Sound Advice Reviews
Something old, something Young,
For luck, brides traditionally wear "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" and the same categories can describe song origins when "something new" is released. Songs looked at below aren't new and rarely out of the blue file, but are borrowed from the Bard (Shakespeare), Irving Berlin, Neil Young, and a sprinkling of others. Our singers are Jon Peterson, John Allee, Kelley Johnson (accompanied by another John, husband Hansen), and Kelley Suttenfield. Let's start with Peterson in a one-man musical about Irving Berlin.
IRVING BERLIN: IN PERSON
You are cordially invited to meet legendary American songwriter Irving Berlin as he tells you about his life and career. The biographical show Irving Berlin: In Person with a cast of one, seen in New York City, is now represented by a recording with the dashingly entertaining and energetic actor-singer-dancer Jon Peterson as Berlin. He has the ideal support of the project's pianist/musical director Richard Danley, with Aaron Weinstein on violin or mandolin on some tracks. What a lucky, lively experience it is, with a bounty of sparkling performances of over 30 numbers, famous and rare. Most include quick spoken set-ups that place them in historical context with tidbits of info as Berlin reminisces (and then the peppy Peterson regales us with appropriately old-school show biz pizzazz).
The project is one of several stage pieces and recordings that survey and sample the master's massive oeuvre, all created, produced, and directed by Berlin authority and admirer Chip Deffaa, who also writes the connecting spoken material. As he typically sees fit to do, Deffaa puts much emphasis on material from the early years, with stand-alone novelties in vaudeville style, rags, dance crazes, and "character" specialties.
Even the titles suggest amusement and don't disappoint: "I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway," "Bring on the Pepper," and "I'm Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind." Some oldies interpolated into film scores are heard, but the big musical comedy book shows' scores are not sampled. Along with such long-lasters as the writer's first hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and the Ziegfeld Follies theme "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," a handful of things that have become standards are heard, such as the ballads "Always" and "What'll I Do?," with the weeper "When I Lost You" recalling the death of Berlin's wife shortly after they wed. Our song-and-dance star is no one-trick pony, as he is effectively sincere with these sentimental selections, too. But with brisk accompaniment reinforcing the muscularity of melodies, the razzly dazzly happiness-spreading firecracker things are especially striking and fun. They are on the short-and-sweet, efficient side. With "Do Your Duty, Doctor," he dutifully takes on different character voicesanother skill shown.
Indefatigable and a polished pro, Jon Peterson ignites everything and is immensely likable. Enthused spoken intros show mostly Berlin's pleasures about accomplishments and performers who introduced his work, like Fanny Brice (another subject for a Deffaa's bio-musicals), but the selected bits of the script also touch on loneliness and frustrations. No Jonny-come-lately to Mr. Deffaa's work, the man stepping into Berlin's shoes starred in similar star as George M. Cohan in earlier work.
Mr. Danley is a very frequent collaborator, so in touch with the period stuff, and he adds his own robust singing for a contrapuntal duet on "Play a Simple Melody." Mr. Weinstein is a welcome returnee, too. Everything sounds vital and fully alive, never like dusted-off creaky relics as they dive into the delights. Berlinoholics and collectors who've been accumulating the Deffaa releases will recognize and remember more of the material, as there is considerable overlap with other projects with material sung by others, including quite young up-and-coming performers. But they get a great showcase here.
Three cheers and thank goodness that Irving Berlin's work continues to get encores in the spotlight by caring caretakers of the legacy by the determined and devoted Chip Deffaa. How fortunate the music lover who joins him in making exploring the past a rewarding pastimetime and time again.
Don't let anybody tell you that the heart of Shakespeare can't still touch the heart or be cool and hip and fit right into the ambiance of a beatnik basement coffeehouse (pre-Starbucks) with mellow jazz music. The embrace of the legendary Bard via Bardfly is welcoming and welcome. Singer-actor John Allee (who recorded first as Johnnye Allee) has a resumé that includes performing in Shakespeare productions and musicals as well as writing his own shows and songs. When playing it straight, he has a non-pompous style singing the texts (and embellishments) to his own felicitous melodies, making things less lofty or grand, bringing a listener to him.
Of course, setting old Will to melodies is nothing new, and some jazz people have succeeded before. But this mix of maxed-out "can you dig it, man?" 1950s-feel poetry circle and very pretty true romanticism with added jazz flavorings is charming with both methods. The sly, skillful Allee's initial character of an ultra-chilled-out dude welcoming us is a persona returned to between swaths of seriousness and elegance. He nails it. When he gently croons the most pensive pieces, there's no pontificating or posing in the poetry. He inhabits the moods and speeches of folks from Hamlet, Twelfth Night, etc., whether fragile or firm in convictions. There they are: articulately expressing their thoughts, truths, and passions, demanding our appreciative, hushed attention.
Certain shorter segments written as speeches can be so rich and packed that their full impact may not be realized and absorbed if they fly by when we read them or when they are declaimed on stage in a vast sea of language. Allee's effectively-paced presentations allow us to linger in the lines, with some stanzas repeated to let us relish and reflect with a second wave. The contemplation-friendly instrumental interludes urge reinforcement of moods in a relaxed way. It's breathing room that also enriches and supports. Pianist Mahesh Balasooriya's work finds this musician dancing over the keys, seeming to "noodle" expansively, or serving as anchor. Javier Vergara's tenor sax and Matt Von Roderick's trumpet add potent, dreamy hues and haze, while drummer Aaron McLendon and bassist Dominic Thiroux help engine and accent the proceedings.
Maybe the cheeky "novelty" of a beat poet intoning spoken words with accompaniment on Prozac will wear off, but it's a clever and seductive gateway to the contrastingly pure beauty of the words melded with melody. Allee's acting and singing are one, with a voice that can be especially soothing or radiate calibrated levels of awe or pleas. With no grandstanding, he steps into the shoes of sage or lovestruck suitor. Especially effective are his quiet, convinced takes on death (in first person or third person, with "Come Away, Death" and "Come No More"). Reflections on time also strike chords. Addressing a beloved "Mistress Mine" or joyfully appreciation ("Heigh Ho the Holly") also are heightened by their settings and involved singing.
Bardfly succeeds with flying colors.
The long-careered, still very active Canadian-born singer-songwriter Neil Young, who started 2020 by belatedly becoming an American citizen and will turn 75 before year's end, has been the subject of tribute recordings before, and the latest one is a gem. In When We Were Young: Kelly Suttenfield Sings Neil Young the numbers are presented with thoughtfulness and projecting shared understanding. The treatments show a fond respect for the originals, but go their own way with the arrangements and phrasing. When not just rocking out, Young's own sound and approach can be emotionally intense, with a sometimes piercing voice and a mournful, nakedly wounded quality that can be haunting. The more subtle Suttenfield doesn't push to fake the ache, but finds a middle ground of melancholy between melodrama and distanced cerebral acceptance.
The chanteuse has demonstrated in her prior recordings that she can be convincing whether the genre is pop, jazz or standards. Her excellent second effort from 2014, Among the Stars, featuring guitar, had the "coming attraction" element of Young's "Harvest Moon" and that feel-good love song is revisited in a new setting here. She'd seem a good candidate for Young's oeuvre with its border-crossing elements of folk, country, rock and blues. A languid style works for her and for the song choices. The voice can take on an accented tang of country, breathy wonderment, or sighed resignation. It's attractively plaintive. Those looking for something more blatantly visceral or wrenching or "grunge-leaning" from the repertoire will not find it.
Much of the material chosen is quite accessible, drawn from early years, with three numbers from Harvest, 1972's huge hit album"Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and the lament about the toll of drug use, "The Needle and the Damage Done"all interpreted with particular empathy and reflection. They are the highlights for drama and involvement, an evocative emotional palette enhanced by the addition of a string trio. Others, like "Fool for Your Love," leaven the listening experience with plucky playfulness, drive, and a quicker tempo. .
This collection's title, When We Were Young, is not just a word-play nod to the surname of the man of the hour (well, a bit under 50 minutes) or implication that those of a certain generation might recall much here from their own youth. It's also a tweaked reference to the first line of the included "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." That lyric begins, "When you were young and on your own/ How did it feel to be alone?" The simple, arguably sing-songy melody is one of the most accessible and unaffected things. She is joined on this track by Tosh Sheridan, also the talented guitarist, arranger, and producer of this engaging set.
Richard Rodgers' wistful "Something Good," written as an addition to the score of The Sound of Music for the film version, gives Seattle-based singer Kelley Johnson's latest grouping its title and is one of its standout tracks. Fortunately, the name doesn't risk being a cocky boast. It could suffice as a two-word sum-up as I hear it, although I'd insert the word "very" in the middle. In addition to her inventively intelligent phrasing, Johnson demonstrates a rare ability to pause for effect without losing the flow of the musical line.
The unrushed arrangements she and/or deft pianist (and husband) John Hansen provide are consistently engaging. Bassist Michael Glynn and drummer Kendrick Scott are strong contributors to the small-but-mighty group, with Jay Thomas guesting on sax or trumpet on a few tracks. These arrangements are also uncluttered, with the piano often satisfyingly assertive, note by crisp note, leading luxurious-length explorational instrumental breaks that take us to places beyond the expected.
Most of the 10 items clock in at close to or over the five-minute mark, but the spells are not broken due to the stretching. The Johnson voice has a cozy, unforced, friendly sound. Some sweetly serene wordless vocalizing from jazzy Johnson enhances the variety effect as a bonus element.
The recording mixes show tunes, pop and jazz, showing a comfort level in each category with no sense of timid tourist strangers in strange lands. While jazz's liberties may tip the scale, lyrics are unspooled with due consideration, care and heart in serious, vulnerable territory. For example, an old Carpenters piece, "Goodbye to Love," has in-the-moment reflection and sorrow, and Stephen Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" places delicately adjusted emphases on words that can hit a listener's ear and mind with fresh nuances of focus. (Oh, andspoiler alert!there's a kind of "mission accomplished" touch near the end of its six-minutes-plus time entertaining us: We hear actual whistling.)
On the Town's "Some Other Time" captures some of the original context's wistful disappointment when the "pause" button must be pushed on pursuit of romance. In more buoyant mode, major new ground may not be broken with two Cole Porter standbys about strong attraction, but there's nothing tired or phoned-in about the treatments of "You Do Something to Me" or "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)."
Kelley Johnson and company are good company for those of us welcoming variations on known material where the original form is respected, but the format allows creative personalization that feel owned, organic and justified.