Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Sara Zahn: Both Sides of Bernstein and
Ellynne Rey: The Birdsongs Project
Reviews by Rob Lester


Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project

Sometimes it's totally OK to be a little late to the party. Although the release of Sara Zahn's triumphant tribute to Leonard Bernstein comes in the year after the composer's centenary, it's more than welcome and very well done, a convenient excuse to extend the celebrating. Turn the spotlight back on because Both Sides of Bernstein decidedly underscores the impressive versatility of the genre-hopscotching writer who made an indelible mark both with Broadway music in its own traditional feel as well as expansions informed by his prodigious classical bent (thus the album title). While that is hardly headline news to even casual observers, it similarly takes a singer whose chops, choices, and sensibilities have the required range to do juicy justice to "both sides" to fully deliver the goods. Sara Zahn delivers. And the generous-length program was done live in front of an audience with just piano (played by Rod Derefinko). This is a gifted vocalist's belated birthday gift to all concerned: the recording was actually made way back in 1994 at the end of a Philadelphia engagement.

Repertoire is an embarrassment of riches: well-known numbers, recycled/repurposed material, songs cut from or added to scores along the way, even something from an abandoned musical (the striking "Spring Will Come Again," masterfully sung, from an unfinished musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, also once tackled by Kander and Ebb—Bernstein's intended project had lyrics by early-career collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, much represented here.) The count increases with some getting shorter shrift or a jostled landing, due to being parts of medleys themed to common subject matter (love, house, gardens, New York City).

The singer, who can dazzlingly belt, winsomely caress, or parade her power-piped passages, also has an appealing vibrato that brings out emotion. She seems equally comfortable in selections that lean operatically and those that are loose and playful (like a strutting, uninhibited "I Can Cook Too"). Still, the endeavor comes off more like a respectful recital and less like a cabaret with songs rethought or reinvented to reveal the singer's personal perspectives or to bring new ways to look at material. For example, tempo and accompaniment figures that drive and buoy West Side Story's "Cool" and "Something's Coming" are doggedly detail-familiar, although they don't straitjacket the in-the-moment fervor or crispness. (A small section of the score's "I Feel Pretty" is more of a glib throwaway to set up some patter on roles of women—in society, that is, not in musicals.)

Bernstein as his own competent lyricist gets deserved attention and provides some of the most impressive moments: samples from Trouble in Tahiti; the delicate "My House" from his Peter Pan; "My New Friends" (written for The Madwoman of Central Park West); "Ain't Got No Tears Left"; a mighty "We Are Women" (added to Candide for a London update). Perhaps the long gap between the performance and release (and time since Bernstein's death in 1990) makes us miss and appreciate his contributions all the more. An unintended latter-day perspective in this American political whirlpool comes in listening to the three items from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue written with Alan Jay Lerner. The whys, hows and whats of the many possible choices for inclusion are detailed in the physical CD's booklet by Barry Kleinbort, who offered some of the wise suggestions (including the tribute subject itself) in addition to directing and sharing credit with the performer for the arrangements.

If, like me, you have been collecting the better songwriter tribute albums for some time, and organize your CDs alphabetically by singers' last names, Sara Zahn's memorable Witch Craft, embracing the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, might have been the last (but not least) item on your shelf. Now, that 1999 release has a worthy next door neighbor. And, if you want to get both, there is a special deal from Harbinger Records, through July 31. Purchase Both Sides of Bernstein at Amazon, email your Amazon Order Confirmation Number as proof of purchase and your current mailing address to, and they will send you a free copy Sara Zahn's Witch Craft: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh.


It's a fortuitous fact that vocalist Ellynne Rey happens to be a birdwatcher/admirer because it has inspired her to record a full album of songs about her fine-feathered friends who raise their voices in song—as she does so attractively herself. The collection of a dozen eclectic pieces makes for a relaxed listen fused with sensitive singing with tasteful, warm accompaniment of a band featuring simpatico keyboardist Bennett Paster, who also graced Rey's prior recording reviewed in this column five years ago (and serves as co-producer with her here).

The subject matter of this mellow mix reminds me of happily listening to another jazz artist's offering (the women's names are even similar): the great Carmen McRae's Birds of a Feather. There's a six-decade spread between these releases, but some songs remain classics, and Rey and McRae chose three of the same ones: "Flamingo" and two numbers co-written by Hoagy Carmichael, "Baltimore Oriole" and "Skylark." It's a revisit to "Skylark" by the performer who recorded it on her early Daydream back when she was billed as Ellynne Plotnick. With numerous other bird-related possibilities having been written in intervening years, newer options came to the fore, notably several from singer-songwriters which nevertheless notably get stamped with originality here: Abbey Lincoln's "Bird Alone"; Paul McCartney's "Blackbird"; Joni Mitchell's "Song to a Seagull"; Blossom Dearie's "I Thought I Heard a Hummingbird." And there are fine contributions by Ellynne herself. Another winner is "The Shadow of Your Smile," the Grammy and Oscar-winning theme from the film The Sandpiper, whose verse works in the sole mention of that named bird (lyric to Johnny Mandel's melody by Paul Francis Webster, also Carmichael's collaborator on "Baltimore Oriole").

Communing with winged creatures and imbuing them with wisdom, especially in profusion, could cloy or become coy. For a moment at one point what flashed in my head was a line from the script of Into the Woods where Little Red Ridinghood skeptically says to Cinderella: "You talk to birds?!?" But no worries here. Although Ellynne Rey does often come off as super-sensitive and convincing as someone ready, willing and able to lend an especially attentive ear and eye to these creatures, addressing them directly, I buy into it. In those questions asked by Johnny Mercer's "Skylark" lyric ("Skylark, have you anything to say to me?/ Can you tell me where my love can be?"), mood isn't sentimental and the tempo has some oomph. Indeed, that lark could have trouble getting in a word edgewise. Likewise, if you assume the title of the singer's original offering "Conversations with a Snowy Owl" will appeal only to the most dedicated birdwatcher or unhinged aviary visitor, give it a chance. It is actually both sweet and compelling.

Thankfully, the instrumentation does not get cheap or obvious with approximations of bird sounds. Percussion percolates. But the musicians do get some lengthy solos that allot a lot of time for moody reflection. Joel Frahm's sax, which can be assertive or subtle, and Freddie Bryant's guitar are especially welcome. Most of the tracks are on the longer side, but meandering or over-stayed welcomes are not the result when things are this mesmerizing as a result of the laser-beamed focus that makes one give in and give rapt attention. And there's such variety as things progress—from an art song vibe to the standards to classical (Franz Schubert lieder with a beat and Rey's English words about "The Crow") to out-and-out jazz (Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" revamped with Rey adding scat and hip vocalese with her own storytelling words). Vocally there are many colors, too, with high and low tones that swirl and swoop or stay the course for some straight, less ornamented paths.

Ellynne Rey will make an appearance in midtown Manhattan with this material on July 11, 2019, at Club Bonafide. It's a fairly rare flight for this talented jazz bird who basically nests in Connecticut.

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