Sound Advice Reviews
Since Valentine's Day is just around the corner, it seems like the right time to take to heart some recordings that have come our way and feature love songs. Let's start our timely trip through the Tunnel of Love with a man nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in a musical 50 years ago, playing a character named (you guessed it!): Valentine.
A Shakespeare line in A Midsummer Night's Dream states, "The course of true love never ran smooth," but staying the course for smooth sailing through love songs on Never Can Say Goodbye is a singer with a super-smooth vocal sound. That velvety voice belongs to someone who played Valentine, a lovesick hero, in Broadway's musicalization of another of the Bard's works, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in 1971. The gentleman in question is Clifton Davis and in the year before that he'd had a big success as a songwriter when The Jackson 5 zoomed up the charts with "Never Can Say Goodbye," a number later covered by many others. His own version is laidback, luxuriating more in a mellow manner, mature and reflective. And that characterization also describes much of the work on this soothing set. Adding to the pillowy and pensive atmosphere are the tasteful surrounding sounds of the trio led by veteran pianist Beegie Adair (who's made more than 30 instrumental recordings, many perfumed with love songs), with many tracks also bathed with the tender, swirling backing vocals of Mark Kibble (whose singing mates from the group Take 6 join in on the title track).
There's a whole lot of love to be sung about here by Clifton Davis. Revisiting his role as Sky Masterson in a national tour of Guys and Dolls at his heartfelt, swoon-worthy best, the guy masterfully handles "I've Never Been in Love Before." In the idyllic imaginings about being life partners, Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," sensitive phrasing artfully creates pictures, like its lyric's mention of "the sort of view that seems to want to be seen." With another ballad about planning similarly for longevity, "Two for the Road," he ups the ante for emotional impact by sharing the vocalized vows with Monica Ramey. She is the regular singer (and manager) for the pianist whose trio also includes drummer Chris Brown and bassist Roger Spencer, who does their arrangements. Strings, both genuine and synthesized, are added. And there's some accordion, too. The discreet piano may get almost lost at times in the gossamer layers, but it's worth listening for.
Never Can Say Goodbye is especially welcome, as Clifton Davis recordings have been few and far between over these many years. Besides the recent brief appearance as the Sultan on the original (2014) Broadway cast recording of Aladdin, my shelves hold the LP of a 1960s Off-Broadway musical whose title resonates oddly these days, How to Steal an Election, and his religious-themed album (he's long been a minster in real life, as he was first on the TV sitcom "Amen"). Reverend Davis allows one sample of prayerful address, with his self-penned "Leaving It Up to You." It glows with a sense of serenity, making it a fine fit for this mostly tranquil mix which also boasts a few capable dips into Brazilian music. Thus, Never Can Say Goodbye is a sublime blend of bliss, blessings, and bossa nova.
Bossa nova is the stylistic choice for an offering from gear-switching Zoe Scott, a singer who previously traveled in the more assertive world of indie rock, strutting on stages, co-writing songs, putting out one album in each of the two previous decades. It's clear from publicity, interviews, and liner notes by herself and producer Moogie Canazio that Shades of Love is a labor of lovea dedication of dutiful study, immersion, coaching, cajoling and teamwork. While one does not doubt the intentions or fandom, the genre demands a very relaxed sense of freedom and flow, and some vocal passages seem somewhat studied, with the singer metaphorically following in footsteps, tentatively, tiptoeing. In the 1960s and way beyond, the bar was set very high with many artists covering the same highest-profile sways of songwriter/performer Antonio Carlos Jobim"Triste," "Once I Loved," and most especially "Wave" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" (aka "Corcovado"). She takes on all of these, singing only in English. What's newsworthy is that those two last-mentioned classics have the songwriter's grandson, Daniel Jobim, guesting. He plays spot-on piano on both, delightfully and deftly contributing Portuguese and English vocals to duet on "Wave." It brings things to a whole other lovely level.
While all Jobim gems are given due respect here, a more impressive and creative accomplishment of the 12-track collection is recasting pop classics as more languid bossa nova dreams. Slower, low-flame treatments make most feel like intimate fireside chats or even confessionals. Especially effective are the dewy-eyed odes to loved ones like "Baby, It's You," "My Cherie Amour," and "The More I See You" (the evergreen by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon that has been musically reupholstered in many ways since its original form in 1945).
Zoe Scott finds romance along with the appropriate musical restraint as a wide range of material us explored. While some work better than others in their new garb, she and the musicians never come off as gimmicky in the restyling. And what fine musicians they are, featuring guitarist Torcuato Mariano, who also did some of the splendid orchestral arrangements. And the intoxicating beat goes on.
It's not just romantic love that is the subject matter on Love Is the Key, but the keys (as in keyboards), vocals, and songwriting all well handled by Sue Maskaleris in her third release. She sings of the importance of showing loving care for those with whom we share the earth and for the planet itself. Guest contributors include Cecilia Tenconi on flute and sax, the terrific jazz vocalists Janis Siegel and Darmon Meader, and violinist Sara Caswell. Oh, and how many recording artists can claim having recruited the participation of someone who's not only a fine musician and ex-flame from the previous century, but also one of President Biden's economic advisers? (That's bassist Jared Bernstein.)
Songs' characterizations range from the unabashedly erotic to the slightly neurotic. Examples, respectively, are "Bliss" ("Lie beside me when every day is done/ Intertwined we'll greet the rising sun") and "Procrastination" wherein she weighs options ("To do or not to do that damn to-do list ..."). And her "Valentine's Day for One" is a member of a very rare species: a genuinely funny Valentine's Day song. Witty and winking, it's also apropos in this year when many are isolated or separated from sweethearts due to health concerns. It's also contemporary in its humor, with references to Facebook, dating apps, pop stars, and speaking aloud to those technology-assisted personal assistant voices.
I confess to becoming acquainted with Sue Maskaleris' work long ago by happy accident, due to my own less than perfect memory; I bought her first CD because I'd confused her with a singer with a semi-similar name. After realizing my error, I liked what I heard. She's quite savvy, accomplished and versatile. (Fun fact: She also contributed to a rather obscure LP marketed to children, consisting of songs inspired by that alien critter from the movie hit E.T..)
But Love Is the Key has adult perspectives, although all ages could benefit from the title track's persuasive plea to save the planet and follow the Golden Rule. And what's more universal than taking in the changing of the seasons in "Summer" ("Flashes of childhood at the seaside") and "Fly Away" ("Each season segues seamlessly/ A dance that never ends")? There's much heart in her reflections on people finding sweethearts, suggesting that possibly "Love Will Overflow." Love Is the Key overflows with poetic thoughts and good vibes.
The most famous and inevitable song that comes to mind for Valentine's Day is also one of the most voluminously recorded standards of all; "My Funny Valentine" was introduced in the Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart score for Babes in Arms back in 1937, sung to a character named Valentine. Melbreeze sings it and many other familiar numbers on her newest collection, although she and her skilled musicians don't often approach them in familiar ways. And please understand: That is an understatement indeed!
The risk-taking I Love Paris will have its cheering champions, reveling in its irreverent posturing that can push the proverbial envelope and push listeners into a film noir landscape. Instrumental flourishes may resemble sound effects (or substitute for them, as in the chugging train present for "Sentimental Journey"). Drenched in atmosphere therein, the original bones of a song risk being a mere reference point, with a melody's note values re-categorized as "optional," and lyrics or expected moods and tempi sometimes fair game for wholesale change. I'm often a big fan of respectful revamping instead of rehashing to let a well-established warhorse find a new identity. Of course, there's a difference between decorating and desecrating. And it's a slippery slope from thinking outside the box to a Pandora's box of wild thoughts let loose to wreak havoc.
In pronouncing some sounds, the accent of this Turkish-born lady may be charming or distancing on this, her tenth release (her second on an American label). Sustaining notes is not prominent in her priorities, and her husky vocals can resemble mutteringwith some words or lines spoken for effect.
Melbreeze, who calls herself a "storyteller," can repurpose, embellish, and add to material. The most dramatic case of her surprising dramatizing is with the high jinks and highjack of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" from Can-Can. She liberally mixes in brash dialogue, searching for her missing lover ("Come on, baby, where are you? Show yourself to meeeeeeee! ... He must be here ..."), and inserting the F-word into the classy lyric (and again, in a spoken aside).
"My Funny Valentine" has a split personality; singing the first runthrough of the lyric (including the oft-dropped introductory verse), Melbreeze sounds dispassionate, showing little energy or affection. Then she is upstaged by a funky instrumental interlude with drive, perhaps invigorating the vocalist, who re-enters with some oomph. "Yesterdays" (Jerome Kern/ Otto Harbach, from Roberta), however, feels drained of color and variety, dragging at more than six and a half minutes, with the full 50-word text of the lyric sung over and over (four times through!) in the senselessly same manner, as if on a loop.
A favored tonesultrinessmakes the Damn Yankees solo for a seductress, "Whatever Lola Wants," type-casting. (Although incorrectly listed as "What Lola Wants," Melbreeze does sing the correct word.) The unpredictable colleagues are restrained with a pop hit that is the youngest of the oldies (though it first appeared almost half a century ago!), "Killing Me Softly with His Song." This tale of how a singer's performance can affect a listener always seems newly relevant. Certainly, Melbreeze and her I Love Paris will get reactions, too, but maybe not in the same emotional way as the "flushed with fever" response described in "Killing Me Softly with His Song."
SOUNDS OF A&R
Whether gliding into a groove softly with "Killing Me Softly with His Song" (two versions) or waxing nostalgic with their image-filled original "When I Was a Kid," singer April May Webb and trumpeter/flugelhorn player Randall Haywood make for agreeable listening. The music floats through the air as his silky-smooth playing underscores her elastic, sweet-toned voice as she swings, swoops, and impressively scats. Questions Left Unanswered is a solid, often romantic release from the duo billed as Sounds of A&R (referencing the initials of their first names), as well as the conveniently uplifting acronym S.O.A.R.
How's this for an "if-music-be-the-food-of-love ..." Valentine's Day-ready story: They met in on a February night in 2013 at a jazz club's jam session and a definite connection sparked. Soon they were a duo professionally on gigs and recordings (this is their third), as songwriters, and a couple in private life. They were married six months ago. Questions Left Unanswered leads off with their own synopsis of their synergy, as he plays behind her spoken-word summing-up of their first fortuitous encounter. Mr. and Mrs. are very much co-equal partners on this collection, with his brass work cushioning her vocals, weaving in and out, filling pauses in the vocal line, and their warm, wordless self-written title track featured in two renditions. While they are the stars, they get band support from five players, including two of the vocalist's siblings, Jason Webb (bass) and Nathan Webb (drums). Guitarist Charlie Sigler adds a lot of drive, as does pianist James Austin. And bonus points for including a harpist (Riza Printup).
Repertoire represents several decades and genres, showing comfort levels with such diverse material as Dolly Parton's fiery "Jolene," the sentimental classic "I'm Old Fashioned," and the passionately intoned pledge of devotion "As the Deer," based on the Bible's Psalm 42:1. April May Webb's originals firmly present feelings: withstanding rejection as "They Keep Saying No"; a potent indictment of preconceived racial attitudes addressed via "The Skin I'm In"; and a love-struck gaze into that certain someone's "Dark Brown Eyes." Randall Haywood returns the compliment with his burnished brass. Let's keep our eyes and ears on this talented twosome.
Bringing back two lush, lovey-dovey treatments from her past recorded work, Amber Weekes celebrates the February day dedicated to love by pairing them on a single release billed as A Special Valentine, with remixes by producer/string arranger Mark Cargill. Rodgers & Hart's "My Romance" must be the fave she wants to always save, as it appeared on her first CD and showed up again as a "Christmas edition" on her 2020 outing. Her fond embrace of this classic, crooned with sincerity, is in itself a valentine to the song's assertions that being with the object of one's affections is enough, needing "No month of May/ No twinkling stars/ No hideaway/ No soft guitars." Originating in the circus-set 1935 Broadway musical Jumbo, this ballad ignored its titular live elephant in the room, being a duet for an acrobat and his lady love echoing his point of view, but it has worked just fine over the decades as a solo declaration, as it does here in this persuasive proclamation.
On the other hand, the other song here is presented as a shared performance for two singers, although it was conceived as a solo. "The Way He Makes Me Feel" from the film Yentl was the main character's private realizations of unfamiliar manifestations of attraction. Amber Weekes and the rich, resonating baritone sounds of Mon David only blend their voices on a few lines of the lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman with the intoxicating Michel Legrand melody. Otherwise, they take turns, breaking up the lines so as to emphasize the seemingly self-contradictory facts (such as her singing "There's no chill" and him following with "and yet I shiver"). It works in a lovely way, culminating with an added touch of directly addressing each other at the end, changing the original lyric's consistent third-person pronoun usage and the word "like""I like the way ..." becomes "I love the way you make me feel." You may very well love the way both tender treatments make you feel.