Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Much ado about duos
Reviews by Rob Lester

Now we give due appreciation to duos–with a retrospective of the oeuvre of a long-standing, outstanding songwriting twosome, and then it's time for spare pairings of one singer accompanied by just one instrumentalist.

Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project
3-CD SET, Digital

Their musicals' protagonists have included guys obsessed with technology, a spunky orphan we know from children's literature, a pacifist Vietnam vet, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a feisty singer-songwriter named Heather Jones determined to present her material as she sees fit for a tour and–in the original musical and its sequel, set three decades later–with one more for the road. Welcome to the world of life-affirming shows with books and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's music. It's a world of idealism, romance, satire, individualism–often with a knowing eye on shifting gender roles, social norms, personal growth, and time going by. The history-conscious Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project bring us Cryer & Ford: Hidden Treasures, 1967-2020. With a whopping 66 tracks (encompassing three discs in the CD format, with a 52-page booklet), a worthy, wide-ranging collection is now, to borrow the title of one of the included numbers, "Put in a Package and Sold."

Most of the songs that will be familiar to Cryer & Ford followers are heard in refreshingly different (sometimes live) versions, rather than recycling tracks previously/still in release. However, unlike other songwriter excavations, there's no bevy of souvenirs from abandoned or college musicals, cut songs, alternate drafts, or other curios. Musical theatre singer-actors heard in committed characterizations include Karen Ziemba, Gregg Edelman, Jeff Kready, Heather Mac Rae, Willy Falk, Andrea Frierson, Jillian Louis, and Piper Goodeve (who essayed the title role in the writing team's Anne of Green Gables). Also aboard is David Ippolito whom many of us recall as "that guitar man" who entertained the hillside sitters in Central Park. And, last but not least, there's the always charming Austin Pendleton singing of Albert Einstein's thought processes. (The scientist appears in the property that includes FDR and his Mrs. which, across the 20 tracks of its score, comes off as anything but a dry history lesson; it's bristling, poignant, and thought provoking.)

Three scores are heard at length: that Roosevelt project that's been gestating and revised since Ronald Reagan's second term; Shelter (it ran briefly on Broadway in 1973, but the full original cast album made never got an official commercial release until now); and the Getting My Act Together... sequel, I'm Still Getting My Act Together. Those of us who know the albums made by Cryer & Ford as singer-songwriters recognize material from those releases that shows up in these shows, too, examining relationships and life choices from the rear view mirror and also has omnipresent hard looks at characters' decisions of the moment.

Happily, the audio scrapbook makes room to showcase the team's gifts for kid-friendly projects. And a few key numbers from The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, the quirky but charming Off-Broadway show, retain their punch. 1967's Now Is the Time for All Good Men is represented by the original demo of its Christmas song, "My Holiday," sung radiantly by Roslyn Kind, then at the start of her career, and a couple of gems from the Ohio concert that sparked this endeavor, featuring the most welcome talents of Eric Fancher and Katherine DeBoer (who possesses a particularly glowing voice and presence).

The writers are heard in performance, too, and have always been persuasive purveyors of their own craft and the sympathetic characters they create. Their perspective, commitment, and a wink of modesty and self-deprecating humor also come alive in the booklet's extensive essays that look back on their highs and lows. It's filled with photos and 20/20 hindsight. More behind-the-scenes tales or thoughts about working with specific colleagues, roadblocks, or challenges met might have been enlightening. Austin Pendleton, who's acted in and directed Cryer & Ford material offers his fond and articulate insights, as does TMTP/Harbinger's Bill Rudman, but I'm sure many more might have anecdotes and viewpoints. Instead, space is devoted to heavily detailed plot synopses of some musicals, giving more info than is needed for context, especially when some dialog is woven in.

With Nancy Ford often presiding at the keyboard and some vocals, plus Gretchen Cryer reclaiming her decades-straddling Heather Jones role, the creators' distinctive sensibilities and skills anchor their Hidden Treasures. Celebrating the best of the human spirit, and the all-too-human faults and foibles of individuals, couples and families, their work as showcased here has feel-good nostalgia infused with psychological truth serum and the lightning flash of carpe diem. It's a tonic for the ears and the mind.

ERIC HOFFMAN (vocals) & KEN HATFIELD (guitar)
Arthur Circle Music
CD, Digital (Vinyl to come in June)

Gathering material for a sensitive set that is quite eclectic, often poetic, and occasionally esoteric, Eric Hoffman joins his singing voice with guitarist/songwriter Ken Hatfield as they seem intent on blending, by gamely bending to accommodate each other. The same might be said of the components of the original material–which makes up about half the content–in how the songs' inspirations compare to how they are realized or how a phrase in a lyric or its flow is fashioned to fit a segment of melody. It's helpful to know the reference points mentioned in the liner notes, which explain that sometimes the Hatfield music was written years before words (usually his own) were added, the end results sprouting from the seeds of a film scene, personal experiences, and (in the case of Stirring Still's title piece), Samuel Beckett's same-named last work of prose.

Some of the originals are more accessible or artfully intriguing than others, but indications of intelligence and open-heartedness are evident in the writing, singing and playing. The two come across as gentle kindred spirits, with hearts on their sleeves. The tender "The Time I Spend with You" is a collaborative effort with the Hatfield melody mixing with words contributed by the two men and a child and mother they enjoy performing for. The last phrase of the chorus' melody recalls the equivalent spot in "Happiness" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, as do the sentiment and subject of the affectionate song.

As do the two men, two contrasting views on the same season make for interesting partners; they are the optimistic "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" and the downbeat "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (more thoughtful and observing than despairing here). In the standard "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" the lyric gets many of its words and phrases paraphrased or outright replaced, along with embellishments that add occasional notes to the melody, so it's strange to see the comment in the liner notes recalling respected "sage advice about learning songs: always go back to the original and check out what the composer wrote. That is what we did here." Well, perhaps they did also consider honoring that ... but, instead, the many liberties taken are precisely the irregularities adopted years ago and regularly by Marilyn Maye. (Hoffman studied with that distinctive re-stylist and she directed his solo cabaret act.)

For me, the most appealing and thoroughly successful rendition in the program is the old Nat King Cole hit, "Answer Me, My Love." Its legato loveliness lingers in the singer's sweet spot, cradled by the simpatico guitar accompaniment. It's the kind of fragile lover's plea that could slide into slush and mush, but it passes the litmus test of believability here. For those who prefer the physical format, the just-released Stirrings Still will be on vinyl in June and can currently be ordered as a physical CD through PayPal at the website of the guitarist, who is also the producer and did all the arrangements.

CD, Digital

Unlike on some of Claudia Acuña's earlier releases, there's not a showtune in view, and she's singing almost exclusively in Spanish, but my somehow theatre-addled mind makes me imagine her summing things up with the Sondheim line, "Isn't it rich? Are we a pair?" Her voice is luxuriously rich and she and each of the heavyweight instrumentalists taking turns as her sole accompanist on Duo become, indeed, quite potent pairs. The mezzo's mesmerizing velvet tone is lush and the very strong musicians command attention and the recital reverberates with emotion and beauty.

I am usually a reluctant audience for long stretches of lyrics in languages other than English, but it's no problem this time. Although noting the notable superstar jazz musicians' presence intrigued and encouraged me to at least dip into Duo, I instantly found language was no barrier to being able to surrender to the magnetic voice washing over me. Moreover, I stayed consistently engaged throughout the collection, listening in sequence, not impatient to skip ahead to the only English track, even though it was the next-to-last selection. It, "Crystal Silence," is the outlier of the set for another reason; it's a capella, underscoring the subject matter of missing someone dearly departed. It's haunting and wistful. The melody by the late Chick Corea is an appealing one that has attracted jazz musicians and singers over the years and the poignant lyric by Neville Potter (whose name is missing in the track list credits) is gracefully painted.

The rotating co-stars all are impactful with their personal styles and strengths, whether underscoring the opportunity for less-is-more laser-beam spareness or the "so who needs a band?" versatile flourishes and command. Pianists Kenny Baron, Fred Hersch, Arturo O'Farrill, and Carolina Calvache each brings a distinctive approach and sensibility. Bassist Christian McBride is subtle support for "Eclipse de Luna." Dazzling violinist Regina Carter on "Manifesto" and atmospheric guitarist Russell Malone for "Verdad Amarga" create evocative soundscapes. And "Yo" presents Ms. Acuña's original music and words, with just some added drumbeats and layered vocal flourishes for a dreamy effect.

The classy combinations heard in Duo provide a chance to be sweetly swept away, with a satisfied smile.