Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Sung and/or written by:
Joe, Jo, John, and Jackie
Reviews by Rob Lester

Ghostlight Records

Totalling a massive 44 tracks, the new digital-only cornucopia of songs by Joe Iconis would, if released in physical CD or vinyl form, be a bountiful box set–and there's no question that this writer thinks outside the box! Simply titled Album, and recorded last year, the studio performances feature a handful of his own vocals, himself very ably on keyboards to drive the engines, and many folks who've repeatedly been in the man's musicals and concerts; they're fondly known and billed as the "Family." This high-voltage Family reunion is populated with dozens of delightfully daring singer-actors who seem to fearlessly and fruitfully go full-out in portraying even the quirkiest off-center types. Much of his oeuvre qualifies Mr. I. to be proclaimed as the patron saint of misfits, the mad, and the misunderstood, supplying juicy material galore for interpreters like the more-than-game individuals who inhabit the portraits here.

Humor can be dark and subversive, but there are some gentler and universal reflections balancing the batch of outsized and outlandish scenarios. Thus, a listening marathon doesn't become an exhausting parade of people needing psychiatric intervention and teetering on the verge of losing their dreams, patience, perspective, sanity, self-control, or the will to live. In the more extreme and edgiest cases, some have crossed over the edge. The triumphing savvy interpreters make them vulnerable and sympathetic or simply hilarious. Participating musician Charlie Rosen's complementary and combustive orchestrations up the ante with color and an underbelly of mounting tensions, sometimes risking relentless build and force. But they succeed because they are justified by the inherent builds in the fierce material and performers' commitment. Numerous songs that end with lines that repeat a lot in what would otherwise be potentially anticlimactic and redundant instead take on the exhilarating momentum of inevitably ever-accelerating snowballs sweeping down a hill to crash.

So very many highlights and unique vignettes make me want to cop out and glibly invoke the title of track #41: "It's All Good." But I'll note a few personal favorites. That happy group number is from the musical The Black Suits, as is the standout "Joey Is a Punk Rocker," revisited by its original cast member Annie Golden with ageless spirit and spunk. Lorinda Lisitza brilliantly seesaws between simmering and raging as "Helen Sharp," a lady off her rocker or at least off her meds. Finding heart, humor, and elements of humanity in non-human beings, Liz Lark Brown is an endearing dinosaur as the "Velociraptor" in the same spirit as Jason SweetTooth Williams makes a mechanical man sympathetic with "Flesh and Bone" (aka "The Robot's Song"). And I dare you not to smile and sing along with the very specialized loopy Yuletide spirit heard in "The Prisoner's Christmas Song" (Grace McLean getting goofily in the swing of things) or a cute-as-can-be ditty the tunesmith wrote as a child (and later embellished): "Muthers R Speshel (Wen Yer Sad)," and it's got a bubbly cheerleader in fellow scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, with the Family chorus chiming in.

One curiosity comes via the thrice-represented and terrific Lauren Marcus (who probably gets to hear lots of things first, as she's also the writer's wife), fully embodying a glimpse into a "what-might-have-been" score: "Lydia's Song," pitched when the job of creating a stage musical of the movie Beetlejuice was being sought.

And certainly Joe Iconis is engaging on his own several solos that have pithy observations of writers and performers (and their relationships with people and their art). The encouragement to always Try Again" has a sweet and sincere flavor, drawn from the same well of understanding that makes even his seemingly unredeemable or unrelatable dramatis personae involving.

Lateralize Records
CD, Digital, Vinyl

Contemplative while conversational, singer Jo Harrop manages to seem both deeply absorbed in her private thoughts and determined to have her feelings understood by whomever she's addressing. In this exceptionally intimate presentation, the listener is in her thrall, becoming her audience of one and a beneficiary of hard-won wisdom. Throughout The Heart Wants one senses deep emotions from the deep-voiced singer, who co-wrote eight of the 13 selections included.

Empathy abounds to such a degree that the British-based Jo Harrop comes off like a trusted life coach who just happens to be a mesmerizing performer who knows how to set–and settle into–a mood. Consider two of the originals: "Better days will come/ You're not alone," she assures, in "Everything's Changing," acknowledging life's unpredictability. The repeated promise of "I'm on your side" penetrates in "Life Inside," with added soothing vocal support from Marcus Bonfanti. These non-judgmental shows of support are in the spirit of one of the covers–the Tom Waits composition "Rainbow Sleeves" that radiates with tender loving care.

From track to track, accompaniment is by different complements of impressive musicians. Included are three appearances by top-flight bassist Christian McBride who commandingly partners for a not-too-weepy take on the jazz classic that laments a romance ending "All Too Soon" (Duke Ellington/ Carl Sigman). In the collection's longest track (7:40), we are treated to a decidedly non-stentorian but sweetly rhapsodic glide through Camelot's "If Ever I Would Leave You," as the lady in love often turns one syllable into two or three melting notes, with pianist Jason Rebello as sole accompanist, taking a luxurious solo. He also leads the charge for cheer in the mood-elevator piece among the largely serious repertoire, a song about stepping out dressed in "Red Mary Janes & a Brand New Hat."

Other strong-impact instrumentalists include a few who are also songwriting collaborators: two other pianists–Hannah Vasanth and Paul Edis–as well as guitarist Jamie McCredie. The latter two were major collaborators with the singer on separate previous releases, filled with standards: a guitar/vocal set and an Edis-led Christmas release. (Miss Harrop also has a recording with an unrelated jazz trio).

Wise and warm, The Heart Wants leaves me wanting more of Jo Harrop's rewardingly rich heart-on-the-sleeve sensibilities.

Dot Time Records
CD and Digital

The disarming title song for John Minnock's Simplicity has both melody and words by musical theatre and film veteran David Shire, and the serious-minded, mindful singer eases into the comfort zone of gratitude. The lyric revels in such non-materialistic joys as "the perfume of a new-mown lawn" and spending days contentedly spent "not keeping score, not wanting more."

The mellow, bluesy Minnock employs some of the same collaborators as on prior releases. Soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman masterfully drenches the proceedings in dreamlike, soulful atmospherics that bring out tenderness, yearning, and mournful qualities as he weaves in and out. He becomes more forceful in Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," largely an instrumental, with some wordless vocalizing.

There are eight tracks, half of which were composed by one of the set's pianists, Mathis Picard, with lyrics by Erick Holmberg and the singer or by Holmberg alone. Perhaps not instantly accessible (although their basic emotions are evident), attentive repeat exposure pays off. They tend to be memory pieces, reflecting on relationships in the rear view mirror, wistfully.

Sean Mason takes over the keyboard for the program's two standards (both about love lost and from the 1940s), "Angel Eyes" and "You Don't Know What Love Is." John Minnock plays pain and perspective well. Feel that unabashed heartache on sustained notes! These two gems give the singer's voice and ability to act a lyric their best showcases. They are also the longest tracks, each clocking in past the seven-minute mark as they also give the band generous playing time. (The vocal on "Angel Eyes" doesn't even come in until more than three minutes have gone by, but the musicians don't at all overstay their welcome.) The album's other musicians are drummer Pablo Eluchans and bassist Mark Lewandowski (except for the title song when Carlos Mena takes over).

Messrs. Minnock and Liebman reunite in Manhattan at 54 Below on August 4 to play material from Simplicity which, simply put, puts guts and grace on display.

CD and Digital

Originally a self-released CD about a decade ago, the perhaps necessary arrangement to engage a publicist has resulted in Necessary Arrangements by songstress Jackie Messina being reissued. (It was not previously reviewed here.) It has a baker's dozen of mostly familiar items given energized, feel-good treatments.

The arrangements are mostly by the singer, except for three souvenirs of input provided by the late Enos Payne, whose jazz workshop some years ago gave her guidance and inspiration. His charts are for West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty," with its time signature changed to gain a intriguingly fresh, fleet flow; "Wild Is the Wind," which becomes, pardon the pun, breezier as it sheds its usual grandeur; and a blithe "I Believe in You," from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with music and lyric by Frank Loesser.

Bouncing and swinging rather than moving with its old slow-mo measured crawl, "Inchworm" is another Loesser piece (introduced in the film Hans Christian Andersen). Generally, genial and jazzy joyrides prevail. Hop aboard Jackie Messina's "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and the pace will ebb and flow amiably along the Oklahoma! roads. "Show Me" doesn't show its in-context fiery frustration–that My Fair Lady demand is here more of a lower-flame, lower-pressure plea that suggests lower expectations.

Five musicians are on hand. Splendidly nimble pianist Bruce Barth anchors the muscular but not overwhelming accompaniment, with flavorful excursions from Will Galison's harmonica. Cliff Barbaro is the understated drummer, while Paul Beaudry and Ed Howard share bass duties. Laidback, tasteful playing and Jackie Messina's seeming serenity in her phrasing of lyrics and her creamy vocalese passages work against the potential for anguish and despair in "I'm a Fool to Want You" or languor and sultriness that might be in the air for "Slow, Hot Wind."

The New York City singer has a sunny sound and unfussy manner, with noticeably crisp diction so no lyric is unheard, obscured, or slurred. There's a smile in her voice.