Sound Advice Reviews
Female vocals filed under H:
Hey, here's a happy and heartfelt halt at H while browsing an alphabetical list of recently-released albums by female vocalists.
Seeing her entertaining act in person in Manhattan, I recall how she cutely tells her audience in cabaret rooms that she used to be married to Jerry Herman. It's true. No, not that Jerry Herman, theatre fans. The running bit was that Peggy Herman was married to a Mr. Herman whose first name was Jerry ... but this one sold carpeting. Anyway, on this CD (based on the live show), she sounds very much married to the music and lyrics of the musical theatre legend, and three of the 13 tracks are musical marriages: pairings of songs that co-habitate nicely to inform each other's perspectives, despite being from different scores in each case. For example, the bittersweet look back at a lost love, Dear World's "And I Was Beautiful" is preceded by another tale of memorieswhich apparently can change context so it does not have to imply that the lovers are still together. It's La Cage aux Folles's "Song on the Sand." (The number is accidentally listed in all three places on the CD and its packaging as "Song in the Sand"oopsbut let's just say this nice song treatment shouldn't be buried). There's a little sand sometimes in Peggy's throaty voice, as well as a widening vibrato, but it mostly works to advantage for emotion and a sense of frequent-flyer miles in life and love. (Her earlier album of songs mostly with Johnny Mercer lyrics has invested drama and punch that hold up well, too.)
There's creative re-thinking here on many pieces that many of us have known so very well for so many years. Forget the notion of just recycling the happy and peppy and sing-alongy to (re)create a commotion. Pianist Alex Rybeck's creative arrangements and orchestrations for the seven musicians, the tempo choices, and the projected persona of this confident vocalist reap a rich bounty. It takes immersion and insight to be able to make this magic. They've got it.
This is no paint-by-numbers approach. And I think it's time the colorful Herman songbook got a new prism to reveal something beyond the bright, peppy colors of the bouncy optimism songs and the blue hues of the heartfelt ballads. The latter are treated more conservatively, without phoning it in or cloning it up at all. The musical comedy conservative may just wanna tap his toes may turn up his nose, but I'd do battle to try to convince because, interestingly, the gist of what each song is about at its very full heart comes through proudly intact. And that's true even when things might at first seem playful or casual.
Although, frustratingly, Jerry Herman is not the most prolific of the veterans, Peggy still finds more than the usual "usual suspects": it's marvelous to have her include choices from Milk and Honey (the album-ending warm "Shalom" and "It's As Simple as That," the latter paired with Miss Spectacular's "No Other Music"). There's also "To Be Alone with You" from Ben Franklin in Paris (a score he didn't get credit for adding to back in the day) and more. And for her full-length track slot from Hello, Dolly!, she chooses one of the rarely approached numbersone written for the score, then dropped but re-inserted when the originally-hoped-for star, Ethel Merman, took on the role years later: a vibrant "World, Take Me Back."
Let's look at some examples from the score of Mame, an album I played non-stop as a teenager and whose original-cast performances and orchestrations I never fell out of love with. Smart and sometimes tart, there's more than an ear-opening splash of spunk to Peggy's recipes, suggesting a lyric line of one of the numbers she coversMame's title song: "You give my old mint julep a kick." She adds a welcome wink to it from the start, making it more than just a strut and a toast. There's an even bigger surprise with the score's other toast-to living life fully and in the moment "It's Today." It's done not with the usual pep-rally bounce and bubbliness, but in a slow tempo, as if anticipating and then relishing every moment mentioned. You could call it seductively sexy, too. (There's also a brief instrumental nod to another invitation to "Get Happy" with the Harold Arlen melody of that title.) When it's time to go deeper, Peggy Herman can turn in a lament that sounds lived-in and deeply felt, such as the non-bombastic "When He Walked Into My Life," treated pensively as an inner monologue. It's accompanied for much of the track primarily and sensitively by NYC cabaret's most ubiquitous guitarist, the talented, award-winning Sean Harkness. In fact, the fuller band appearing for and beyond the instrumental break to lead to the heartbreak and build are oddly anti-climactic after the delicacy. "Loving You" from the film version of Mame, where it was sung by Robert Preston, is also included and is played pretty straight as an affectionate, appreciative sum-up of contentment, laced with love and similes.
Fervent, fun, and feistywith sufficient returns to form for the romance and regretPeggy Herman on Herman on disc is a special pleasure for the more adventurous. File under H for Hallelujah!
LINDA BELLE HALPERN
There's more than a cup of sugar in Linda Belle Halpern's sweetened musical recipes on her CD, Cravings: Songs of Hunger & Satisfaction. She sings in a clear, pleasant manner with some musical comedy sensibilities as she skips along her merry way through familiar numbers about desires for particular comfort foods as well as the hunger for recognition, success and love in its various forms. Accompaniment is just piano by Ron Roy, who also is the arranger and co-producer of the album with the singer, capping a 25-year friendship. While not taking many musical risks or detours, with little embellishment, his work is solid and supportive, lively and adaptable to the different styles. It's not just a theme album concocted for the audio experience; there's a cabaret/theatre version incorporating the material along with talk. That's how I first became familiar with it, seeing an abridged version, the chatty and warm talk added to the mix and, most notably, she actually prepares food (her grandmother's Passover recipe, as I recall) during the performances and serves it up to the audience.
Though she presents an affable personality, the performances for me often stay in the "safe" wading/splashing zone of the musical pool. There's a pervasive politeness and caution emotionally. It's as though being too ravenous or lusting with gusto is, darn it, just not wise or welcome.
There are several show tunes, including a gently bittersweet "I'm Not That Girl" (Wicked). Letting go and going for broke or a broken heart in the serious numbers is not happening, robbing them of more drama. "I Was Here," an excellent number about wanting to be remembered and have a legacy and notoriety, from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' score of The Glorious Ones, does not have the passion, determination and doubt others have brought to it. There's the general wish, but the stakes are lower and more calmly delineated, so it flickers rather than burns with desire. A "girlishness" beyond her youthful sound prevails, even as some vocal build impresses. It's spunky and bright, but the "Nice Lady" peeks out of the masks so often. She backs away almost as much as possible from a couple of crass words others have played up and bellowed in David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish" comic kvetch, but does cut loose somewhat here and still finds her own winning way with it, building the frustrations neatly.
The lighter fare fares best, like the chipper "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House," the old novelty number rhyming people's names with food ("Have some lasagna, Tanya"), with an extra serving of Jewish comfort food added. Megon McDonough's breezy bit (about 90 seconds long) about memories of the glory days when having "Butter" and other not-good-for-you foods was not taboo is nifty in this singer's hands. The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" gets the parody lyrics of Michael Oster and Lori Glaser to be a list song all about the joys of chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
The CD, also embracing ethnic roots in a couple of numbers, might benefit from a few more numbers that aren't as well-known, but that might tackle the same subjects. Belle Linda Halpern has a pretty voice, and with "Linda" and "Belle" both meaning that adjective, she has a pretty good advantage. And I'll be interested to see what serves up next.
Perusing a thesaurus to find adjectives to describe Lynn Henderson's album, I can honestly choose "heartfelt," but an asterisk next to my word would be attached to a disclaimer with the word "hesitant" there. So, let me get that out of the way. I'm hesitant because, as much as I like the personality that comes through and some warm and wise phrasing, there are some vocal issuestoo often struggling for ideal pitch on trickier notes and reaches, and some briefly-passing moments that just sound vocally unsure, shaky or "tired." Granted, some listeners are much more sensitive to or bothered by this than others. Some have better "ears" and some can listen past the problem more when a singer projects an engaging personality, good acting skills for interpreting lyrics and telling the story of the song, and sounds like she believes the lyrics. Lynn Henderson has those important qualities. The Connecticut resident is not a young woman, and some of the pluses and problems mentioned can come with age for singers. It's not a big voice, so it's not a matter of a big, out-of-control wobbly vibrato roaring along. When she's on target, on musically less demanding workouts, she can be quite engaging, tender, and sometimes wryly funny.
A major attraction of this album: some marvelous discoveries as far as material. Those items come from the man working here as her pianist/musical director/arranger, Douglas J. Cohen, known by theatre folk know as the writer of music and/or lyrics. There are two collaborations with lyricist Tom Toce (including the CD's title song) and one with his own pleadingly sincere words, "Come Back to Bed," from their work on A Charles Dickens Christmas ("Friend or foe, I'm still your wife"). However, the album's gem is a very clever delight about a very clever delight about falling for "The Wrong Man"not your run-of-mill cad song, but a lyric weaving in several Alfred Hitchcock movie titles, concerning the kind of fellow who could fit right in as a character ("the clear mistake that piques your interest like no right man ever can/ Always Petter Lorre, never Cary Grant ... the man your show your mother'd love/ If she's a Tony Perkins fan"). It also references "Send in the Clowns" and they interpolate the first line. (Toce, many years ago wrote a sensationally cute parody lyric to this classic about restaurant-ordering disappointments called "Send in the Clams" which Sondheim admired and framed and put on his wall.)
Less captivating are standards that have been very, very heavily covered for a big bunch of years by a big bunch of singers, such as "It Might as Well Be Spring," "That's All," and two by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke ("But Beautiful" and "Imagination") as well as two Jobim melodies ("Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" and "Dindi") with their English lyrics.
Joined also by very subtle work from bassist Jennifer Leitham, member of the DIVA! Jazz Orchestra, and that great group's drummer/leader Sherrie Maricle, our singer starts off her Singer at Work workout pretty well with "I'm the Big Band Singer" written by Merv Griffin (who was one) and segues then into a musician's home-sweet-homesick shrug, "Sweet Kentucky Ham" (Dave Frishberg). Notable here is that not only does one number sometimes give way to the next without a pause between, but many of tracks are far shorter than on most vocal outings, with 13 of the 17 clocking in at under two-and-a-half minutes. "Fever" as short as just over one minute and an echo-heavy "I Will Wait for You" is even briefer (ironically, the lyric's first line is "If it takes forever ... ").
Overall, the more playful excursions work best. Lynn Henderson also shows a kind spirit and sincerity to the point that one hopes that more judicious choices and diligence might produce more fully successful renditions of tailored-to-strengths material. Because she clearly has something to offer when things gel.
LUA HADAR with TWIST
Singing in sevencount 'em, sevendifferent languages, Lua Hadar's rich voice and strong, commanding presence and overall musicality transcend language barriers quite well for those ready for some international flavor. We're rather out of our usual show music/cabaret/standards pool here, but since we first came across the California-based chameleon in cabaret circles, I wanted to cover this. The vocalist has proven her versatility and comfort level with an ever-widening range of material even before this; her earlier work from her days as one-third of a "girl group" to a recent album showcasing her rich tones and full sound don't make me overly surprised by Like a Bridge's variety. The album title is plucked from the opening number, Paul Simon's classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which is sung in English in a room-filling, dramatic fashion that is as much balm as it is empowerment exercise with a vocal performance that somehow encompasses a deepest-toned early section to a lighter conversational phrasing to something that melds operatic stance and earth mother. And just when you think the accompaniment is insistent and mantra-like, it begins to float and loosen up. "Help me to be like a bridge," she sings in a modification of the lyric as it concludes.
Lua's voice has the kind of intensity, beauty and dignity that make understanding the words secondary to the overall mood feel and pure pleasure in listening to her magnetic power. As someone who gravitates to lyrics and sometimes focuses on them and their interpretation/the phrasing so very much, first and often foremost, it's an almost guilty pleasure to switch gears when I don't speak the tongue, and I can just let the sound wash over me. (Lyrics or translations are not included with this minimalist-packaging item.) Here, that sound wash includes not only the compelling confident vocals, but intriguing instrumental work that also has great variety and power from track to track. One of the ten tracks is an instrumental, Billy Strayhorn's sinuous and haunting "Isfahan" from Duke Ellington's Far East Suite. It's a glorious jazz sojourn of well over five minutes. (I wonder why it was placed as the next-to-last cut instead of a midway breather/change of pace, but I don't find myself desiring a break from the vocals.)
Those not born the day before yesterday and strictly brought up in a limited musical cave will probably recognize some familiar melodies. There's Ravel's Bolero with the love theme from the film La Strada, Debussy's La Mer (which was the basis for the Bobby Darin hit, "Beyond the Sea" and here it's combined with the not-listed-on-the CD French folk tune, "Sur le pont d'Avignon"), and a Japanese item that was a surprise pop hit some decades ago: "Sukiyaki." This one is sung in both Japanese and English.
I'm also impressed with the Twist instrumentalistsespecially the piano work of Lua's returning musical director/arranger/pianist Jason Martineau, and Larry De La Cruz, who plays not only flute, but sax (alto, soprano and tenor). They're joined by several other ear-catching musicians and Ian Dogole's work with the less common instruments to American ears (dumbek an dudu, anyone?). Three "special guests" are listed without specifications as to what they play or on which tracks. Thinking biggish about the power of music, the universal language, perhaps the CD title can also, modestly, be like a Bridge connecting us to other cultures ... and to the past. But it's certainly beautiful and often hypnotic.