Sound Advice Reviews
The Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2015
Here are my top ten favorites among vocal CDs submitted for review this year. Each grabbed me right away, having surpassed my expectations based on prior familiarity with the artists and/or songs. They have lasting power, continuing to impress when I hear them again. These ten are not in order of preference, but simply alphabetical in order of artists' last names.
Continuing to develop a distinctive style and sound, and proving to be increasingly versatile in album after album, jazz singer Karrin Allyson has taken up a challenge and triumphed. While inventive jazz vocalists have, for decades, demonstrated the flexibility of the great standards and show tunes, re-shaping is not so easily done with the rock solid Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein canon. It is more resistant to molding than the songs Rodgers created with lyricist Lorenz Hart, much more often approached by jazz artists. As musical theatre songs became more tied to situations and advancing the plot with their style, Rodgers' melodies were often more flavored to locale and character and Hammerstein's lyrics more specific to situations and moments. Favoring Oklahoma! and South Pacific, Karrin Allyson and company reimagine themstretching, embellishing, changing tempi, and making them feel new, contemporary, and even truly hip. Yet they retain their integrity and essence. Remarkably inventive it is!
I always love hearing tunesmiths peddling their wares. While some famous songwriters' voices are heard by very few because they might not be able to do more than croak out a tune, Cy Coleman's voice is more familiar as he sang and he played piano better than many and had a real entertainer's sense. He'd earned a living in jazz clubs with his piano skills and accessible jazz takes on standards and introducing his own material. His singing is not just competentit is bursting with joy and upbeat personality. These souvenirs of the late composer performing over a period of many years are grand. Despite the prolific output of Coleman in cast albums and his own recordings as a pianist and some vocalizing, these are mostly archival recordings not intended for the publicdemo recordings, early drafts, samples from shows that never got far or never got on, plus material cut from big hit shows. The man who the composed music of Sweet Charity, Barnum and On the 20th Century and other hits had plenty below the radar and stand-alone songs over the decades, such as those with lyricist Carolyn Leigh (who is also heard a little here) before their first Broadway show, Wildcat. About half the material on the 28-track collection will be familiar, at least in some form, to those who know his scores, while the other half consists of captivating trunk songs you're unlikely to have heard or even heard of.
The polish of Lorenz Hart's clever, tender, and/or bittersweet lyrics is so bright that sometimes the craft in expressing the emotions with such deft rhyming and spot-on vocabulary choices can obscure the emotions themselves. Leave it to a thoughtful singer-actor who's worked in both cabaret (as vocalist himself and directing many others) and musical theatre, including Broadway credits, to take Mr. Hart seriously and sensitively in three dimensions. Eric Michael Gillett gets back to basics and finds new layers. The clever, playful numbers are sophisticated spins. Ballads become acting pieces, with subtlety and shadings to make whatever the stance is full-bodied and convincing. Medleys become multi-part storylines. And musical director Don Rebic on piano makes it all the more classy and musically rich and original. Expect surprises that can illuminate show tunes you thought you knew and a few rarely done outside their original context.
JOHN KANDER AND OTHERS
Like Harbinger's look at Cy Coleman's demos, with a great composer heard playing piano and singing, the John Kander set is a real treateven more so, if only because it's a two-disc set. There are plenty of rarities here in this proverbial embarrassment of riches. You'll find lots of tracks with Fred Ebb doing more of the singing in his splashy and high-spirited way, giving much more than just a suggestion of character. These are mostly demos and work recordings, some works-in-progress, many from low-profile projects and those that never came to fruition. Many are so tantalizing that feelings of "What if ...?" and/or just wanting more accompany many of the curiosities. This is a full-career retrospective also covering Kander's pre-Ebb and post-Ebb years, right up to the present. He plays piano with care and theatricality and warmth. His singing is a bit reserved at times, especially as compared to ebullient Ebb. Additional tracks, some newly done, feature vocals by such bright stars as Karen Ziemba, Anita Gillette, and Brent Barrett. A big, fat booklet is chock full of facts and insights and the two-disc is set is chock full of wonderfulness.
A big congratulations and thanks go to remarkable voice gymnasts Amy London, Darmon Meader (of New York Voices), Dylan Pramuk, and Holli Ross. Their deliciously unlabored labor of love salutes and embodies the classic jazz vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The Royal Bopsters Project projects their polished professionalism and inherits their legacy. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' intricate and out-and-out outstanding harmonies, as they sing fast-flying strings of words set to classic instrumental jazz lines, were often multi-tracked, creating a human orchestra choir in addition to the lyrics first written for the pieces (if any had existed). Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross themselves are each featured on a track, adding a stamp of integrity and history, and some approved passing of the torch. Participating on a few cuts is the great and gutsy singer Mark Murphy, who sadly passed away close to the time of the disc's release. For those who grew up digging the cool and swinging elasticity and layered musicality of the original trio or belatedly discovered them, this group of singers and their simpatico elder statesmen guests (also Sheila Jordan and Bob Dorough). The whole is way more than the sum of the parts, but each of its parts is Grade A.
It's not the typical singer who can retain her own unique personality while sounding fully comfortable as a full-time "resident" of almost any genre of musicfrom Great American Songbook to country to contemporary musical theatre. Such a rare bird is Carolyn Montgomery-Forant. She may call herself a Visible Phoenix, but I say she's a chameleonyet one who is essentially always recognizably her splendid savvy self. This New York City-based cabaret performer took several years off from singing to run a restaurant and raise her son, who happens to have a striking singing voice himself. I'd heard her entertain here and there and had already been impressed with her early CD Reveille which predated my reviewing days here. The sabbatical years have been good to her and her voice: she has grown to sound more distinctive, "owning" material more. Especially in this live album, with some linking patter, she comes off like a wise soul with a strong streak of humor, not suffering fools gladly, knowing her way around, yet a sucker for a smile and romance when she lets herself go.
She opens with Oliver!'s "Who Will Buy?" and gets our attention right away with her effusive personality, command of the material and the bounty of her voice, varying the vocal colors and building the number. The album title is clarified and its meaning explored in an articulate number she co-wrote with Jeff Cubeta, "The Lady Phoenix," wherein she shows intelligence and perspective. By the time I get to "Phoenix"'s conclusion, I know this is someone who can make a three-minute song into a three-act play with suspense and surprises and satisfying conclusion. The Montgomery-Forant name appears as songwriting credit three more times here (twice as solo writer and one more collaboration with Cubeta, a noted New York City musical director) and they further establish her confident points of view and observations on the foibles and follies of others.
Her own "Mean Girls" calls out the subjects of its derision with devastating precision, but rather than doing so heavy-handedly from a lecture pulpit, she dons a sassy contemporary pop cloak to sashay and bounce in. On this and some others selections, she's joined in supportive commentary by a trio of female back-up singers, cutely called The Fine Whine. The formidable and gifted Jon Weber is on piano, although this act's numberswhich the vocalist has done with other musiciansdoes not bear his usual imprint or give him the focus I'd like in the mix, and a paucity of time to shine in the spotlight. (Newcomers to his masterful and pensive touch may join my wish when a solo stretch comes near the end.) Guitarist Sean Harkness gets a blissfully better opportunity, and the band is completed by bassist Matt Scharfglass, percussionist Rich Huntley, and especially impactful reed work by Jonathan Kantor.
Mr. Weber will be solo accompanist for an "unplugged" one-night return of the show on Thursday, February 18 at the same venue where the CD was recorded liveThe Laurie Beechman Theatre in The West Bank Café on Manhattan's Theatre Row (AKA West 42 Street).
An educated guess is that Carolyn Montgomery-Forant may have initially considered two of the CD's tracks for the sake of namesakes. But no matter, because she digs so convincingly into both Carolyn Leigh's juicy, sexy lyric "You Fascinate Me So" with Cy Coleman's slowly sizzling melody and "Angel from Montgomery," the atmospheric country item by John Prine. Her own young angel, her son, gets a dedication with the declamation of dedication from Camelot, "If Ever I Would Leave You" with a new musical style. With the sweet anecdotal set-up about her child's innocent comments, one might expect a tender crooning reassurance or the forceful blare we associate with Robert Goulet's booming original cast performance that became his signature piece. She chooses neither of these more obvious paths to tread. A breezy 1950s-styled doo-wop arrangement, with the backing singers, is instead the choiceone that by conventional logic shouldn't work to keep the sentiment intact, let alone enhance it. Rather than foolhardy or disrespectful, it charms and brings the proclamations and images of an exalted beloved one in Nature's season-changing picture-perfect settings into down-to-earth snapshots with implied hug. And more family warmth comes via "Danny's Song," Kenny Loggins' nod to the "chain of love" he observed in his brother's home and hearth and offspring.
In this eclectic set, one with Eric Michael Gillett billed as Artistic Director, there is an electric energy, with sparks flying (and sparks of creative energy). Maltby and Shire's "Life Story" portrait of a "feisty freelance writer" with a career, a "sensible divorce," and one son to raise becomes a full-out acting piece with the independent streak cutting a wide swath as she protests, "I'm not complaining." Judiciously, several phrases along the long lyric's episodic way are spoken instead of sung, making them serve as asides to the audience, as almost footnotes to the rest. "Remember Me" from Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish is another striking moment from musical theatre.
While the standard "For All We Know" has been probably too used often as a wistful audience/singer-bonding closer for nightclub and concert performers to appear a creative choice, it's no cliché here. Being so acquainted with this artist's big heart and humanity through the set, we feel the simple genuineness and the 1934 warhorse sounds fresh and the lady of the hour is in the momentand in her glory. And we bask in that, too.
This CD will be in wider release as we ease into February and available online. See www.carolynmontgomeryforant.com
Attend the tale of Stephen Sondheim: Most of his theatre songs are built in such jewel-like and complex ways, with every "hair" in place, that to tinker can be tantamount to tragedy. Many singers tend to perform them as written, finding little room, need, or inspiration for variation or shifts in tone or emphasis. Sure, it's respectful, but then so very many singers sound, well, so very much like the performances on the original cast albums. When "re-done" becomes "redundant," the listener's ear and mind and fancy are no longer tickled and we nod along and sing along in our heads, far from the edge of our seats. Enter Aaron Morishita. When he sings Songs by Sondheim, the oft-done and the less so, he amazes me with the refreshing shifts in emphasis and musical stresses he finds. This New York City song man and actor knows the power of a tiny pause, a sigh, an implied shrug, the echo of a chuckle, the differently shaded word with a brightening or darkening emotion. This is the album's first release, though it was actually recorded 15 years ago and foolishly shelved. He's not necessarily the character from the show, but his own cast of characters. He makes them work and makes them interesting. The appealing Morishita voice can sound youthfully naïve or world-weary or like a man conflicted. John Delfin's piano accompaniment is his ally and fellow intrepid investigator of new vistas and variations.
The big hits and evergreens of songwriter Irving Berlin are so numerous that those covering his work tend to concentrate on the middle-period gems. Beyond his early breakthrough smash "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "I Love a Piano" (both indeed included, along with the rarer delights), and a handful of other attention-grabbers, much from the beginning of his prodigious output has slipped through the cracks. Some is quaint, some written before his style was in full bloom, some reflect passing jump-on-the-bandwagon trends (songs to exploit or introduce new dance fads) and then there are the ethnic stereotype things that may raise eyebrows or admonishing pointed fingers today. The invaluable New World Records label champions the old worlds of music, and turns their caring attention to Irving Berlin's first steps. They bring us the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra led by Rick Benjamin with these pieces of their time sung with period stylings by capable vocalists, some on the more formal side and some with more comic character capering. The accompanying booklet of notes makes for a comprehensive history course in itself.
She started working as a singer sixty years ago, as a teenager, and still sounds silky and sweet. Sue Raney has a particularly lovely voice that I could listen to for hours on end with ease. Maybe because she sings with such ease and grace that it is never wearing or wearying. She graces anything she chooses to sing and beams positive vibes. Her approach to lyrics can be conversational without sacrificing the melodic line. I've been collecting her records for years and am so glad she is still recording at such a high level as well as performing live. (After many years, the California-based songbird appeared in New York City just a few years ago.) Her 2015 release, Late in Life, has the theme of romance that comes in mature years and is all the more appreciated and understood. The concept works! The sincerity and lived-in wisdom radiate and never cloy.
Unaffected approaches to logical choices like the classic "The Second Time Around" (Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn) are spot on. They are simple but effective in the phrasing and styling. When she sings that a love after the first blush(es) of youth recede and a relationship can be "more comfortable ... like a friendly home the second time you call," it's the coziest, most lived-in realization one can imagine feeling. And when she croons of that love she's so grateful for and describes it as "this miracle we found," Cahn's edging to wrapping up the lyric with this line isn't just a convenient rhyme for the title repeated at the very conclusion. It sounds fully thought and felt in the moment. Another Cahn lyric, "You Taught My Heart to Sing" (music: McCoy Tyner) feels equally in her comfort zone, even though it's more on the poetic, arty side. And sing she does, taking full advantage of an interlude of wordless vocalizing like a free-flying, free-spirited nightingale. The legato runs are exquisite with no sense of force or strain.
What a terrific idea to take Mel Brooks' "'Til Him" from The Producers and make it a tender, low-key romantic song. Breathy and dewy-fresh, rather than tongue-in-cheek grand, it's a small, sweet moment here that can just make you melt. Of course, there's no shortage of affection expressed exultantly in these choices. But it never becomes sappy or repetitive, despite consisting of 14 titles (two combined in a medley, with the dreamyliterally speakingstandards "My Ideal" and "Long Ago and Far Away" sharing the stage as appropriate partners about fantasy lovers being met in realityor not). Sue knows how to eschew the pessimistic part of "My Ideal" by sliding into the blissful dream-come-true happy ending delineated in the latter.
A number written by Adryan Russ and Shelly Markham gives Late in Life its titleand its musical director/pianist, as Markham's pitching the piece to the singer led to her not just assenting to take it on, but to take him on for the whole album project. His arrangements are generally graceful and unobtrusive, giving her space and a warm cushion of sound. Only one might seem too much off the by-then expected pillow cushion; that may be because it's "Something New in My Life" and they wanted to do "something new" with it. The brighter, brisker approach, I think, makes the lyric feel less rhapsodic than its potential can be in other versions I've heard. It's one of the two selections about finding love at a later stage that have lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, whose catalogue Miss Raney dedicated a full album to some time ago. The other is the more frequently recorded "On My Way to You" and is mature and measured; both have melodies by Michel Legrand.
Fans and newcomers to Sue Raney will note that she has what we might call a trick, a trademark, or an ace in the hole. She has a remarkably high upper range that can suddenly soar or slide up to. It's stunningly gorgeous. I suppose some may think she overdoes it, but it is so sensational and thrilling that I only want more and more of it. Happily, it typically is positioned in a way that is a climax, enhancing the already established mood and is like an explosion of joy, rather than upstaging the lyric or seeming just gratuitous or showing-off. On her jazzier discs, she exhibits her range more. In any case, she is sublime.
And, lest you think the album concept of finding love Late in Life is just a random whim to have a theme, the vocalist notes in her comments that it's because this reflects her own experience. She met her husband, Carmen Fanzone, retired professional baseball player who turned to playing brass instruments, "later in life." Julie Andrews is quoted as describing the vocalist this way: "As for Ms. Raneywell, she's a marvel" remains ravishing and quite the marvel here. Mrs. Fanzone's fan zone can only become bigger with this latest addition to an impressive body of work.
New or little-known Christmas songs too often resort to either rehashes of familiar clichés and rhymes or make us choke on sugar-poisoned cuteness. And when new Christmas albums come out, they most often trot out the same old few dozen done-to-death holiday evergreens that can suffer from a lack or original treatment or they desperately try to be different and are just lamely gimmicky. The record label Miranda Music's A New York Holiday is the brightest light on the Christmas tree in some time. A mix of classic and new material, all done with integrity and freshness, it's quite the rare blessing. There's a lot of emotion here. These New York-based cabaret artists, several of whom have their own solo albums on this label, are presented to great advantage. Reverence and romance, humor and happy-holidaying, jadedness and joythey all co-mingle successfully in this album that is a Christmas present that keeps on giving. Hallelujah!