Sound Advice Reviews
Saluting Cole Porter on his June 9 Birthdate
Composer-lyricist Cole Porter (1891-1964) is certainly one of the writers of stage and film songs whose work lives on and keeps popping up, sounding fresh. Recent examples are revivals of Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate and Porter classics sung by Harry Connick, Jr. for a recording and a residency in a Broadway theatre. Here are three more singers taking their turns, all of whom included the classics "Night and Day" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" among their choices.
MOLLY MARY MAHONEY
An FYI DNA More-than-fun Fact: Singer Molly Mary Mahoney recently discovered that she is a distant cousin of Cole Porter. So, what better way to celebrate the news than to turn to the work of that celebrated composer-lyricist to populate the set list for her new album and concert appearances? My Cousin Cole - Pitter, Patter...Porter! is pure pleasure. The vocalist, who has a lot of opera experience, has a warm and elegant timbre that brings out the grace and glory of the melodies she has chosen. But there's not any troubling stuffy affect or overly formal styling issues that are known to befall and betray classically trained performers labeled "crossover artists" when they approach popular music. (The mezzo-soprano, based in California, has also done musical theatre roles in a varied career and is heard in the title role of a recent live recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe.)
Especially rewarding are the life-affirming encouragements to "Experiment" and "Use Your Imagination." Talk about shimmering! Porter's sarcasm and caustic wit and more acrobatic wordplay and big showstoppers are offstage, and aren't missed here. The main focus is on love songs. The gorgeousness and majesty of the melodies stand out, somewhat upstaging or keeping in check the angst or doubt that rear their troublesome heads at various points in some lyrics. Instead of being kept awake "In the Still of the Night" with the fear that love may be unrequited and might "fade out of sight, like the moon growing dim," we are allowed to bask in the beauty of the melody that sweeps us up and almost sweeps away that worry.
It's an even easier sell when the words are not at all fraught, with the best example being "True Love." Such a besotted ode extolling an idyllic relationship in all its honeymoon happiness might come off as sugary sweet by others, but Molly Mary Mahoney makes "True Love" ring true with no goo. And I like the liberty she takes to repeat a key line for emphasis.
The direct, trust-the-material understatement approach is underscored by having just two musicians: pianist/arranger Joshua Hegg and saxophone work courtesy of the vocalist's brother, John Mahoney. Simpler accompaniment definitely suits this singer; I hadn't been introduced to her recordings of standards before, but she kindly also sent an earlier piano-and-voice release, the 13-track Two for the Road with Grant Levin, which is similarly sublime. It's become the antidote for my regret that My Cousin Cole is so short at just nine cuts.
There's no clutter here, but things can be dreamy and nimble. The lesser-known song referenced in the title, "Pitter-Patter," is 100 years old, cut from Hitchy-Koo of 1922. It's a sprightly and cutely quaint bit of froth that has bounce not typical of the more serious material M.M.M. concentrates on in her set.
The Cole Porter estate and fans can be assured to know that the master's melodies and words are safe and secure in the hands of Mr. Hegg and the icon's caringly capable cousins, the Mahoneys. (Talent runs in the family!)
Ms. Mahoney's physical CDs, singles, downloads, and streams at Bandcamp.com.
Adventurous music-lovers willing to traverse a trail of the path not typically taken for a Cole Porter treasure hunt should square their shoulders, dismiss previous assumptions of how his work will sound, and maybe order a stiff drink before proceeding. An open mind will be rewarded. With Get Out of Town, named for a plea sung in the 1938 musical Leave It to Me, Kristina Koller collects eight treats with her very original personal polish to give most of them a sultry new feel. This is her third release; the others mixed standards and pop/rock with the genre-fluid performer's original compositions. This singer (occasionally becoming her own Koller-cloned choir of voices) and band can be hypnotic and daring, not stingy with drama, adding a brooding spookiness to the already jaded-at-the-edges "Just One of Those Things" and "It's All Right with Me." And that's all right with me, as a change of pace for these oft-recorded numbers. The jazz-drenched, intense set sets Porter classics in a new light. Or, I should say, darkness.
"In the Still of the Night" has rarely sounded so full of foreboding, turning up the yearning and uncertainty. Dramatically painting the thick but rich atmosphere on the heavy tracks are three musicians: Fima Chupakhin (piano), James Robbins (bass), and Juán Chiavassa (drums). They're terrific, with attention-grabbing spare opening statements, building tension, prodding the accelerating action, swimming around the haunting vocals. Muttering or swoopingly pouncing on the Porter lyrics, stretching melody lines with melisma, Kristina Koller calls on a variety of sounds from an apparently bottomless bag of tricks. Just when you think you're banished to gloom and doom, her downcast and tear-filled eyes brighten and wink with the chipper cheer-upper "Why Don't We Try Staying Home?" and she finally dismisses the band to be her own accompanist (on ukulele) for a plucky and winsome "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye."
Many who think they know most of the Porter oeuvre may be surprised by a rarity: the title song from an abandoned musical to be called Greek to You. Its offhand lyric would make it a candidate to be a tossed-off tidbit in the clever/glib Cole entry, but here the rhyme-sprinkled "There may be no why or wherefore/ But you're the one I tear my hair for/ I can't explain at all/ This big windfall/ This personal call from Heaven above..." feels weightier.
Get Out of Town seems to never run out of surprises.
Reissuing her 2018 Cole Porter collection (not previously reviewed here), singer Susan Hodgdon affirms that she is still So in Love with Cole. This album, honoring the man with a June 9 birthday, follows her debut release which coincidentally was a tribute to someone whose birthdate is the next day: Judy Garland, I Could Go On SInging, Now she goes on singing with an admirably ambitious but uneven set. Effort can be uncomfortably and distractingly apparent, especially when vocal targets don't securely make their marks. The fond treatments of the rich resources are enhanced mightily by the deft work of inventive arranger/pianist/producer Daryl Kojak, who is joined by three other musicians: Steven Frieder (tenor saxophone), Sean Conly (bass), and Dwayne Cook Broadnax (drums).
So in Love with Cole's CD title references the included song "So in Love"–definitely one in that "ardent" category–from the stage score for the big Porter hit Kiss Me, Kate. Also among the selections are another from that 1948 musical, "Why Can't You Behave" and "From This Moment On," added to the film version, an upbeat number that was rescued after being cut from the 1950 musical Out of This World. The musical Can-Can is represented twice: "It's All Right with Me" and "I Love Paris."
Gamely, Susan Hodgdon takes 'em all on, singing with commitment, but sometimes with mixed results. Her tone is often appealing and she's best when singing gently and lightly, not coming across as "studied." Her heart seems to be in the right place, but too often, the same can't be said about her intonation. Some phrases' final tones don't come in for a smooth landing. Could this perhaps be a casualty of well-intentioned attempts to bend notes creatively with the aplomb of a masterfully jazz-steeped improvising vocalist? These less felicitous moments don't necessarily arrive upon the predictably trickier steps in a melody line or arrangement twist.
With 17 tracks, the Porter platter offers a large sampling of the contrasting moods and attitudes brought out in the versatile composer-lyricist's output. On display are: his playful, sexually suggestive side with "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)"; the sweet and serene romantic attitude, as in "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"; wistfulness and sorrow in "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"; and the more dramatic outpourings, as in "In the Still of the Night" and others so passionate.
One of the most satisfying renditions is the Porter piece that's probably the least often covered: "Ça, C'est L'amour" from the film Les Girls. Ms. Hodgdon nestles nicely into the ambience of the rich, moody arrangement and suggests a worldly-wise perspective.
Keyboardist Kojak has some splendid solo spotlight turns dancing across the piano with polish and vigor. His arrangements take the tunes in a few new directions while respecting their ancestry and strongest attributes. "All of You" is taken at a brisk pace, eschewing the tacky trap of letting the words wallow in winking lust. And the lovesick laments don't get mired in melodrama; their inherent eloquence is trusted, favored over overdoses of mush. His more sophisticated, complex arrangements may risk pulling singer Susan out of her comfort zone at some peril, but when So in Love with Cole does shine, it can make Porter's music and words glow.
Ms. Hodgdon's CDs can only be purchased by emailing her directly at Susan.firstname.lastname@example.org.