Hugh Martin ...
Plus Debbie, Dewey & Debby

This week, we feature some dusted-off demos from composer-lyricist Hugh Martin.  Then, new recordings by three vocalists: Dynamic Debbie Gravitte; another Debby, debuting as a soloist (Debby Lennon, in our Under-The-Radar spot) and Dewey Erney. 

HUGH MARTIN (and others)

PS Classics Inc.

The future of the past is in good hands with the non-profit branch of PS Classics.  PS Classics Inc has taken over the Songwriter Series of The Library of Congress, with treasured archival demos of the great composers and lyricists singing their own work.  Adding to the roster of rescued and rare recordings, the latest presents the work of Hugh Martin, with Hugh Sings Martin.  Not all the 18 songs feature the songwriter singing alone, nor did he write all of the songs.  Mr. Martin had success as a vocal arranger, accompanist and as a member of the vocal quartet The Martins.  That work is represented here as well, so this album has variety in vocal sounds.  For collectors and longtime fans of this material, this is nostalgic nirvana.  Although many of the songs are familiar, the renditions are mostly long-lost radio performances or private demos from several decades ago.  Although the intent is, of course, to focus on Hugh Martin, the CD has added appeal just for those who just generally like the fizzy and frolicsome music from the middle of the 20th century.  

This is not one of those excavations that can only be appreciated by the dedicated collector straining to listen just out of curiosity.  The sound is bright, even brash.  The CD features some well-exposed tunes and others that are just plain catchy, a few even aggressively so. The vocal arrangements are especially lively.  Whatever "labor of love" technical wizardry was involved in cleaning up the sound on ancient rough acetates worked wonders.  Thanks go to producer Steve Nelson and all those involved.     

Almost half the material here was originally credited jointly to Martin and Ralph Blane, but it's been acknowledged for some time that each actually wrote separately. In his own anecdotal and interesting liner notes, Martin states that the "Martin/Blane" classics on this CD are the ones he wrote on his own.  Blane and Martin are the two male voices in The Martins quartet (the women were sisters, Phyllis and Jo Jean Rogers), heard on several tracks.  The harmony is great fun.  Martin's vocals are always likable and underscore the joy of the upbeat songs, and he's wistful on occasion.  Singing with just his own piano accompaniment on "The Story of My Life," he's endearingly vulnerable. 

Apart from the group, Martin has been heard on disc before, with Blane on their album Martin and Blane Sing Martin and Blane and with Michael Feinstein on his collection to the writer. A track from the former and an outtake from the latter are included, as is a selection from the cast album of Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'

Vocal arrangements by Martin are featured in "Ooh, What You Said" (Hoagy Carmichael/ Johnny Mercer) and "Look Out" by Rodgers and Hart (Too Many Girls). But most of the songwriting is Martin's, including generous samplings from the hits Best Foot Forward and Meet Me in St. Louis. The charming album ends with the latter score's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," recorded just last year as a piano and vocal by Hugh Martin at the age of 90!  


JAY Records

A solo album of big Broadway songs by a big-voiced Broadway performer is always a big deal for me, and Debbie Gravitte has always been the real deal.  So, first of all, let the rejoicing begin.  Although Defying Gravity break new ground, this CD sure stirs things up and is thoroughly thrilling. The musical treatments often use the original Broadway orchestrations, so those who don't like their classics radically transformed will be pleased.  But things never sound tired or tame, because they are conducted and played with verve and Debbie is a pro who is never on automatic pilot.  She's an especially entertaining performer whose polished positive energy really comes through.  With her usual adrenalin and vigor plus a more than occasional sense of mischief, Debbie is in top form once again on this, her third solo CD. 

The show tune repertoire focuses on material Debbie has performed somewhere along the way, including along the Great White Way.  But, fortunately, these connections result in revisiting, not a lot of recycling or re-recording.  Most of the theater roles from her resume addressed here weren't previously recorded by Debbie.  For example, she includes a sensitive "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables and a playful "When You're Good to Mama" from her most recent Broadway credit, Chicago. She sang both as cast replacement in these two long-running musicals.  It's great to hear her on these polar opposites; one follows the other on the CD, serving to emphasize her versatility.  And, although she's on recordings of Mack and Mabel and Zorba, it's worth pointing out that here the numbers she chooses are ones she did not sing on those albums.  (They are "Time Heals Everything" and "Only Love," respectively.)  

The album opens with the powerhouse Wicked number, "Defying Gravity," which is exciting without wallowing in diva self-indulgence.  It has moments of reflection and tension instead of just being the forceful tour de force others would be tempted to push.  Rest assured, there is plenty of belting throughout the CD and lots of those smashing, crashing big finishes that would provoke applause in the theater.  In fact, it plays pretty much like a series of toppers and showstoppers with a full symphony orchestra.  Two dazzling showpieces that Debbie obviously relishes sinking her teeth into here come from revues she appeared in.  "Junk Man" (Frank Loesser/ Joseph Meyer) was heard in the short-lived Loesser anthology Perfectly Frank, and the standard "Blues in the Night"  provided the title for another revue.  She goes to town in both, singing in her uninhibited, throaty style.  Debbie sang "Sing For Your Supper" as part of a trio in the Encores! Boys From Syracuse, but here she sings the Rodgers & Hart song in three-part harmony with herself (and herself).

All 15 tracks are solid, but the one that really knocks me out is the one she doesn't try to knock out of the ballpark.  It's the final number, the aforementioned relaxed "Only Love," serving as a cool-down moment after all the fireworks.  Reflective and well-phrased, it's a lovely ending that shows another side of her talent. But the main attraction is that kind of bursting-at-the-seams energy as she rips through an explosive Jule Styne melody like "Some People" or "Don't Rain on My Parade." 


Primrose Lane Music

A gentle Jule Styne melody, "Time After Time," is one of the quiet moments on a mostly exuberant CD by Dewey Erney. Also highly romantic is Nicholas Brodzky's soaring "I'll Never Stop Loving You."  Both have sentimental Sammy Cahn lyrics, and Dewey is comfortable with their sincerity in his natural phrasing.  This is his 13th album, but defying superstition about bad luck and the number 13, he calls it Lucky To Be Me and luck is with him (and listeners) in another successful outing.

No weepy ballads or lovelorn regrets here - this is a program of happy songs.  Wisely, variety is supplied in tone, as he goes from exultation (the album's title song, from On the Town) to contentment ("Then I'll Be Tired of You").  Dewey's slighly husky timbre is appealing and his approach is unpretentious.  Notably excellent diction and care in phrasing indicate his respect for lyrics.  He's not a slave to tradition, though - he updates the lyric of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" to include a couple of current movie stars. 

The album is arranged and conducted by Tom Kubis and he places the singer smack in the middle of a cushion of sound.  Tom plays saxophones and is one of two pianists and one of four trumpeters.  He surrounds the vocalist with strings and brass which can sound luxurious, but there's lots of life in the playing of the bright, upbeat charts. Cole Porter's "Everything I Love" is brash and the brass gets a great workout.  There is some tasty solo playing throughout, but nothing overindulgent or distracting.  This CD swings!

Overall, the album shows much care and taste.  There are a very few moments where a hint of strain may appear, but better that than being overly cautious.  I am happy to find another version of the evocative "Rio Largo" previously recorded in a dreamy mood by Stephanie Haynes, another top singer from the same area, Southern California.  It's by a songwriter I've admired for a long time, Jack Prather.  And speaking of favorites, there are two numbers from the 1965 Broadway musical The Yearling by Mickey Leonard and Herbert Martin.  Dewey zeroes in on the deep satisfaction laced through those songs, the ballad, "Why Did I Choose You?" and the celebratory "I'm All Smiles."  


"I'm All Smiles" appears on the next album as well, providing its title. 


Victoria Company

Once again, it's a pleasure to report on a singer who sounds confident, at ease and in control even though the album in question is her first.  Such is the case with Debby Lennon from St. Louis, who has been singing on her own and in vocal groups for years.  She's a member of the group Pieces of Eight which has recorded several albums and she appeared a couple of years ago as soloist guest with The Gay Men's Chorus at Lincoln Center and does other concert work.  Also a voice teacher, Debby's musicianship certainly shows on this easy-to-like CD titled I'm All Smiles.

Two Broadway songs by Cole Porter, "It's All Right with Me" and "So in Love," find her comfortable at a brisk pace, dashing through the melodies, tossing off the sharp lyrics along the way without losing her footing.  Her strong jazz musicians are a driving force on these two numbers, leading the way and getting generous time on their own.  With dexterity and drive, pianist Carolbeth True and drummer Kevin Gianino lead the way with muscle. As jazz excursions, much of the work here is exciting but may not be to the taste of those who generally avoid jazz that isn't "laidback."  That being said, nothing here is esoteric or abstract. 

Stephen Sondheim's sultry early song, "The Girls of Summer," is especially well done, its tempo and treatment in the mold familiar to those who know of earlier recordings.  It demonstrates that Debby can also phrase a lyric with a sense of drama and intelligence.  To this end, another song about a season of the year shows how she can excel with sensitive mood-setting phrasing,  the lonely ballad "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."  Add to that her creamy, well-rounded tones and this grown-up lament becomes the highlight of the CD.  She even takes advantage of the words near the lyric's end, "the party's over," by changing the five notes to quote the famous show tune of the same title from Bells Are Ringing) and then inserting its next line, "the candles flicker and dim," before returning smoothly to "Spring."

  The moody Duke Ellington classic "Solitude" also shows her skill at interpreting a formidable piece with a serious and sad lyric.  She uses this and another Ellington trademark, "Caravan" to show off her low tones (she has a three-octave range - some high wailing is in evidence, too).  However, in both cases she's daringly following in some big footsteps of legendary jazz vocalists of the past.  She doesn't quite have that command or majesty, but impresses nonetheless. 

Debby's warm take on "I'm All Smiles" is skillful and pleasing, both in her legato glide through the melody and her comfort with Herbert Martin's smart, crisp lyric.  The Jerome Kern/ Johnny Mercer movie tune  "I'm Old Fashioned" is a breezy romp that may not be old-fashioned in the sentimental sense but is old-fashioned good jazz playing and singing. 

Sounds good to me. 


-- Rob Lester

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