Sound Advice Reviews
Love and marriage
With February being the romantic month of valentines, it seems like the right time to pull from our pile some things that look at lovers and spouses. We start with a trip to the past featuring a demo of the Broadway score for I Love My Wife (and more). Then, some listening to female voices in the company of their musician husbands, except one who's doing her annual Valentine's week run in Manhattan, but it was her soon-to-be marital mate who suggested she move from background singing to solo work.
As they did with Barnum, the history-minded label Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project brings us a thoroughly entertaining early demonstration of a bright and bouncy score with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart, featuring the writers: I Love My Wife. Joining them to preview almost the whole score as it would be when it came to Broadway in 1977 are musical theatre performers Austin Pendleton and Laurie Beechman, and all make for welcome company. The new release has bonus tracks, too: a few selections from Coleman's piano/vocal demos representing projects that didn't get to Broadwaytwo from Atlantic City, with Christophe Gore's lyrics, and three from Home Again, Home Again, with words by Barbara Fried, who is heard with some spoken asides within songs. The liner notes are by Coleman biographer Andy Propst.
We can enjoy pretending to be potential backers in days of yore, hearing this merry property about considering spouse-sharing for the first time. The zingy romp is so ingratiating, clever and catchy that it would not have taken ESP to predict a hit. One number heard here, a pastiched wink at religious music, "The Blessing," didn't make the final mix and those who know the 1977 original cast album will note three of its delights are absent.
Always an ebullient vocal presence, with considerable piano skills, Coleman's early years as a club performer and recording albums made him a more polished presenter than many writers to "sell" his material. He radiated joy and musical dexterity that gives this already very infectious material extra oomph, plus an appealing slyness. His enthusiastic approach has a comparable colleague in the energy of Stewart (whose spoken song-by-song plot summations and dialogue bits from the script he also penned are delivered with zeal; he seems to talk in exclamation points). Pendleton and Beechman's work is solid and spiffy. As the sole designated female in a show needing to illustrate two women characters who are both in some numbers, there are instances of two of her vocal tracks combined to create the studio magic of harmony. ("Someone Wonderful I Missed" is, well, not to be missed.)
While the nuances and more sharply delineated, contrasting characters and dashes of quirkier humor evident on the cast recording are not as developed in the demoas is to be expectedthis is nevertheless extremely musical and assured. It is decidedly not of the "rough draft" work-in-progress quality one fears but accepts in such projects not meant for the general public. It does not feel tentative or thin. With the composer commanding the keyboard, the crisp precision in Coleman's quick, tricky tunes like the rat-a-tat-tat blasts of "By Threes" is especially gratifying. Also shining through in the smaller-scale version are Stewart's affectionately playful pokes at New Jersey, self-doubt, and lust.
The excerpts from the other demos are musically Coleman cousins, rich with a similar irresistible sprightliness. While his chosen collaborators dating back to Carolyn Leigh tended to have a flair for mischievous attitudes that could be sardonic, his melodic sass matching theirs, warmth is not MIA. These very satisfying bonuses are cheerleaders for love and marriage, also reserving the right to embrace a warts-and-all acceptance of others and one's self. With Gore's words, "When Jill Is Gone" is a struttingly "practical" guide to one way of coping with change, and the brief "Wedding Song" (with Fried) is spurred by the marriage officiant's standard query, "Do you take this ... [man or woman]?" and makes it as delectable as a slice of sweet wedding cake.
Applause for these well-served samplers and the larger menu from I Love My Wife; I love my life when it leads me to the cannily compatible marriage of Coleman's music and witty words faithfully rhymed.
"Authentic" is the adjective that best describes singer Catherine Russell's ownership of old jazz and blues. Another Grammy nomination and her February residency at Birdland in Manhattan is a cue to bring focus now to her latest recording, one which was singled out as the most-played in its field by jazz radio folks who keep track of such tracks. While some vocalists come across as visitors venturing to vintage territory, this veteran sounds like the mayor of the territory who's lived there all her life and knows every winding stream, nook and cranny, feet planted firmly in fertile soil.
The refreshing reality-checked Russell persona is distinctive in her non-sentimentalized approach so indelible on Alone Together, named for the maturely handled dramatic Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz collaboration from the 1932 Broadway revue Flying Colors. Perhaps it's her projection of someone who has her eyes wide open and her feet on the ground that informs her treatment of classic love ballads. She sounds convinced of her feelings: "We can weather the great unknown," she asserts, without a scintilla of doubt. Her strength does not prevent Catherine Russell from convincingly taking on idealizing the object of her affection as an "angel" in the effective "When Did You Leave Heaven?" with a trio of string players making it all the more heavenly indeed. But be forewarned to leave "naive" where it died along with the corsage from your school prom.
However, even her most sarcastic struts are more in playful mode. This triumphant time around, in her seventh solo recording, her old-timey suggestive choice is the amusingly titled "He May Be Your Dog But He's Wearing My Collar." This limited-patience straight-talking gal wants a straight answer to "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?"and deserves it. Not suffering fools gladly, her sail through "You Can't Pull the Wool Over My Eyes" could be an owned mantra or fair warning. For the one not heeding, she can dis and dismiss a weaker candidate lover with aplomb and a shrug. You tell 'em, Catherine!
Musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri and pianist Mark Shane shine in tasty accompaniment and instrumental passages, as bassist Tal Ronen lays down the groove; they're joined on seven of the 13 cuts by two brass (Jon-Erik Kellso and John Allred) and sax (Evan Arntzen). It's sensational teamwork that is consistently engaging and richly expands the moods and attitudes. Game for blues, ballads, or brashness, Catherine Russell is at the top of her game.
You can't find a collection more crowded with cozy contentment than Calabria Foti's primo Prelude to a Kiss (her fourth, it follows a Cole Porter set). Her very pretty timbre has a romantic glow, with a ripe roundness reminiscent somewhat of Jane Monheit and she has some ways of shaping notes and phrases that take a page from the late Nancy Wilson. But you won't find a copycat purring herejust a honey-voiced vocalist who melts into her material and projects serenity.
Songs of sadness or worry are banished here, with a blissful "home sweet home" and family theme: "I'm Home"; a "Backyard Medley"; she wrote "Goodbye" about departures that make the heart grow fonder; a lovely piece her late musician father Richard Fote wrote for her mom called "I Had to Fall in Love with You"; and the graceful jazz ode to a daughter, "Waltz for Debby" by Bill Evans and Gene Lees. And note that, on the classic Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein idyllic wish to be "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," the singer replaces the names "Darby and Joan" with "Bobby and me" to name-check her husband, trombonist Bob McChesney, who is featured appropriately on "The Man with the Horn" and two other tracks, arranged the luscious title track, and co-arranged four others, as well as producing this endearing endeavor.
With Roger Kellaway on piano and a large number of musicians in various combinations (including the singer herself as violin soloist), this is an ambitiously large and lush affair, but retains its intimacy via Calabria Foti's tender treatments and calibrated emotion. Adding the perfect cherry to the sweet sundae is guest John Pizzarelli on guitar and duetting; we're blessed with his (and her) creamiest manner on "It's the Mood That I'm In." The aforementioned medley and a change-of-pace, surprisingly brisk "On the Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady add variety to slower-tempoed tracks, all of which (except for the perky medley, this fleet "Street," and "Goodbye") clock in at well over four minutes. Rather than feel lugubrious or meandering, the length invites luxuriating in the dreamy atmospheres.
Some "intermissions" drag on. In the case of sultry songstress La Tanya Hall, it's been more than a decade's wait for her second solo recording. My response to its arrival is to quote the title of her pleasing first album: It's About Time! She's now released the intriguing Say Yes, with piano, arrangements, and production by Andy Milne, who is also her talented husband. This go-round finds her even more steeped in jazz, some choices more accessible than others for the less adventurous listener. Seven of the 11 tracks may feel lengthy, going past the five-minute mark with time becoming elastic and the band and singer lingering over and stretching phrases and exploring. Throughout most of this, there's a shimmering quality to the voice, with a delicacy on high notes, a kind of mystique suggested. The sound washes over a listener in seductive waves.
The repertoire is heavy on representation of some jazz giantsThelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, Fats Wallerbut the singer sounds just as much at home with Cole Porter's classic lament "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," an old operetta warhorse gets an elegant veneer ("Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise"), and latter-day singer-songwriters are boldly embraced (Joni Mitchell's "Fiddle and the Drum" and Jonatha Brooke's "Because I Told You So"). The burnished vocal sound and immersion in atmosphere are front and center throughout. La Tanya Hall is the mistress of all she surveys, effective whether with all trio members going full steam ahead (and with guest trumpeter Michael Leonhart on two cuts) or in lengthy sections accompanied solely (or primarily) by the pulsing rhythms of bassist John Hebert or drummer Clarence Penn. Pianist Milne has some particularly attention-grabbing spotlight moments that find him "dancing" across the keys and creating images in powerful ways. Say Yes casts a special spell.
Husband-and-wife David Alpher (piano, composer) and Jennie Litt (vocals, lyricist) have released their set of original Songs for Sapiosexuals. The title-referenced subset of human beings is a group sexually attracted to intelligent people. Are you in?
The generous 18-song project is eclectic, with some numbers instantly accessible, like the breezy, happy "Swingin' on a Gate," while others may seem kind of esoteric or thick with words that take more exposure or concentration to fully appreciate. But there's fine songwriting craft, humor and heart, with some standouts that really rise above the rest. She sings with a smile in her voice, in a gentle, graceful way and his piano work matches and buoys it. He and several other instrumentalists nicely color but never overshadow the storytelling.
"If I Were" is an artfully etched piece with a poetic sensibility imagining approaching a loved one as would the air or an animal. "Hot Time Comin'" is full of skillful wordplay that uses its humor as a way to deliver a warning global warming (cold cream will be creme brulée, we're told, and as for the crucial snow for Disney's Frozen? Well, we'll be forced to "Let It Go"). The pun-filled "A Prime Little Number" adds up to a major success, too, including homophones like pi/pie and cosine/co-sign that had me doubled up with appreciative laughter.
Alpher and Litt seem to have a song for almost everything, and many tones: serious reflection, thought-provoking wistfulness, kid-friendly cheer. And this married couple finds many subjects to comment on, including, appropriately "Marriage."
Married to each other and apparently (thankfully) wedded to the idea that there is still an appetite for earnest, life-affirming, socially conscious original message songs, Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki carry the banner. Their latest release is just a six-song EP, but this set of musical mini-sermons is serious and seriously heartfelt. Listen is well worth the listen to reflect on life's priorities (should your mind need to be rebooted) and for validation of values that take some honesty and clarity to keep in view. It's therapy and confessionals that rhyme well.
His tasteful, unfussy piano playing with understated touches is a subtle support net carrying her emotional, persuasive singing that is deep in both senses of the word. (He adds a little gentle harmony occasionally, but only takes a prominent vocal in a true sharing on the mix of sage advice and catharsis that is the title track.). As their performances of their original work on earlier recordings have shown, Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki (originally billed just by their first names) can project unabashed vulnerability as well as dashes of humor about daily life without surrendering an anchored dignity. Contemporary concerns populate these new pieces. There's a plea addressing the concerns related to issues referenced by the hashtag "#MeToo." "I'd Rather Be with You" references frustrations with the TV news, "hate and bullying" and "Trumped-up tweets." Another looks ahead with a balm-like tone to the time when "Soon This Will All Be Over."
Singers looking for new songs from a grown-up, thoughtful, deeply felt perspective would do well to consider Anya & Robert's oeuvre. Those who'd like to be moved and mesmerized by this talented pair in person can do so at midtown Manhattan's popular cabaret Don't Tell Mama on March 14. They dare to be profound and relay simple basic truths.