Sound Advice Reviews
Covers and original material
I'm treating my ears to recordings with present-day singers mostly going where numerous others have gone before with established songs as well as performers with self-penned repertoire, sometimes incorporating text or music from another era. I've pulled out one that I meant to get to months ago, but was reminded of on Sunday when it won a Grammy Award. But let's start with a new release that is most Broadway-friendly..
Lights, camera, action! Actors are often asked to film themselves in order to be considered for roles, submitting the self-taped auditions to the powers that be. Having prepared many of these, versatile Mauricio Martínez decided that those musical theatre songs he'd worked on would be a head-start in choosing material for his own cabaret shows/concerts. One of those presentations, at the nightclub 54 Below, was recorded and has just been released digitally, titled Live in NYC. There are a few pop music flavors, too; he unleashes his inner Justin Timberlake with "I Can't Stop the Feeling," inviting the crowd to get on its feet and dance. (A better fit might be a number from On Your Feet!, the unmentioned show he was in, on Broadway for a month and on tour.)
Because the mission and M.O. were to learn material as written for the stage, in character, the renditions, intentions, tempi, and musical architectures mostly stick close to their original imprints. I know this will come as good news for "purist" Broadway fans who are charter members of the "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" Club, but might initially disappoint those who also know the famous fare fairly well and relish reinvention more than convention. While Live in NYC may not put a prodigiously personal stamp on everything as some cabaret crusaders do, Mauricio Martínez is a dynamic performer who seems to be in the moment, even when very much within the conservative parameters. For the ears, especially rewarding are the "money notes" and "honey notes"–respectively, the climactic big endings and some caressed phrases.
In any case, Mauricio Martínez and the band serve the material, avoiding bombast and mawkish mush. Cellist Eleanor Norton highlights the deeper feelings with dignity in the small band, joining pianist Brian J. Nash, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, and drummer Jeremy Yaddow. Fortuitously, while Broadway-themed, there is variety in style and tone; the set is not a parade of eleven eleven o'clock numbers or all love songs. We get an ardent golden age classic with Camelot's "If Ever I Would Leave You" along with the modern strutting snark of Hamilton's "You'll Be Back" and The Phantom of the Opera's warhorse "The Music of the Night," strikingly done in the performer's first language, Spanish. More contrasts are packed into three medleys.
There are two guest vocalists who get some chat time first: Funny Girl's comedy seduction number, "You Are Woman, I Am Man," shared with drag performer Alexis Michelle, probably registers with more zing visually. Linedy Genao is the game partner for the "Latin Medley," one of two tracks that sample Man of La Mancha with its title song (also known as "I, Don Quixote"). The other is Mr. Martínez's rewardingly restrained and thoughtful solo of its anthem "The Impossible Dream." It's the most fully realized and richest performance–which should be expected because he indeed secured the title role for a Florida production.
The act's director, Robbie Rozelle, co-produced this with the singer and together they wrote the down-to-earth patter, which is tracked separately and gives a sense of his charm and presence. Next time I read that Mr. M. has been cast in a musical, I'll probably think, "I'm not surprised. I knew he had the voice for that part."
Hats off to Nicole Zuraitis, honored this month as the winner of the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album, How Love Begins. The multi-talented lady sings with an attractive, controlled, fluid voice, plays piano on most tracks, wrote most of the music and lyrics, arranging and producing the whole thing. (Credited as co-producer and also a major asset here playing bass is Christian McBride, who has a mantle full of Grammys himself.) Non-traditional and somewhat elusive in parts, How Love Begins has grown on me the more I have lived with it. Full appreciation of this set might take some concentrated and repeated listening sessions, ideally with the lyrics at hand. (They are on her website and included with the CD version, which also has a final piece, both pensive and powerful, called "Save It for a Rainy Day," not on the digital package but available as a single.)
With three exceptions, the songs are 100% Zuraitis melodies and lyrics. They allow her to present thoughts and moods that are cogent, ethereal, delicate, and assertive, with realizations about the wonders and woes that come with romantic attractions. Language can be striking and sharp. Here are two examples: "Caffeine and affirmations/ Compelling conversations/ All to escape the mundane/ Little white lies disguise hidden switchblades" (in "Well Planned, Well Played"); and there's a lesson in "The Garden," expressed metaphorically as "You can't wait for the flowers to grow/ And a rose still bends when the wind blows."
"Reverie," with simpler verbiage, concerns daydreams, taking its melody from the same-named classical piece by Debussy that also generated the popular song "My Reverie" back in the 1930s that attracted jazz-leaning performers. Now it has an alternate Zuraitis lyric. She set Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem to music with another jazz singer, Cyrille Aimee. The loving tale of "Two Fish" has its origin in an old Hebrew poem. "20 Seconds" recalls the end of a poem by Robert Frost ("Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening") with her line "Yet I have promises to keep and miles to crawl before I sleep."
Nicole Zuraitis can also be heard on releases by participants joining her here. There's her drummer husband Dan Pugach, who has his own band, as well as the singers Thana Alexa and Julia Adamy on "Travel"; the three are billed as Sonica when they work together, as on their eponymous trio release reviewed here last year. How Love Begins reveals more of the multiple facets of this adventurous woman of jazz.
May I have your attention, please. Here's a collection that is compelling, disarmingly diverse, adventurously combining genres, alternately simple or complex, wrapped with emotion. Like its predecessor released in 2019, Swoon, so does Rain bring us samples of the artfulness that characterized the work of singer-songwriter Nora York (1956-2016). Both include material from Water, Water Everywhere and Jump, two theatrical projects. Frequent collaborator Jamie Lawrence plays keyboards and produced the releases. (Adam Guettel co-arranged his Days of Wine and Roses score with Mr. Lawrence, who has also been musical director or associate MD of the Tony Awards.)
Looking to classic material for borrowings and blends, Water..., addressing climate change, mixes in quotes from the poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Handel's "Water Music" is swirled in, too. Seven of the ten tracks are dedicated to Jump, inspired by the opera Tosca and Sarah Bernhardt starring in the non-musical play on which it was based. We hear various segments of Puccini's score sung (thrillingly) in Italian by bass-baritone Kevin Burdette and tenor Andrew Drost, their grandly dramatic soaring sometimes overlapping with Jump's original music and lyrics (in English) with Nora York's contrastingly plaintive and magnetic voice expressing fears or desires.
While certainly non-commercial–refreshingly so–the original melodies and lyrics are in their own way accessible by being uncluttered and direct. There is delicacy. Even when the structure might suggest an art song, the economy of melody, vocabulary and accompaniment makes for honesty outpacing artifice. Little clusters of repeated notes are impactful, rarely feeling like filler or pesky earworms.
Death is addressed in an excerpt from "When I Am Laid in Earth," also known as "Dido's Lament," from the 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas (music by Henry Purcell, text by Nahum Tate). The evocative bassoon playing on this cut is by Andrew Schwartz, Nora York's brother. As the final track of what is the second of a trilogy of posthumously released collections to extend Nora York's legacy and introduce her to new audiences, its plea of "Remember me, remember me" echoes all the more poignantly with that in mind.
DANNY JONOKUCHI BIG BAND
Presenting a different New York City-based singer on each of 11 tracks, the Danny Jonokuchi Big Band swings and sails through some swell old songs with Voices. The melodies get lots of "juice" with the mighty group's instrumental sections having about as much weight as the vocals. But, unlike the heyday of the dance band era when the top-billed orchestra often played a long swath of the melody before the vocalist appeared to deliver the lyric, these arrangements are more balanced.
The bandleader, who arranged and produced this formidable offering, has a background that includes many collaborations, playing trumpet and other instruments, composing, and being part of the orchestra on Broadway for Be More Chill. There are some terrific solos, and the arrangements permit the different sections–brass, reeds, rhythm–to take turns being showcased so that we can appreciate the contrasting sounds and pick out individual instruments rather than having them all blend together in an overwhelming mass. No cacophony here.
Certain voices are certainly more distinctive than others, but there's plenty to enjoy here. Some of the approaches are decidedly breezy, such as Hannah Gill's optimism beaming through the Duke Ellington/ Mack David number "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So." On the opening selection, "The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else)," bright-voiced Alexa Barchini sounds unperturbed, charging through the melody with brio, even if the lyrics ostensibly are about love gone wrong. But the energy of the arrangement makes that work. Likewise, Chanel Johns seems to be taking things in stride with "You Turned the Tables on Me."
For more subdued moods, permitting melancholy done with taste, we have velvet-voiced Lucy Yeghiazaryan lamenting being "Born to Be Blue" and Charles Turner (the only male voice on Voices) doing a standout and nuanced "Blame It on My Youth." Brianna Thomas handles the Porgy and Bess lullabye, "Summertime," with grace. Nicole Zuraitis drops in for a "Social Call" that is bubbly and ingratiating. Voices reinvigorates well-worn tunes and a few we don't hear so much anymore, all most welcome with the Jonokuchi joy.