Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Lionel Bart's showtunes; Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin,
plus Acute Inflections
Reviews by Rob Lester

The first stop in our time travels stays in one decade, the 1960s, for samples of British musicals with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Then we dip into earlier decades for performances by Al Jolson and a few guests for the work of America's iconic composer-lyricist, Irving Berlin, including two versions of 1926's "Blue Skies." That number is also handled by the duo Acute Inflections whose material spans the years and takes us into the present.

JAY Records
CD, Digital

It was 60 years ago this past week that Oliver! opened on Broadway, its engaging songs by Lionel Bart (1930-1999) becoming quite familiar over the years, but how well do you know other scores for which this British writer wrote the words and music? Why not make it a rewarding New Year's resolution to explore more scores by musical theatre's tunesmiths whose catalogs you haven't dug into much beyond their biggest success(es)? JAY Records' inviting 12-track sampler called The MUSICality of Bart is a great place to start. With in-character presentations by West End performers, it's a thoroughly theatrical and often peppy potpourri, suggesting genuine smiles or attempting to smile through troubles.

Along with three Oliver! excerpts, we hear four things from the World War II-set Blitz!, three from Maggie May, and one each Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and the Robin Hood spoof Twang!!, represented by the sly, strutting original cast rendition of "Unseen Hands" by Long John Baldry. This set is the latest in a series of songwriter-focused MUSICality series: collections that mix first-time releases of tracks with those culled from JAY Records' vast library of cast recordings (stage productions and studio casts, usually with big, sumptuous orchestral accompaniment) and solo albums.

Graham Bickley brightly sings the praises of a title character in "Maggie, Maggie May" and joins Diane Langton for that musical's "It's Yourself." She makes an even stronger impression with the vitality in her vocals on two other pieces: the joyfully jaunty title song of Fings Ain't... and brashly leading a group sneer for Blitz!'s "Who Is This Geezer Hitler?" Josephine Blake effectively mixes the grim and the glib, playing Blitz!'s Jewish widow, venting and needing advice, addressing her dead husband with "So Tell Me." The Oliver! remembrances let us compare two kinds of singers handling songs written for the lead female character of Nancy: the operatic soprano Dame Josephine Barstow's dignified "As Long As He Needs Me" giving majesty to misery and Sally Ann Triplett's full-on earthy approach as head of the sing-along "Oom-Pah-Pah."

We curious collectors have long known the rewards of coming across the solid scores of West End musicals that didn't come across the ocean, their hopes dashed of making a splash on Broadway. Wary would-be producers may have deemed them "too British" for Americans to relate to, but to that I say "Bullocks and balderdash!" Cockney accents, robust music hall ambiance, working class chaps, and period flavor can be charming, more intriguingly accessible than distancing or off-putting. These tempting tastes of Lionel Bart's songs could make the heretofore mostly uninitiated echo hungry Oliver's famous plea, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Garret Mountain Records
CD, Digital

Come on and hear "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and an avalanche of songs by one of America's most successful writers–the sturdy ancient standards and the recently ignored–totaling 31 tracks when the irrepressible Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin. His own showboating and other Rare Historic Performances by some fellow stars of yore are yours to enjoy in the set, singing with Jolson or on their own when he merely supplies a spoken introduction or shares some banter. If you thought the style of the man who was billed as "the world's greatest entertainer" is hopelessly hammy and indisputably dated, might I suggest focusing on the more universally accessible solid craft of the music and lyrics as an entry point? Don't be surprised if binging on Berlin's canon leads to surrendering to an appreciation of the presenter's charms as well as his attentiveness to unspooling the contours of melodies and crisply laying out the lyrics and relishing the rhymes.

Those already initiated into the fandom and maybe have some of the compendiums of endlessly repackaged Jolson 78-rpm records of his signature hits will gratefully note that this grand grouping is not one of those. Instead, it's a steady stream of live radio renditions, some not otherwise available on CD or digitally. "Blue Skies," which he tackled in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer is heard in a solo version and a zesty but super-short (80 seconds) frolic shared with a hot band and Martha Raye. Most renditions are short and sweet, sometimes once-through and done, without long mid-song instrumental sections and an extra repeat of a chorus or extended endings. However, happily, that doesn't mean always disposing of the introductory verse; "All Alone" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain?)" get their worthy context set-ups. While we don't get that plus for "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," how cute to have the first line of the chorus tweaked so that instead of "Let me sing a funny song with crazy words..," it becomes "Let me sing a Berlin song with simple words."

"Mandy," a duet with Eddie Cantor, is a highlight, with the gents' similar vaudeville sensibilities seeming to spark or top each other. Other guests take the spotlight fully, with the Brox Sisters stepping up for "Everybody Step," and Sophie Tucker is in frisky full-steam-ahead steamroller state on "That International Rag." Satisfyingly recreating numbers they did in their films are Ginger Rogers for a breezy "No Strings" and Ethel Merman (with chorus) strutting through "My Walking Stick."

Cheery Berlin compositions suitable for parading Jolson's strong suits of unleashing spunk and splash are infectious, while a few treatments of the most serious, romantic ballads arguably haven't aged as well. The practice of speaking selected lines rather than singing them can err on the side of schmaltz. "What'll I Do?" feels overly formal and stiff instead of vulnerable. Subtlety and authentic tenderness weren't on display always (although "Always" gets more restrained sentimentality than schtick and the poignant strings help).

Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin is just a fraction of what musicologist/curator Chip Deffaa has released and has in store for the future when it comes to either icon. If you think this generous sampling is a lot, well, may I quote Jolson's famous line and say that, relatively speaking, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"

CD, Digital

Something soothingly sweet awaits. You are cordially invited to relax and let a gently jazzy wave of spare, prettily presented songs wash over you. Both hip and hypnotic, the recording titled Let Go by the duo called Acute Inflections is a ticket to ride on a cloud of serenity. Smooth-voiced Elasea Douglas and bassist Sadiki Pierre need no additional collaborators to weave their spell and successfully transform any genre or era of music into their disarming brand of chill.

The bass becomes a heartbeat and the singer's voice is super-silky (Broadway fun fact credit: she was in the company of Fela! some years ago). Their prior projects have included a set of Bob Marley material and a Christmas collection, and Let Go lets them go in diverse directions for their repertoire. Irving Berlin's optimistic outlook from the 1920s proclaiming "nothing but 'Blue Skies' do I see" is echoed in "I see skies of blue/ And clouds of white/ The bright blessed day" and other appreciated pleasures celebrated in "What a Wonderful World" (Bob Thiele and George David Weiss), introduced by Louis Armstrong in the 1960s. Modern-day affirmations and balms come with the post-nightmare calming in "Everything I Wanted" (by singer Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O'Connell) and two versions of the title song for Let Go, a Douglas/ Pierre original, urging you to "Open up to the unknown/ Let it flow/ See where it goes." (While there is the name-dropping of a few stars who previously sang and/or wrote some of the items in the CD liner notes' single paragraph, other specific songwriter credits are, regrettably, absent.)

A couple of the treatments surprise in their new musical skins. The mystique is missing in "Nature Boy," replaced by a more down-to-earth reaction to the "very strange, enchanted boy" delivering philosophy. And the rock group Queen's anthem "We Are the Champions" is mega-mellowed so that it is not a power-packed proclamation, but redolent of a cool and self-confident air. The latter is a more rewarding revision for me.

Acute Inflections bring their sweetheartening stylings and soft focus to The Cotton Club in Harlem on Valentine's Day. And who knows what eclectic sources they'll smoothly sail to next!