Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Joneses & Johns:
Lysistrata & Jack (Jones);
John Pizzarelli & Karen Johns

This week: Keeping up with the Joneses— the musical that went from Off-Broadway to Broadway and then soon went away, Lysistrata Jones, and a new treasure chest with some old gems shining anew from veteran singer Jack Jones. Then, going from Jones to Johns, there's jazzy John Pizzarelli going pop but with more than one foot planted firmly still in jazz traditions. Lastly, a peach of an album from a lady named Karen Johns.


Broadway Records

I suppose there is an appreciative audience of real fans for every show and, therefore, for every cast album. However, when it comes to Lysistrata Jones, count me out. It's not simply that it uses some forms of pop music that aren't my cup of tea—over the years, I've been pulled into other shows and recordings employing music outside my comfort zone. Beyond acknowledging that it certainly has an energized cast working hard at teamwork, tightly drilled, like basketball players and cheerleaders who are its focus, and a couple of change-of-pace tracks, its appeal and charm are lost on me. Beyond being simply underwhelmed, I found the listening experience irritating—and that isn't something I take any pleasure in having to report. I didn't see the show, which had a summer run Off-Broadway a year ago and bounced expectantly onto Broadway late last year for 34 previews and then fewer post-opening performances (30), closing eight days into the new year. I'd heard mixed reports, but none of the songs, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect till I removed the shrink wrap.

The opening number, "Right Now"—almost eight tedious minutes long, with elements of it reprised immediately in the second track—is blessedly just over a minute long. It uses relentless chanting and rhythms with little melodic content, like cheerleader rhythms or rap. But a little goes a long way, especially with words like "You go, girl yeah yeah!!" twice in a row rhymed with "You know, girl. Yeah, yeah!" twice in a row and then we move on to "Hot and spicy/ Shake it once, shake it twicey" and "The losing streak is all but done/ 'Cause we are gonna win this one." And thus is set up the story of females at a college withholding sex from their basketball player boyfriends until their team shapes up. At college age, a student named Lysistrata (game, glib Patti Murin) finally looks up the origin of her name and discovers the ancient Greek play about women taking a similar "strike" surrounding war-raging. Here, it's raging hormones lamely played for laughs instead. We hear bits of Douglas Carter Beane's book here and there within Lewis Flinn's music and lyrics. The songwriter's own arrangements and orchestrations (he also co-produced the CD) subscribe to the "more-is-more" philosophy of musical theatre forceful reinforcement. My main complaint, on so many tracks, beyond the uninspired material and style is: repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition of simple lines.

There are numerous songs about the no-sex pledge. One called "No More Giving It Up" repeats the mantra/demand "No more givin' it up till you give up givin' it up" 12 times within the three-and-a-half minute number. And, yes, a later number is called "Give It Up" and that phrase is heard 32 times. When the guys decide to "Lay Low," it's rather clear that might be the title, as we hear that two-word phrase 48 times in its four minutes. Of course, there are other words in between, but they aren't all that fascinating or illuminating ("No matter what they say,/ No matter what they do/ Girls like to get it on/ I know it's true/ Oh yeah"). There are interesting lines scattered throughout the score, but they're few and far between ("I be their posse/ By way of Bob Fosse"; "First I start with Lady Chatterley/ Then I give a dose of flattery"). And sure, the language choices and tough attitudes (references to pimps and "hos") may "fit," but that doesn't make them any more charming than false rhymes or the character-appropriate peppering of some lines with the all-purpose ubiquitous use of the word "like" ("My last school was like so not right").

A few numbers have promising ideas or beginnings (such as "Where Am I Now?") but soon dig themselves into a hole or a whole lot of recycling one idea or turn to platitudes or limited anthems. There are two rays of sunshine. One is the surprisingly sweet "When She Smiles" sung winningly by Josh Segarra with disarming, open voicing and some quite good music and lyrics ("You're like the sky/ So vast and blue/ And I'm like a bird/ Getting lost in you/ Just floating on your song," and the guy is determined not to have "Another Snow White / That I didn't wake/ Not another fear/ That I couldn't shake). The other needs an asterisk as it is not part of the show's cast singing. It is the bonus track with the exciting Jennifer Holliday of Dreamgirls fame leading the chorus and making the CD's third version of inspiring "Hold On" (with some different lyrics) truly exhilarating.

Some voices are shrill, some are colorlessly dull, and melodies sometimes plod or grind or jackhammer their way, none of which helps the other. Some listeners will not be bothered by this and find it feisty and go for the gung-ho antagonism, girl power and male bonding and cheer the cheerleading and battle cries. Like the college musical Legally Blonde that found a way to wink at its characters, I think a breezier way might have worked better. If I may borrow thoughts from the opening number: "Does no one care that it's all so lame? ... It's just a game ... You've got to live up to your potential/ I think that is like so essential."


Aspen Records

Just as marvelous and classy as ever, after more than half a century singing and recording, Jack Jones's latest album finds him in fine voice. Don't be misled by the title to think it's a description of a program of all slow, low-energy, reverent romanticism: "Love Ballad" is a song title for an item that bookends the CD as opener and epilogue. There's variety, with jazzier jaunts and loose, playful moments (a super-quick romp through "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" that isn't even 90 seconds long and "Baby, Don't You Quit Now" showing plenty of fiery fierceness in the ol' furnace) and numbers that have power. He's got the chops and energy to do it all. There's even a flash of wise-guy humor by way of annoyance with a number whose attitude you can guess from the snarky title: "I Can't Wait to Miss You (So When Are You Leaving?)" which he co-wrote with Tom Garvin years ago. Proving itself surprisingly flexible in Jones's hands is Sweeney Todd's "Not While I'm Around," sung by many following pretty much in the show's tempo and architecture. He makes it his own, with new tensions, varying the pace, alternating strongly determined confidence with lullabyed soothing balms, breaking the well-trod path. Songs really build here. Not in hackneyed, predictable ways, they sizzle and cool down and often find their satisfying emotional climaxes and centers. A couple seem to meander a bit, usually agreeably so.

Repertoire prominently includes new versions of some of his early landmarks from the 1960s. What's especially satisfying about these revisits is that, rather than sounding the least redundant or re-hashed, they are newly explored, deeper, and more ruminative. Words carry more weight. Lyrically involved—with personalized, in-the-moment phrasing and interpretations that allow some liberties with melodic line and expected tempi—they are commanding. Little pauses allowing for emphasis on the unexpected lingered-over word freshen the old chestnuts. Whereas the old-fashioned romantic ode to treating a lady with care, sensitivity and tokens of appreciation like the "Lollipops and Roses" of its title could seem simple-minded and sticky, it does not. Sung by an older man now, with warm urging, it comes off almost like advice about being thoughtful and the value of treasuring and treating a loved one with appreciation. And while another of his very early hits, Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Wives and Lovers," has certainly not aged as well and can sound condescendingly sexist in telling housewives to pretty themselves up for their husbands coming home from work, he takes it lightly, acknowledging that and the song as a relic of its time by skimming over the admonishments and even adds a jokey jibe at the end for men, telling them to spruce up their aging looks by artificial means.

Jones was the one who charted with Man of La Mancha's now-iconic "The Impossible Dream" and that's re-done here, too, with dignity and perspective, less the bravura performance of a determined hero and more focused on the need to justify the importance of why striving for high goals is so high a calling. It still sounds important and noble. It's riveting. And, oh, the big, high, sustained notes are not "the unreachable" things in this song or others: although employed judiciously, those dramatic "money note" beauties that soar and shimmer are very much still in his grasp and his trademark. Funny Girl's "People," which he'd also recorded when it was recently minted, also now rings true as philosophy being passed on, based on life lessons learned. And "If," recalling a nice full album he dedicated to the songs of David Gates and his soft rock group Bread, retains its sense of devotion and true sweetness.

Besides some pesky incorrect spellings of songwriter names and song title slips on an early pressing, there's only one irritant here, on some tracks. That is that the natural-feeling two key assets—sincerity of the singing and elegance and crispness of the magnificent Mike Renzi's piano work and musical direction—are sometimes distractingly weakened by the decision to add tacky-sounding synthesized "sweetening" over the basic trio tracks (the expert Kay Kendal on drums and Chris Colangelo on bass, with sax veteran Sam Most guesting on the title track). When you have caviar, who needs cheese? Thankfully, it doesn't show up until fairly late on some numbers and isn't overpowering or a total killer. The intimacy and support palpable between this master singer and master pianist, who has played for greats such as Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, and Kermit the Frog (he's also the longtime musical director of "Sesame Street") makes me wish that many of these 16 selections were just piano and voice. Ah, well.

There's a great deal to relish and/or re-live here, and that can be done live and in person when Jones and Renzi appear in NYC at Feinstein's at Loews Regency for the last five nights of this month.


Telarc Records

Jazz meets pop. John Pizzarelli has been thusly playing musical matchmaker for years, subtly, playfully, ever successfully, but never as single-mindedly as on Double Exposure where it's often the focus. Gimmick? It doesn't feel that way except to think that a "gimmick" can be a brilliant idea the way the strippers in the musical Gypsy who touted a gimmick as a good thing. But this is no convoluted conceit. Such descriptions don't apply when the musical marriages made in the fertile imagination of a musician well-versed, well-steeped in both genres makes for such smart, refreshing unions. Forget the negative connotation of the word "gimmick" and think more along the lines of easygoing triumph.

It's a smart idea smartly executed. But if you know the man's track record, set lists, mindset and the legacy, it's not a huge surprise. After all, his early years of performing and listening, like this album, consisted of jazz in one ear and rock and roll in the other. And his major and continuing influence and sometime co-star is his pop—jazz guitarist great Bucky Pizzarelli, who played on many old pop records, too (like "Ruby Baby," which is included on the disc). Why wouldn't the jazz star whose recent project was an album of Duke Ellington and whose recent show was named after a Tom Waits song weave Ellington's soul mate Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" vocally and instrumentally in and out of Tom Waits's "Drunk on the Moon"? And a much earlier theme album, John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles certainly laid the groundwork and brain cells a-working for the ultimate rock group's songbook getting a felicitous flavorful jazz coating. (Not so incidentally, both guitarists père and fils were plucked to play on Paul McCartney's new album of mostly old standards.) For Double Exposure, the Beatles pick for a jazz jolt is "I Feel Fine," which starts the disc off with a side order of "Sidewinder," a jazz page from Lee Morgan. While a more thorough schooling in jazz (or even full familiarity with baby boomer things billowing through the CD) will increase appreciation for the combinations, it is not a prerequisite. Ignorance, so to speak, can still be bliss.

Vocals on romantic songs are especially sweetly sung with real feeling. To try a little tenderness—or a lot—is the plan as much as it would be for a snuggly or wistful Gershwin ballad. Especially affecting in its simple directness is Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," enriched with the nostalgic tug of the glimmer of instrumental quotes from that antique from 1908, "Shine On, Harvest Moon." And Billy Joel's "Rosalinda's Eyes" is a veritable valentine, sung from the heart. The approaches to songs, phrasing, playing, arrangements, and sensibilities Pizzarelli brings to the performances sound like they come from him, even if filtered through memory and respect for the original versions. And when he fuses them with instrumentals from the likes of Miles Davis and Thad Jones, prominently or in a more supporting-player role, the new clothing and juxtapositions are invigorating, fascinating and even startling. This is not casual whim stuff, but thought-out inspired combining (veteran arranger Don Sebesky is a contributor, writing for a four-piece horn section) with the idea of a nod to jazzman Thad Jones on "Walk Between the Raindrops," a song from the book of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, one of the latter-day songs that Mel Tormé also favored and proved could live in the jazz world.

As usual, bassist brother Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco are on board and terrific, as are frequent collaborators on keys, the two Larrys: Larry Fuller and Larry Goldings (the latter on organ).

A special treat on John's albums is often the vocal or lyric-writing contribution of his partner in life-and in many engagements, Jessica Molaskey (and he on her albums). We get her in both roles here. They sing together on James Taylor's burst of frustration about being stuck in a "Traffic Jam" and they follow the fleet method of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's tricky-tempoed tongue-twisters, with extra lyrics by Jessica. In a more relaxed vein, but also appealing, she contributes another lyric with John's melody for him to sing, "Take a Lot of Pictures," the idea stemming from a couple of coded comments Frank Sinatra was known to make, the title line snapped sarcastically when people snapped too many photos at a gig. And speaking of gigs, John and his band—with Bucky guesting—are in the middle of an engagement in Manhattan at the Café Carlyle.


Ptarmigan Music Records

Sometimes she's so perky and playful, bouncy and breezy, that you can't imagine a cloud in her pink sky. Then, another track brings a gentle melancholy. Versatile-voiced Karen Johns skips along through a baker's dozen of songs on her eclectic CD—her eighth—called Peach. On the majority of them, she is the writer of the lyrics and shares composing credit usually with her fine pianist, Kevin Sanders. Some selections are from the singer-actress-dancer-writer's own theatre project, described as a "swing-jazz musical play," Once There Was a Peach. No details on the plot or the play's sequence of songs beyond what can be gleaned from listening to the eclectic material are given. Two of the tracks are indicated with the word "Reprise" in parentheses, but only appear once; I'm guessing that means they are the reprise versions in the context of the musical. Songs by other writers are interspersed among the originals.

On many tracks, Karen's lead vocal is supplemented with her own voice layered on again to create the effect of a vocal group reminiscent of those genial sounds popular decades ago, along the lines of The Boswell Sisters or The Andrews Sisters. Numbers like "Sugarboo" (the wisely-placed opener) establish her as one who can sass her way through irresistibly catchy material that induces a smile. She sounds pleased as punch, chugging along with the old, zippy Harry Warren/Mack Gordon "Chattanooga Choo Choo." It's also nice to hear an old Nancy Wilson hit from the 1960s, "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am" with its unusual groove. It's not quite as effortlessly fluid in this version, but it's intriguing nonetheless. She gets a bit of the strut from the bi-lingual song from The Pink Panther film, "Meglio Stasera" ("It Had Better Be Tonight") by Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer and Franco Migliacci, but it's missing the driving determination or cavalier attitude that other versions have had, landing somewhere in between.

But there are other moods, too, with a couple of languid tempi and ventures into singing in other languages, and a couple of downbeat changes of pace. "I Speak Woman, You Speak Man," has a shrug of resignation and reality that has some appeal and crispness ("We push all the wrong buttons again/ No needs the upper hand/ We both should understand ... The colors on our canvas should blend"). But it's the simple and sugary smiley songs standing out that register, like the unpretentious "I Love You Forever," those harmonies and tasty accents from flute and reeds distracting from repetitive lyrics and that old, unfortunate false rhyme of together/forever. But then she'll turn around and surprise with a more interesting turn of phrase, as in the wistful lament "Five O'Clock Shadow" setting the scene with "Lipstick on an empty glass of scotch/ He's late again, according to her watch" and continuing the sad saga with "All too often, unexpectedly/ He writes the most romantic poetry"). Another story of a woman and man not in the healthiest, happiest relationship slyly told, with some jazz licks and a bit of scat, is "Must Be Seen" which becomes a family affair with husband/co-producer James Johns (the CD's guitarist) and their son, Gabriel, singing along.

Lyrics are not printed in the package, and are occasionally a bit difficult to catch. Some of these songs seem to have more than meets the ear, such as the final track, the haunting and ingratiating "Red Bird" with its references to singing "behind a broken heart," the flute of Jim Hoke standing in for the sound of the avian subject. Though it seems like a bit of a grab-bag, quite a lot here is worth grabbing onto and certainly grabs the ear with mostly pleasing vocals and some evocative instrumental work.

- Rob Lester

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