Sound Advice Reviews
a Sondheim set, a Sondheim score,
It's "catch-up time," a chance to get to some recordings from this reviewer's ever-mounting pile. Let's start with the newest arrival–cabaret singer Jeff Harnar's ambitious mix of songs by Stephen Sondheim in a warm embrace. Then, the still-chilling impact of that writer's Assassins gets attention with the cast recording of its recent revival. Catching up on releases by female vocalists, I've picked out four from the stack: two women with the surname Taylor (Maureen and Katriona) and two Terrells (Liz and Sally).
As the years pile up, so do more recordings of Stephen Sondheim songs, as so many singers understandably want a crack at the repertoire for their own discographies. Arguably, it becomes an ever more valued asset to be creative, to try to offer something fresh rather than a slavish, albeit likable, sound-alike. Still, it's quite the challenge to "mess with" material that, especially for the most worshipful Sondheim fans, can seem ideal and sacred in ingrained-in-memory original cast renditions and orchestrations. Undaunted and bravely taking up the self-imposed dare to make us hear cherished old material with new ears, via new settings, are savvy veteran cabaret vocalist Jeff Harnar and top-drawer pianist/conductor/orchestrator Jon Weber, both credited with the inventive arrangement ideas. The 21-piece band brings vibrant colors and energy and the singer sounds consistently engaged and laser-focused.
Based on their live cabaret show of the same name (in which the singer sequences material to track personal experiences and perspective he relates to as a gay man), the studio recording I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim's Words, in a word, surprises. We can't depend on our memories and our memory's automatic-piloted cues to nod along to the tried-and-true tempi or to mouth the lyrics in the way we're used to them parading. We're kept on our toes or the edge of our seat, thanks to many unexpected tempo variations, pauses, musical accents, and the vocalist-as-dramatic-actor pointing up words and phrases by choosing to speak instead of sing them.
Most prominently, the shake-ups are achieved by canny combinations of songs: medleys are concocted to show connected ideas and subject matter. Although smaller samplings dropped in and then whisked away may feel like a frustrating tease, like a bit of "It's a Hit!" from Merrily We Roll Along, it's best to think of them as miniature bonus tracks within the main events. One delightfully odd odyssey goes on side-trips offering different points of view about marriage, combining three numbers from Company and providing a contrast to the frantic panic attack about "Getting Married Today" with "I'm Calm" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It's a funny thing made funnier and more neurotic. The listed elements of medleys aren't a reliable indicator of prominence, nor is every minor inclusion credited. Like planted "Easter eggs" for Sondheim fans to discover, there are quick nods to other things from the Company score sprinkled elsewhere, such as its title song, "Barcelona," and "Sorry-Grateful." The latter song is listed, but we only hear its first six words as a kind of postscript to "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues" (also known as "Buddy's Blues") in which jovial Jeff Harnar switches back and forth between his own voice and his spiffy imitation of Jimmy Durante. A few things pop up in more than one mash-up, such as the Into the Woods selection that gives I Know Things Now its title and "More," one of three representatives from the movie Dick Tracy.
Subdued moments work well, too, and not just as a let's-catch-our-breath change of pace from the busy and bubbling brews. "Send in the Clowns" is suitably pensive and wistful, and includes the additional lyrics Sondheim wrote at the request of Barbra Streisand for her to sing. Drama gets double impact with the welcome presence of KT Sullivan as guest duet partner on a knowing, nuanced "Every Day a Little Death," a souvenir of their duo Sondheim acts, which, like the solo set, pleased the songwriter, who attended.
To borrow the title of one of the included pieces, this set makes the music and lyrics feel like "Old Friends"–older but wiser, sometimes sporting new clothes and spruced up, but still reliably good company.
That too-familiar feeling is a shiver up and down the spine and it can come with each revisit to Assassins, the musical that puts us up close and personal with those whose goal was to kill an American president. You may be well acquainted with the piece, shock absorbers presumed to be in place, but be forewarned. Listening to this powerful third commercially released English language cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's score, representing the 2021 Off-Broadway revival by Classic Stage Company rekindles the emotional zap.
This cast of 15 casts a captivating spell. The cautionary, caustic piece causes undeniably unsettling sensations with its unbalanced characters' rants and creepy perspectives as well as the ugly truths and dark humor. In several key roles, the timbres of voices and approaches to characters are different enough from the other versions to make this one stand on its own strong merits. It does not include as much of John Weidman's dialogue as the 2004 Broadway cast recording, but the songs are well served by committed singing actors in solo and group assignments, and the lyrics and attitudes are crisply delivered with attention to detail.
Orchestrator/ music director/ keyboardist Greg Jarrett is part of an instrumental team that includes those who are also members of the acting ensemble. (This production was directed by John Doyle, who has made actors also serving as musicians a signature.) Playing his own guitar, Ethan Slater is the ingratiatingly glib Balladeer, serving as our narrator, history witness, and window into the minds and times of those with guns to shoot and axes to grind. His boyish, folksy charm and a voice that can flirt with braying or squeaking can gather steam and sternness to confront the formidable and ferocious portrayal of a seething John Wilkes Booth by Steven Pasquale in "The Ballad of Booth." Also especially commanding, in his own smoothly seductive way, is rich-voiced Eddie Cooper. He has the role of The Proprietor of the shooting gallery who enables and encourages the trigger-happy unhappy folks that "Everybody's Got the Right" to pursue any dream, leading that song that begins and ends the score.
This Assassins kind of takes a middle ground between the extremes. It does not milk the moments when it comes to the temptations to scare us, lecture us, or amuse us by delivering the comic relief. The potentially most frightening incidents of killing don't suffer from, excuse the expression, overkill; the most mentally unbalanced characters aren't played in such an over-the-top flamboyant way as to be purely silly and deny the accompanying danger. However, there are times when one might wish for more edge or the sense of being on a psychological precipice. Sometimes the uneasy incremental increase of danger and frustration is more haunting than the explosions, like when we watch the musical pot boil in "Another National Anthem," a large-group piece. A smaller group of just four–Will Swenson, Brandon Uranowitz, Judy Kuhn, and the aforementioned Steven Pasquale–are a marvelously motley crew expertly bringing many facets and flavors (plus a dash of harmony) to "Gun Song."
The booklet includes color photos, the lyrics, an essay of appreciation and history by Frank Rich. And the legacy of Stephen Sondheim lives on proudly in the fine performances on this latest cast recording.
"Please may I have your attention" happens to be the first line of the first song ("More Than Meets the Eye") on singer Maureen Taylor's set and indeed heeding this polite request, if applied to the whole program, reaps rewards. The smartly crafted songs are worth drinking in, in all their character and lyric specificity that waft with lilt. Cosmic Connections: The Lyrics of Michael Colby is a splendid, classy showcase for that writer's varied output, collaborations with 10 different composers, many from musical theatre scores. (That opening treat is from Dangerous, written with John C. Introcaso.) The program is based on a presentation done in cabaret in 2019 and revived this spring.
With her silvery high soprano and pristinely precise articulation, Maureen Taylor's sound might initially suggest a certain refinement and elegance, the feel of a formal musical recital. But she isn't arch or distanced from the material. She seems to take delight in the comedy moments; you can sense her raising an eyebrow when she lowers her voice for a sly aside. On the subject of vocal range, she's a hoot dropping into some basement sounds with "Keep It Low" from the musical about those working in a circus of freak voices, Charlotte Sweet (composer: Gerald Jay Markoe).
The Connection collection concludes with spoken comments and confident reprises two of its strong carpe diem statements: one about finding joy and romance "Better Late Than Never" (from Great Big River, melody by Jack Urbont) and "My Song" (Peter Millrose). Along the way, there are numbers that are imbued with encouraging philosophy such as "Let Go" (The Human Heart, composer: Steven Silverstein), sincerity galore, and nods to holidays. Deft, attentive accompaniment is by pianist Seth Weinstein, who helps enormously in sympathetically shaping and building numbers to embraced conclusions.
Laidback, lush, sultry, smooth, or sweet–or some combination of these characteristics–describe most of the ambient moods swirling through Katriona Taylor's fifth release, her first in a dozen years, and it has a dozen tracks. They are equally divided between covers and those written by this British singer. Its title, Blind Passion, references the fact that she's visually impaired and also that she has chosen six numbers recorded by blind singer-instrumentalists named in her liner notes. Some of those have been sung by many other folks over the years, so you might not immediately or solely associate the songs with those artists, with the exception of the two numbers where the vocalist in question is also the writer–namely Stevie Wonder.
Those Wonder choices are an especially cozy "My Cherie Amour" and the percolating "Master Blaster" (Jammin')." Nods to numbers recorded by José Feliciano are "As You See Me Now" and his version of The Doors' "Light My Fire" with not so much fire but rather appealing slow-burning embers in Miss Taylor's treatment. Ray Charles gets a salute as one of the many who got to Leon Russell's "A Song for You" (garnering him one of his 17 Grammy Awards) and the Blind Passion version is elegant and thoughtful, one of the most persuasive in the set, enhanced by a lovely flute solo. The inclusion of the jazz standard "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" that dates back to 1931 was inspired by Diane Schuur's 1985 cover.
With a couple of exceptions that have some kick, most tracks are mellow and lovey-dovey and are handled with assured professionalism. Grace and gloss are favored over gravitas. A very relaxed approach to some slow-tempo tracks lets them float along on cushioned layers of instrumentation (seven musicians participate in the pleasantness) and her own multi-tracked voice. Thus, they might not assert themselves to grab immediate attention. But they have their understated smile-inducing charm to rescue most of the pack from being relegated to the background. Among the six originals, I find the standout to be the cheery "Makes Me Wanna Stay." Some of the self-penned offerings rely on lyrics that are filled with simple images and observations about bliss and relationships that come off as reserved, more moody/mellow than moving.
Blind Passion serves up passion, though much of it is subdued and muted. But Katriona Taylor's liquid voice is gratifyingly easy on the ears and her musicians add tasty accents.
In my years of reviewing debut solo recordings by female vocalists covering the Great American Songbook and jazz classics, my head spins when considering the sheer number of them. But it's all right with me when, like with It's All Right with Me by Virginia-based Liz Terrell, it's something so accomplished and with a personal stamp and stance. The two Cole Porter pieces, "Night and Day" and the one giving the release its title, are drenched in moody atmosphere and longing. The same can be said for Elvis Costello's attractively sophisticated "Almost Blue." There's nothing "almost" about the way the singer takes command of her material, taking lyrics and moods seriously, wrapping her alto voice around the darker material. The stoicism and stifling of tears on the Cy Coleman/ Joseph McCarthy Jr. declaration "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" shows in-the-moment thought in spinning out its phrasing.
But the 11 tracks are not by any means mired in dire doom and gobs of gloom. "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which could justify a swerve towards self-pity, bounces back with a fast-and-forceful punch and swing. And there's cozy serenity in a splendid three-item festival of Fats Waller signatures and in "Time After Time" (the Cyndi Lauper/ Rob Hyman composition, not the earlier same-named standard). But the hopeful optimism for love as the prescribed potent panacea for "What the World Needs Now" is measured and cautious, adding impactful depth to the '60s hit that can otherwise feel unrealistically sugar-coated.
Liz Terrell wears her jazz hat with style, going with the flow, scatting a bit with abandon, lingering in the languid, in the groove on the fleet tracks, at home with "Blue Monk" (Thelonious Monk's bebop standby with singer Abbey Lincoln's lyric). Spotlight is shared with the five fine musicians, with plenty of time given over to instrumental passages. They are bassist Chris Brydge (with whom the singer has done duo shows), pianist Daniel Clarke, sax player Eddie Williams, guitarist Alan Parker, and drummer Emre Kartari. Most of the cuts are on the long side, permitting space for all to be heard to full advantage and deeply explore the music and lyrics–and to relish them, which these six people seem to do. I think lucky listeners will do the same.
I think that singer Sally Terrell's Feel Alive could just as easily have been called Feel Deeply because, as soul-bearing singer and writer, she seems to be so soberly experiencing and examining emotions and events, including the impact of the pandemic. This is serious stuff. The sequencing of the tracks alternates her originals with those that are showtunes and standards. Her phrasing is intimate, direct, sometimes offering challenge or confession, but always with an admirably authentic feel. Her eyes are wide open. Nothing is pat.
John di Martino is the eminently skillful and sensitive pianist, arranger, and music director. He is joined by six other musicians, with background singers entering for most of the Terrell-penned numbers. Among the instrumentalists is Aaron Heick (playing saxes, clarinet, flute, English horn), veteran of the orchestras of ten Broadway shows and albums of many top pop singers.
Sally Terrell is no Pollyanna. In this, her third recording, sadness and hope vie for favor. With the established material, beautifully expressed sorrow wins the day, whether it seems obligatory and obvious (unrequited love sighed over in the old country crossover hit "You Don't Know Me" and the embittered lonely lament "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")–or not so much. In that "not so much" category, the expected bursts of exultation are rationed in pensive, slow takes on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and even more in Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love." There's more tension and tentativeness than confidence that the years will bring an all-or-nothing commitment time "When I Fall in Love" (until the end, where it's almost a reversal). Such choices are intriguing but risky, going along with a grown-up, pandemic-informed sensibility that life is unpredictable and happiness is not guaranteed. Maybe it's about being wary and watchful or lost in thought and reserved. In any case, the vocals and arrangements are attractive to hear and the added drama intrigues.
With a teary eye imagining a possible future reconnection, wistfulness is evoked with "Some Other Time" from 1944's Broadway musical On the Town. (By some accident or confusion, composer Leonard Bernstein is not indicated in the songwriter credits which list Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the words and were in the original production, plus two of their co-stars.)
The originals are bold and ultimately life-affirming, with reality checks in abundance, mourning the state of the world, but intent on changes for the better. Feel Alive's title composition (presented in two versions) revels in the rejuvenating tactile pleasures of Nature in a lockdown world. In the pleading "Beautiful," we're challenged to see things from another's point of view to combat prejudice. Another number tells us to "Choose" to live with purpose and reject "chasing rainbows and fairy tales." A booklet accompanying the CD includes the singer's comments about the recording and lyrics to the five original songs. So much on Feel Alive feels like it is about being present in the moment and provokes thought and questioning–and I suppose that's a big part of what it means to fully feel alive.