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Songwriting Giants:
Irving Berlin: In Person & Janet jazzes Dylan
Review by Rob Lester

Composer-lyricists Irving Berlin and Bob Dylan stand out as giants among giants among songwriters of different generations. Mr. President, Mr. Berlin's last Broadway show, was in 1962, the year Mr. Dylan's first album appeared. Each writer's early songs are the focus of albums featuring versatile singers who happen to have the same initials. Jed Peterson plays the elder statesman of American popular music in Irving Berlin: In Person's premiere recording (a one-man musical) and Janet Planet plays with Dylan's repertoire, with full orchestrations of material the jazz artist has explored before with a smaller group.


Garret Mountain Records

In his celebrated and fruitful lifetime of 101 years, Irving Berlin resisted many projects collecting his songs, with a long-planned, long-delayed big-budget movie musical eventually cancelled when times and movie studio priorities changed. Although he mostly retreated from view and releasing material, he continued to write for quite a few years before passing away in 1989. His work has continued to be heard in concert, cabarets, new recordings, TV showings of movies he scored, and revivals of shows like Annie Get Your Gun and perennial mountings of the stage version of White Christmas, with another film-turned-theatre-piece, Holiday Inn arriving on Broadway in just a few months. With the exception of a brief appearance of "Easter Parade" (and a shelved coy lyric for which its melody was intended, "Smile and Show Your Dimple"), the one-man musical Irving Berlin: In Person concentrates on the writer's early work. Among the very early efforts are those from the initial period when Berlin collaborated with other writers, though we think of him as the composer to his own lyrics, which he quickly became.

Jed Peterson takes on the role of Berlin, showing a flair for period material and voicings that suit the differing tones. The story of this published and licensed play is described in detail in the booklet's notes by multi-tasker bookwriter Chip Deffaa, who also produced the fine-sounding CD and directed a workshop of the material with this actor before supervising this recording. It's one of five musicals about the tunesmith which Deffaa, a dedicated Berlin scholar/researcher/devotee, put together about Berlin. (Another three have had productions and recordings, all under his directorship.) When our story opens, an aging Berlin has just quashed one more attempt someone was making to tell his life story and decides, for future accuracy, to dictate his memoirs to his offstage secretary. This allows for the flood of memories, cuing associated songs which he sings. (In real life, his secretary was as protective of Berlin as he was of his life story, privacy and catalogue. As no one could get to him without her blocking the way, she was nicknamed "The Berlin Wall.")

Our star has spunk for the period-popular rags, a sense of whimsy for the novelty numbers, and a non-schmaltzy air of melancholy for a couple of laments. Successfully taking on character voices and comically thick accents for jokey specialties presents him at his most entertaining and seems to liberate him ("Do Your Duty, Doctor," Berlin's character piece with music by Ted Snyder, really made me guffaw!). A few selections could have used more adrenalin and joy. But, with a more than generous count of thirty-five (!) Berlin treats, many rarely heard, I'd seem churlish and ungrateful to grouse about those that don't sparkle as much as others. Some show-bizzy excitement is supplied by the sound of tap dancing breaks, although—giving credit where it's due—those aren't the star's feet you hear; the dancing was done by Rayna Hirt, standing in (or should we say dancing in) for a tapping Berlin.

As you might guess by doing the math, many of the tracks are only presented in abbreviated versions, many lasting under a minute or shy of two minutes, but—perhaps miraculously—the album does not feel disjointed. Comedy songs are sometimes best served short and sweet. Generally, the ones that are the more lackluster are the more famous ones, so the album's most valuable assets—the rarities—are indeed, happily, the highlights. If I may risk a rhyme in the spirit of the man ... One that really makes me grin is a highlight and a real find: "I'm Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind." Other uncommon choices that please are "Montmartre," "Always Treat Her Like a Baby," and "The Dying Rag." (There was a rag for every occasion, it seems; this one is a collaboration with a composer named Bernie Adler.)

Peterson's acting career has found him on TV in "Madam Secretary," in film, and on stages playing such other legends as Rudolf Nureyev, Zorro, and another early American composer-lyricist, singing as Stephen Foster. The album includes samplings of the show's spoken material, with the actor effective in an unfussy, direct way, and he sounds natural, with no traces of heavy-handed acting. These interludes include: an introduction wherein he states that he's an actor playing the role of Berlin which he'll do by applying aging lines with make-up and graying of his hair; the genesis of the aforementioned Easter classic; working with the not always easy Al Jolson; and an anecdote about performing on stage himself. That on-stage performance was in the shows he wrote for the army with all-servicemen casts (also filmed) in which the songwriter performed the still-funny griping "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." If you've heard the real Berlin's performances of that or other existing representations, you know he had a limited singing voice that was high and squeaky. Peterson makes no attempt to go that route, presumably because it would wear out its welcome in a one-man show with this high volume of songs on stage or disc, and not showcase the range of material very flatteringly. Most tracks find the actor in strong voice, but occasionally he is not quite on target with focused pitch or sounds tired for a phrase or final note.

Pianist/musical director Richard Danley is Mr. Deffaa's wise and appropriate usual choice as piano man (and he gets a brief solo with a playout finale number appropriately titled "Piano Man," melody again by Snyder; it's heard earlier as a breezy vocal with Danley as a delightful instrumental co-star). With a show that has just piano accompaniment (at least on this premiere recording), it seems a no-brainer to include the loveable classic "I Love a Piano." The two sound like they're having a ball there, too. Even better is the zesty and plucky "I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway" (a valentine to that beloved thoroughfare with lines such as "I thought I'd find a street with which you could compete/ I only found that I was wrong"). The assured Danley touch, never intrusive and always strongly supportive and flavorful, makes even the lesser curiosities sound like worthy contenders in a contest for irresistibly quaint charm.

On a bonus track, a trademark Berlin counterpoint number needs another actor, so there's a guest singer. The track is the old-time "Play a Simple Melody"/ "Musical Demon" delight with Hawkins Gardow joining in with gusto and personality. He's a savvy, inventive actor Deffaa worked with a few years ago, when he played Fanny Brice's brother (Hawkins was in his teens, as was Peterson when first noticed by Deffaa in a high school production); he's now studying musical theatre at AMDA and has a bright future.

Those who haven't dipped into the early decades of American popular music enough to appreciate its simplicity and innocent fun may find this a corny cornucopia. It's splendid craftsmanship lovingly delivered in a style mostly bright and cheery. So I say cheers to Chip Deffaa for one more installment documenting his mission to preserve the legacy of the great songwriter's first chapters deservedly among the pages of The Great American Songbook. If, as one of the more famous included titles proclaims, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," then a stack of pretty melodies is a beautiful symphony.


Stellar! Sound Productions

And now we take off for Planet Dylan—a return trip, actually, because singer Janet Planet explored these same Bob Dylan songs from the 1960s in Volume 1 back in 2010. Her memorable live performances of the material in New York cabaret rooms really stuck with me as did the initial album. And the labeling of the recording as a first installment made me wonder what she'd come up with next. Since the repertoire was all Dylan material from the first decade of his career as singer/songwriter, it was a reasonable guess she'd move into another decade, although that would mean some of his less accessible work and styles and themes he explored that haven't as well survived the test of time. And, let's face it, tackling any Dylan material besides the landmark items others have already covered and shown to be flexible in more polished, commercial versions could be challenging, since his own voice and persona are so idiosyncratic and material sometimes very personal.

Already having successfully revamped and reshaped the melodies and stories to outfit them in jazz apparel and approach, personalizing them from a decidedly strong female perspective, Janet opts for fleshing them out instrumentally. Rather than her usual small-group sessions, she and her musical partners have developed intelligent and fascinating orchestral settings for the songs. The orchestra boasts prominent trumpets and trombones accounting for eight of the 18 pieces, and there are three clarinets, two flutes, and a sax. Rather than sound just puffed up or lush and "sweetened," to use the term often applied to string-laden tracks tacked on for smoother, but smothering would-be cozy moods, the additions of more instruments brings a whole new palette and new ideas. Notably, there are no violins or violas here—our strings are just two guitars and a bass. Period. Despite the rockin' roots of the originals, the drums are not over-emphasized and the beats are sophisticated, subtly shifting and swaying.

These splendid arrangements sound fresh and rich, rather than studied, gimmicky, or suggesting self-indulgent layering of new sounds just because they could. The wider repertoire of colors and timbres is employed with care and thought applied to the impact and changes they can provide. Suddenly there is immense detail, subtext, counterpoint, and emphasis brought to new phrases, like a theatre production’s lighting designer who can simultaneously illuminate numerous parts of a stage set's big picture with varied intensities and colors or using one intense, big spotlight. I know one of the many gifted orchestrators of a big Broadway orchestra making us hear a score differently in a revival would be a more apt comparison, but it's hard to think of anyone besides Jonathan Tunick in a Sondheim redux adding so many specific concurrent lines and accents to provide tension and undercurrents and "commentary." These are the kinds of arrangements that have so many quickly changing flashes and mini-jaunts and side trips, each listening reveals something unnoticed before. Singer and orchestra members and arrangement/orchestration ideas work together in a thoroughly impressive and captivating way.

While some tracks find the vocalist in a similar structure and treatment to the earlier album, some have a whole new character. I find Janet Planet consistently to be one of the most thoughtful and surprising singers I've heard. Her voice is a wonder. It's ever pleasing to the ear in its lovely quality and her control is magnificent, especially when she spins notes like bubbles in air or extends a line in pianissimo, giving gossamer tones startling strength. The elastic quality of her vocals is a major asset in her arsenal and her pitch is superb, with her command of rhythms adding to the overall feel that she is a very able captain of her musical ship. And with all these jazzy and creative juices flowing, never is the story of the song or a point of view lost in the shuffle. Indeed, they are brought out in high relief.

Certainly the big orchestra never overwhelms the singer, even in her most delicate moments. It only serves her and the smart concepts that expand and illuminate the material. Some tracks find the singer using more vocal power previously kept in reserve, getting into a groove on an extended ending, or have the effect of strutting more. And for those who find many Dylan melodies to lack variety and kind of moan and drone on, the complex instrumental action certainly does a lot to compensate for that. Happily, the musicians include Janet Planet's indispensible and talented guitarist Tom Theabo and the other Tom in her professional and personal life, clarinet player and husband Tom Washatka. The latter deserves much of the credit for the brilliance of the CD, having contributed eight of the twelve arrangements. Pianist Matt Turner arranged the persuasive "All I Really Want to Do" and the pleasingly gripping "I Shall Be Released." And the late Fred Sturm did two others.

The opener, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," gets the atmospheric addition of a restless (maybe relentless) approximation of a locomotive's sound without seeming trite. It increases the underlying pulse and makes it irresistible. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" has an edge and a sense of rue laced with a guilt trip. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" has its forthrightly sexy turns, more toyingly playful seduction section, and a more earthy persona, too. (It's all in the attitude stance, enhanced by the dance with the orchestra as partner.) The quirky "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" becomes a sassy romp. Other numbers have a very funky New Orleans kind of sound that is exciting. "I Shall Be Released" is cathartic as it builds and builds. "Just Like a Woman" feels like a well-rounded character study with the chorus-ending line "but she breaks just like a little girl" especially touching each time, satisfyingly inevitable rather than repetitive. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is one of the most successful of all, a virtual symphony of moods and variety, bittersweet thoughts followed by hope and then a torrential warning of the title line. And in that number, the lines "What did you see, my blue-eyed son?/ What did you see, my darling young one?" ring out with such warmth and tenderness in what soon becomes the gathering storm. I'm sorry to see that the one item from the first set not present here was a favorite of mine, one of the best-known of Dylan's '60s songs, "Like a Rolling Stone." But it gives me a reason to go back to the old album.

Like Barbra Streisand's Love Is the Answer album which was released with the songs in a small-group jazz-oriented setting and also with full orchestral backing, the same songs have very different atmospheres when compared side by side. And, like some of the material Sinatra revisited over the years, we can see more nuances and shadings from the singer having lived with the material for some time. We also become aware that there are new things revealed when familiar songs are re-draped in new musical cloth. Certainly the take-away is how much can be mined and coaxed out of these Bob Dylan early works in wholly fresh ways without discarding their appealingly folk-music or rock roots. You might say that the simpler, youth-oriented songs have grown up. And they resonate, proving their resilience and, most important, their relevance. I love this labor of love.

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