Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

People of New York Festival of Song
and other People
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here are worthy recent recordings to consider: a belated release of a live concert surveying a wide swath of American musical history. Then, meet People..., named for the Funny Girl song, with singer Hinda Hoffman meeting up with the people of the Soul Message Band, covering standards from the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s.

NYFOS Records
CD and digital

Recorded live in March of 2000, and released for the first time last month, From Rags to Riches - 100 Years of American Song inaugurates the New York Festival of Song's own label, NYFOS Records. Ten decades obviously offered an overwhelming number of choices, but this presentation actually spans more years of compositions, since "How Can I Keep from Singing?" first appeared in the 1800s, but, hey, who's counting? That hymn, so gracefully rendered here, is one of three instances in the 17-track cornucopia that unites the program's singers, mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe and tenor William Burden, joining pianist Steven Blier. The other vocal teamings are ebullient performances, both from the field of musical comedy: "Oh! Gee Oh Joy!" (the Gershwins and P.G. Wodehouse, from Rosalie) and "The Wrong Note Rag" (Bernstein/ Comden & Green, Wonderful Town). These numbers and others prove that these vocalists who come from the classical world can let down their hair and invest their work with zest, as the versatile pianist drives the energy.

Elsewhere, there's more formality and the ambiance of a recital. I only wish the two singers shared more numbers and that there were more instrumental stretches. But bravo for the range of genres that also samples the worlds of art songs, opera, character pieces, and, as suggested by one of the words in the set's title, ragtime.

Musical theatre after World War II is certainly not ignored in Mr. Burden's solos. He offers a robust take on "Take the Moment" from Do I Hear a Waltz?, sounds unswervingly resolute in "Thousands of Miles" from Lost in the Stars, and he's provocatively challenging in addressing Abraham Lincoln's killer with "The Ballad of Booth" from Assassins. While the treatment of that indictment would benefit from a fiercer edginess, it certainly has power. Also included is an evocative testament to the lure of "New York Lights" from an opera version of A View from the Bridge (just a year old at the time of this concert).

In her solos, Stephanie Blythe steps outside the bounds of operatic limits in leaps and bounds. A welcome surprise is her madcap romp with a little-known Jonathan Larson piece, wherein she's a woman on a mission (or on the warpath) cleaning plastic items in her home, "Hosing Down the Furniture." Full of sass, she's a hoot rejecting and ejecting her man in "Hit the Road" by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. Her irrepressible, irresistible delight in digging and dancing to the jaunty "Pineapple Rag" is invigorating fun. In sadder mode, her lamenting in the jazz classic "'Round Midnight" might seem rather too reserved and elegant to convince us that her sorrowful, worried condition "really gets bad" or that she's really so far gone when she claims, "I'm out of my mind."

An earlier Steven Blier/ New York Festival of Song recording (with other singers), Marc Blitzstein: Zipperfly & Other Songs, was dedicated to the work of that composer-lyricist and just one of its numbers, "Stay in My Arms," appears here, too. This time around, the poignant protection plea is handled by Burden with a kind of noble empathy by Burden. The Blythe Blitzstein assignment convincingly confronts poverty with "Nickel Under the Foot" from The Cradle Will Rock.

The piano playing, with mostly Blier arrangements, is so full and imbued with many colors so that one doesn't feel that the accompaniment is at all bare-bones to cause a longing for more musicians. It's refreshing that the recital didn't opt for trotting out the most obvious and over-exposed warhorses to gaze in the rear view window of the then-just-ended 20th century. While big commercial pop hits may be absent and there's surely no whiff of rock, much of what we get feels cannily curated.

The website has, in addition to all the lyrics, liner notes beyond what fit on the physical CD's packaging. We are let in on some of the reasons for the choices, such as prioritizing contributions of Black and gay writers, and interesting history about the material and those who created it. The website is also the destination to order the CD and it will also be available at the New York Festival of Song's concert of music from Argentina at Manhattan's Merkin Hall on February 15.

The collection is a "festival" indeed.

Know You Know

The publicity for the brand new release featuring the Soul Message Band bonding with Hinda Hoffman notes a delayed full-circle-closure moment of personal triumph as this Chicago-based singer finally records the song that caused her to give up singing in public for decades: "People," from the soon-to-be revived Funny Girl. As a music-loving schoolgirl on the bill for a performance for the PTA, she was soon MIA. Her nerves got to her, she got sick before she got half-way through the song, and she got herself offstage–quickly–vowing to never try again. Well, well into adulthood, she finally dipped her toes back in the musical waters, then began to record standards in 1995, and a few albums have come along since then. Her "People" is laidback and confident, not owing much to its wistful theatre ballad origins. Joined by the steamy, bluesy, organ-led quartet called the Soul Message Band, the pleasing "People" and the other eight long-in-length selections are well served. Treatments are largely inventive, with symbiotic soaring and sizzle, as they settle into some commandingly cozy grooves, including another Broadway classic, Finian's Rainbow's "Old Devil Moon."

There are two things from the lustier leanings of Cole Porter's work that get the requisite slow-burn declarations of attraction fused with frustration and pleading: "Get Out of Town" and a slinky "All of You." Also in double serving, treated with care and thought. are a pair of the Brazilian-born ballads that were so ubiquitous in the 1960s, here with their English lyrics: the ostensibly rueful "How Insensitive" (unexpectedly brisk in its fluidity) and the filled-with-longing "Like a Lover."

The instrumentalists dig into the music, giving themselves, the singer, and the songs lots of breathing room to deliver surprise. "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" is afforded the most strikingly original fashion re-fit, as notes in the melody bend to artistic license that gives the emphasis to words that didn't get accented in the original blueprint.

Here and there on rich, resonant low notes, Miss Hoffman suggests a hint of Sarah Vaughan. And you can feel the appreciation and influence of the lineage of blues singers of yore in the wailing, gutsier and grousing moments. It's all to the good. She never gets gratingly over-the-top to be wailing or weepy: classy adherence to musical values wins the day.

Some tracks notably give the talented instrumentalists time aplenty to strut their stuff. The gents are Chris Foreman on Hammond organ, guitarist Lee Rothenberg, and the two Gregs: Greg Ward on saxophone and drummer Greg Rockingham. When Hinda Hoffman Meets Soul Message, everybody meets expectations.