Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

File under "L":
Listening to Longoria's love songs
and lots of Loewe
Reviews by Rob Lester

Looking back at several decades of music in the varied latter part of the previous century, before and after rock asserted its influence, there's much to consider in the items examined below. Musical theatre's Michael Longoria takes a trip to the movies, and two instrumental jazz offerings bring fresh musical ideas and skillful work to the melodies of Frederick Loewe, selected from scores written with Alan Jay Lerner (with five song selections in common).

MICHAEL LONGORIA
LIKE THEY DO IN THE MOVIES

Broadway Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

A performer who's spent a lot of his professional time evoking the 1960s lingers almost exclusively in the three decades that followed for his new project. It's Michael Longoria; after some Broadway employment in the 1960s-set Hairspray, he was part of Jersey Boys and the vocal group made up of some of its alumni, The Midtown Men, with whom he continues to tour. Like They Do in the Movies follows his two other solo recordings—last year's Christmas offering and a collection of big musical theatre items.

The current project begins with his appealingly uber-romantic passion plea, the self-penned "Kiss Me (Like They Do in the Movies)," which effectively sets the mood for a recital full of plush and gush that is his style. That material, which he described in an interview as "epic love songs," favors fare that is demonstratively declamatory, grandly passionate, with subtlety or complex emotions rarely called upon in the approach. Yes, broad strokes are broadly embraced, with throbbing and/or ethereal, layered vocals and glossy production (by Michael Croiter, who's also on drums in the nine-member band).

The parade of pop has pianist Rona Siddiqui, herself a composer-lyricist for stage musicals, credited with the arrangements (except for the title track). The agenda here, and in Longoria's enthused performances and phrasing, is not about trying new routes for the imprinted-on-the-brain breezy hits and power ballads. Familiar architectures, tempi and sensibilities remain firmly in the footprints followed. Affection for all that is abundantly evident, the parties at this celebratory party appear seemingly unapologetically uninterested in veering from the well-established success of the potent predecessors. Still, the unbridled energy and sweetness in the worship is endearing in its own way, preventing predictable results from disintegrating into automatic pilot territory. If you have a taste for nostalgia-stoked comfort food in music, come enjoy a non-demanding wallow.

Longoria's high voice, which can be keening—an obvious asset in his role as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys—is unfurled in a don't-hold-back way, sometimes in a gender non-specific way. A few of the choices that were mammoth hits for superstar female divas are less often approached by male singers. In "Evergreen" from A Star Is Born, the Barbra Streisand blueprint is evident from the beginning, before the words of the lyric are heard, reproducing the "Ahhhh-ahhh-ahhh" she crooned over the instrumental intro, followed similarly by the intent of lovestruck awe to follow the "ahhh." And our guy provides pretty tones and melisma and a touch of fireworks on "I Will Always Love You." The Titanic (in both senses of the word) hit for Celine Dion, "My Heart Will Go On," is surprisingly fresh in this undeniably committed rendition. Sincerity is projected, along with unabashed romanticism, here and elsewhere.

While closely associated with the media, not all of the songs were originally written for motion pictures ("Unchained Melody," used in the film—and later stage—Ghost story has a long history dating from the 1950s). And it's worth a footlight footnote that a few of those films were later reborn as musical theatre projects, with or without songs used in those films. Grease is the one sample of what was a stage piece first, but is sensibly represented by an item crafted for the screen version, "Hopelessly Devoted to You," to which is devoted plenty of on-target youthful intensity.

Before some gigs with his fellow Midtown Men in Canada and six American states, busy Michael Longoria stops at the Nikko in San Francisco for a nightclub concert on October 16 to present this recording's rhapsodic and rocking numbers that will certainly bring back movie memories for many. Like They Do in the Movies is best served with popcorn.

DICK HYMAN & KEN PEPLOWSKI
COUNTERPOINT: LERNER & LOEWE

Arbors Records
new on CD | mp3 | iTunes

Here is an invitation to join the adventuresome music appreciators among jazz instrumentalists in discovering what can be (often surprisingly) revealed via creative reconsiderations of show tunes. Perhaps ironically released in this centenary of his wordsmith partner Alan Jay Lerner, two groupings of Frederick Loewe's melodies alone prove to be fantastically flexible, since they are divorced from their lyrics here. But lingering loyally in the air is a strong suggestion of Lerner's words and the songs' situations. With the full support of the Frederick Loewe Foundation (and enthused comments in liner notes by its president, Emily Altman), both are from Arbors Records and feature top players.

Counterpoint's co-stars have long reputations and prolific recording careers that precede them as we prepare to feast on this superb new feather in their caps. In the case of pianist Dick Hyman, now 92, the output of his old vinyl days notably includes two full albums dedicated to Lerner & Loewe scores: My Fair Lady and Gigi. Clarinettist and sax player Ken Peplowski has a prodigious list of credits as leader, band member, and side man for vocalists. A recording from last year found him teamed up with another who plays those instruments, Adrian Cunningham, the top-billed man on the other Arbors salute to Loewe. Here, favoring the clarinet, he makes its sweet legato trips sail through long melodic lines and tweet brightly in small, spiffy spurts.

Hyman partially planned the arrangements and they left the rest to their ample improvisational skills. The 14 tracks sample six scores, including the writers' little-known early effort, The Day Before Spring (ear-catching romps making a fine case for both "A Jug of Wine" and "You Haven't Changed at All"). The men, who've worked together before, have a decided chemistry and ease on these pleasing pairings. It seems to be a musical conversation of mutual enjoyment—quite a treat to eavesdrop on. And, speaking of communication, "I Talk to the Trees" from Paint Your Wagon is a great back-and-forth simpatico achievement. They comfortably take turns leading the way, making the inclusion of the Camelot number titled "Follow Me" especially apt. There are two different and thoughtful versions of "Gigi": one with Peplowski's tenor sax taking center stage and Hyman subtly being the modest supporting cast, and the other a keyboard showpiece. On many tracks, an initial idea gives way to a quite different follow-up, and then the banquet becomes a "but wait! there's more" kind of thing, like chapters in a plot-thickening story where redundancy is anathema. No boredom here.

Meaning no disrespect, there's some slyness and relaxed contentment in melodies that were originally garbed in formal wear by the operetta-influenced Loewe. An example of this is Brigadoon's "Waitin' for My Dearie" which is loose and playfully plucky, becoming a big musical grin. Contrastingly, My Fair Lady's "On the Street Where You Live" becomes deeper, not just "the towering feeling" of exultation described in its lyric, but rather a sense of wonder and awe, with reverence. A slower tempo suits the gravitas and grace.

Hyman and Peplowski come to the Manhattan musical mecca, Jazz at Lincoln Center, on October 16 for a one-night live rekindling of their Lerner & Loewe songbook summit. The recording has had multiple "encores" in my listening room.

ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM & THE FRED HERSCH TRIO WITH RANDY BRECKER AND WYCLIFFE GORDON
ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM & HIS FRIENDS PLAY LERNER & LOEWE

Arbors Records
new on CD | mp3 | iTunes

As part of The Frederick Loewe Foundation's mission to continue to expose and expand the profile of the Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner songs to succeeding generations, including presenting them in new settings, live and on recordings, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham was called upon. And what a spectacular job he's done, in the great company of sensitive pianist Fred Hersch, who brought along the men in his regular trio, bassist John H├ębert and drummer Eric McPherson. Then added to the already rich mix were two veteran guest brass players: Randy Brecker and Wycliffe Gordon.

Eleven songs were selected for creative interpretation, five of which were also picked for the Dick Hyman/ Ken Peplowski Counterpoint collaboration contemporaneously released by Arbors Records: "I Could Have Danced All Night," "I Talk to the Trees," "They Call the Wind Maria," "If Ever I Would Leave You," and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." Great minds may think alike in their choosing, but not so much in their approaches to them, making for interesting and impressive side-by-side comparisons with these collections. It underscores the fact that these supple melodies have great potential for taking on various guises, time signatures, colors and personalities.

If you listen in the order, you begin with an intriguing "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," which was cut from the My Fair Lady score and repurposed for the film (and later stage musical) Gigi. It's followed by two numbers that remained in My Fair Lady, "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Just You Wait." All three of these songs were written for the character of Eliza, but are arguably even more varied in presentation in these instrumental inventions. There's more tension and release for the prayerful prelude, several dance styles and tempi tasted in the second piece, and "Just You Wait" shows off some sass and zip. (Oh, and later, for the plot point that first allows Eliza to dance with her taskmaster professor, "The Rain in Spain," there's lighthearted fun in the forecast with Hersch's deft dancing piano duetting with Cunningham's cute flute sprightliness.)

Throughout, there are many opportunities for individuals to shine, but it's the teamwork that is generally most laudatory. As a jazz fan very open to this kind of stretching and thinking outside the box, I was a happy camper. As a longtime admirer of pianist Hersch and his intelligent and tender ways, I'm prejudiced in his favor and would have wanted more focus on his sublime playing. But I have no right to grumble with so much juicy and soaring work from all. One happy highlight is Paint Your Wagon's "Wand'rin' Star"; it struts and muscles its honking way along entertainingly.

For indisputably breathtaking beauty, I can't get enough of the two evocative Brigadoon gems: the title song and "The Heather on the Hill." They are wistful and gentle to the nth degree and I can't get enough of them. I'm helplessly addicted to these two, and consistently charmed by the rest—with the lively rhythms, blasts, and ingratiating, floating figures. I could have danced all night.




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