Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Songs from yesteryear (and some new ones, too)
Reviews by Rob Lester

While the dawn of a new year usually focuses on just what happened in the last year, why not look back further this time? We'll start with a recording rewinding eight decades—to 1941. Nostalgia reinvigorated continues with more releases, but with some recent creations mixed in. The first two are produced by Paul Rolnick, with the third produced by the lead artist himself. And all three recordings make room for the work of that grand master craftsman of the classic American Songbook: Irving Berlin.

Zoho Music
CD and digital

The year 1941 was a pretty good one for its crop of then-new songs that still stand up today. Singer Dawn Derow's embrace of them began as a cabaret show a few years ago, and the release of a recording of the set nicely coincides with the 80th anniversary of the compositions' successes. But My Ship: Songs from 1941 doesn't just float along on a wave of misty-eyed yearning for the past or sink in a labored attempt to recreate or reinvent an era's original hit records. Instead, the full-steam-head renditions are respectful nods to the bygone era. They sound more timeless in their time-testedness in these arrangements fashioned first by the late Barry Levitt (in whose memory the recording is dedicated) and the set's pianist/music director, Ian Herman. A group of stellar musicians is on hand for some very tasty playing; it includes a string section, brass, and guitarist Sean Harkness (Dawn Derow's accompanist on her earlier release, Music 4 Two, in 2014). The voice is solid and supple, drenched in—but not drowning in—affection for the past's classic song structures.

The show tune alert is this: 1941 was a rather slim-pickings year for Broadway musicals taking their first bows, so that probably explains why the two selections from the Great White Way are from the same show: Lady in the Dark. We get a moderately zippy romp through "The Saga of Jenny" (it could use some more sarcasm) and, as you've surmised, the ballad that gives My Ship its title. In that one, this lady not-so-much-in-the-dark projects a bright hope for her happy ending on the horizon when "the sun sits high on a sapphire sky."

Songwriter-wise, there are other double-dippings. One pairing consists of two things originating in the Los Angeles stage production Jump for Joy with Duke Ellington music, beginning with a piece that, back in '41, was just an instrumental. In the Derow design, the actress in her created a scenario and "Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don't Tease Me)" becomes surprisingly character driven and emotional. With the added lyric, it's typically been merely a throwaway or overdone coy ploy for (fore)playfulness. Now it anticipates and sets up the woes and lows of a love affair of two people not equally invested, and that's how the follow-up, "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)," gets a backstory. It really works!

Other twofers in tunesmithing representations bring the words of Johnny Mercer, both showing some restraint where others vocalists share despair ("Blues in the Night," with Harold Arlen's melody, and "Skylark," belatedly set to a Hoagy Carmichael composition intended for a Broadway show about jazzman Bix Beiderbecke that never happened). And there are two collaborations of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon that were heard in movies (an energy-growing "At Last" and another track that brings the cheery "Chattanooga Choo Choo").

Few lyrics address 1941's unwelcome but song-inspiring elephant in the room, World War II, but there are some rides on that metaphorical pachyderm. For starters, for fun, there's a blithe and bouncy medley of numbers associated with the Andrews Sisters. For closing, on the more serious, reflective side, we get that period-defining iconic vision of the light at the end of the tunnel, "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." There's a Disney memory, as the literal elephant in the room, with the animated Dumbo's lullaby, "Baby Mine," a sweet highlight, endearingly delivered. It show off the vocalist's adeptness with sensitivity and quiet understatement, contrasting with the grand "...Dover" that reveals a hint of the otherwise kept-under-wraps operatic sensibilities that were this singer's early career path.

And this path through gems of one musically rich year is a treat to trod with Dawn Derow and musicians as our tour guides. With so many classics memorably warbled back in 1941 and the intervening years, there are big shoes to fill, including the footprints in the snow with "White Christmas." If here and there they seem to be tip-toeing rather than digging in their heels to make their mark, they step into the songs as comfortable, favorite slippers.

Scheduled on Saturday, January 15, is a live presentation of the material at The Green Room 42 in Manhattan.

Zevely Records

When you let the music play as it pours out of Let the Music Play, there is certainly no shortfall in the supply chain of emotion:

Songwriters' words --> singer Karen Mason --> our ears/hearts

The intrepid interpreter, in supreme command of unabashed feelings and voice, can deliver a socko punch whether she's going for broke/brokenheartedness or proving that less is more, phrasing delicately with wistful restraint. This collection is predictably potent, and while there are some lighter moments, it's heavy on the heavy material as the 16 tracks mount. There are anthems that throb (sooner or later), pleas for peace, and a cascade of catharsis.

Reflections on the past resonate with her poignant renditions of "Time" (Joseph Thalken/ Barry Kleinbort) from their score to Was and, from the Beatles' songbook, "In My Life" accompanied by just her longtime pianist/arranger, the sensitive and talented Christopher Denny. As years go by, the latter seemingly simple musing about years going by inherently and unavoidably becomes deeper, racking up memories and losses. For longtime/completist fans of Karen Mason, the much-awarded cabaret performer and recording artist, there are additional specific reminders in the recycling of a few tracks from other releases. (But that's not a potential purchaser's deal-breaker when the collection's got 16 selections.)

Producer Paul Rolnick's contributions are ubiquitous; he shows up numerous times as songwriter or co-writer for his in-house muse (he's married to the singer), musician handling various instruments, or even adding harmony vocals. His originals tend toward the earnest, whether plainspoken or poetic, coming off at their most successful when arrangements and singing are allowed to underplay the underlying sincerity. (A recipe without artificial sweeteners or schmaltz would be prudent, but you'll likely detect a teardrop alert before long on some.)

Speaking of feelings unfettered in composition, David Friedman has two such contributions, appearing also as pianist/sole accompanist for a moving vocal of his surefire entreaty "We Can Be Kind" and with a large ensemble for Let the Music Play's pandemically time-sensitive title piece, co-written with Mr. Rolnick. The other tunesmith twice sampled is none other than the iconic Irving Berlin, represented by two brighter entries. One is "Steppin' Out with My Baby," with a clever arrangement that incorporates some little nods to songs from—wait for it—West Side Story. The other is a knowingly slinky slide through the playful story-song "Mr. Monotony," fated to be cut and cut again over the years from projects, getting its belated official debut in Jerome Robbins' Broadway a few months before Berlin died in 1989, with Karen Mason in the company.

Another welcome surprise is the blend of two songs about finding success (or not) on the Great White Way, made all the more effective as sung with quiet determination by someone who's been there recalling the pursuit of making it. So, the pop "On Broadway" segues into a yearning, non-splashy "Broadway Baby" from Follies with the tension of the former number continuing with its own taut underlying key instrumental figure continuing throughout.

Two choices associated with Barbra Streisand show up, too. With "Don't Rain on My Parade," the pace, phrasing, and accompaniment structures owe a tremendous amount to the original Funny Girl presentation, so it's in the category of homage by someone with the requisite chops. On the subtler and vulnerable side, there's "He Touched Me" (originally written as "She Touched Me" for Broadway's Drat! The Cat!), with Karen Mason radiantly in the moment, discovering moment-by-moment feelings of romantic wonder and exultation. But being in the moment has been a trademark of this actress-singer for quite a few years, so such moments on Let the Music Play play as no surprise.

Burton Avenue Music
CD and digital

There are hot instrumentals and sweetly mellow ones, plus some splendid work by guest vocalists adding words to paint moods. It seems like—I mean, sounds like—almost everything bass player/bandleader David FInck touches turns to glimmering gold, old or newish, on his latest release, BASSic Instinct. Who would predict that the quaint "Tea for Two," that can-be-ditzy ditty from the musical No, No, Nanette could sound modern and, yes, hip, even though it will mark its 100th anniversary in just a couple of years? And then there's the Brazilian import "Tico-Tico no fubá" that's even more ancient but still percolating like mad when Mr. Finck and friends turn up the heat.

A comfort level with all kinds of music is nothing new for David Finck, whose impressive resumé includes a bevy of recordings and many starry gigs, such as collaborations with André Previn, Dizzy Gillespie, and working behind singers like Rosemary Clooney, George Michael, Linda Eder, and Tony Bennett (including that singer's recent 95th birthday duo appearance with Lady Gaga). In this new release, the parade of music keeps shifting gears. No two tracks are cut from the same cloth, the songs of ever-changing styles are presented with band sizes that range from duo to septet, with the vocal tracks spaced cannily for variety and separate attention if one listens in the designed sequence.

Bookending the set are strong spotlights on Finck as composer—a band piece starts off the festivities and a velvet vocal caps it. The opener is BASSic Instinct's amiably energetic title number. And we end with the climbing melody of "I Remember" enhanced by pianist Tedd Firth as the only other instrumentalist, and Jack Murphy's lyric sensitively and fully inhabited by Melissa Errico's exquisite vocal. This composition is new to my ears, but some research reveals that it was submitted to the multi-genre songwriting competition named in honor of John Lennon back in 2005 and was a finalist. Another Finck melody that gets a double-barrelled treatment with two singers and being sung in two languages (English and Portuguese) is "Bateu, Levou" ("Who's Wrong or Right?"), a lighthearted response to a little lovers' quarrel breezily adjudicated by Teka Penteriche and current Manhattan Transfer member Trist Curless.

While one or two selections don't quite knock me out, those that do more than compensate, and a couple of those are the quiet respites. One is a meditative "Seascape," Johnny Mandel's graceful melody, and then a rhapsodic experience via the elegantly bowing bass and sensitive piano work by Quinn Johnson that combine gentle forces for an emotionally effective "Soon It's Gonna Rain," from the score of The Fantasticks. I definitely wish there were more use of the bow to embrace legato lines in melodies this time around, but snappier rhythms are more the menu choices, and the veteran bassist can certainly make us appreciate a composer's work through super-nimble plucking, too. We get an especially notable opportunity to witness that skill with the jaunty and joyful journey through the architecture of "The Best Thing for You," spot-on in capturing Irving Berlin's buoyant burst of confidence from Call Me Madam. Another instrumental wins the prize for invigorating, inventive refurbishing when approaching a formerly formal movie song. It's "Dearly Beloved" from You Were Never Lovelier, and it was never livelier. The players take good advantage of the freedom of having the originally stately and ever-so-polite piece not tethered to its unheard lyric that grandly idealized the object of affection. It's reborn as a sizzling salsa-flavored upbeat number, working surprisingly well.

If you tend to think of bass players as mostly people who just serve to keep the needed pulse in the background, dutifully plunking away, you haven't heard what an imaginative one can do when given the spotlight. David Finck is a leader leading the way.