Sheldon adding to the contemplative mood. He's on another track, "I Want to Be Happy," where he also sings and kibbitzes a bit (too much of a "bit" with overly-cute teasing). On the serious numbers, Tierney projects a keen intelligence and there's plenty of jazz licks and kicks to show those muscles are in prime shape.
Throughout the CD, there are satisfying builds in arrangements, pleasingly airy singing, and more vulnerability, crystallized by especially thoughtful phrasing on "Smile." It's a lovely, encouraging note on which to end The Other Side. It makes you wish it were a vinyl record so there would be the other side with more.
UNDER THE RADAR
"Smile" also comes up on the next album in a more straightforward and "encouraging" way, starting quietly and building into a power ballad.
Sure, the full-length version of the album-titling "That's Life" is kind of fun as Rusty Ferracane sings with gusto and with a band, back-up vocals and an approach that salutes the old Frank Sinatra hit record. But it's the tender, slower, one-chorus a capella version opening the CD that takes the beauty prize. "Less is more" has rarely been better illustrated. Sincerity is this man's strong suit. A long history of theater roles in Arizona where he lives and teaches includes Man of La Mancha and he includes a conservative swipe at its iconic statement, "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)." However, his nuance-challenged phrasing and uninspired accompaniment somehow don't have the emotional investment that some of the other selections demonstrate. Like everything here, it is earnest and unpretentious.
Much more successful is the imaginative and more energetic ownership of the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm" that is filled with variety. It surprises with opportunities to be pretty and shows some humor, too. Some tracks feature judicious use of cello, flute and other instruments. A toast to the saxophone playing by Hughie Lovelady, who worked with Frank Sinatra, that greatly enhances the saloon swoon of "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)."
Best of all, and most worthy of cherishing, are three songs from three different musicals composed by Craig Bohmler, who is also on piano and did the arrangements. Rusty was in the New York premiere of Enter the Guardsman and presents a thoroughly rewarding and high-class rendition of the score's delightful "Art Imitating Life." He is just perfect interpreting Marion Adler's refined lyric. The same songwriting team's "Once Upon a Time" from an unproduced musical is sensational - a real find that builds and builds as it tells its story. As the music and drama rise, Rusty rises to the occasion and nails the key moments. "Write Her" (Craig Bohmler/ Mary Bracken Phillips from The Haunting of Winchester) is dramatic and full of pleading, but never becomes plodding.
A gentle soul comes through on this CD, and plenty of integrity, too. Oh, and there are some lovely, unforced high notes - the head tones have heart. It's a pleasure to spend time with Rusty Ferracane.
And next week we expect to be in good Company, too.