Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Featuring Songs of Long Ago:
By Irving Berlin
or played by Evan Arntzen's band
Reviews by Rob Lester

How about a flashback in time to more or less a century ago for the bulk of our listening this time? Zippy, energizing melodies are the M.O., and the performers take care to project carefree joy (and a few dashes of other emotions). Early pages from the voluminous songbook of Irving Berlin (think primarily the teens and '20s of the last century) are revitalized for a biographical jukebox musical about him. (Sources say the earliest kind of jukebox appeared the year after Berlin appeared on earth—back in 1888.) With half of its selections also sampling the aforementioned two decades, Countermelody is a pleasing potpourri evoking the New Orleans style played with retro radiance by Evan Arntzen and his band, and featuring some vocals—one by the leader and some by two-time Grammy nominee Catherine Russell.

Garret Mountain Records
CD and Digital

The legacy of legendary Irving Berlin is in good hands with his champion Chip Deffaa. He's written and published numerous plays about the composer-lyricist and has put together revues, recording many of these projects that are stuffed with early-career Berlin delights. A few date back far enough to be from the period when there were co-writers (usually contributing the music). Now comes the latest release, the delightful and spirited Say It with Music: The Irving Berlin Saga, and once again the curtain comes up on the elderly tunesmith as he looks back on his career, recalling hits and people in his life (Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, George M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Berlin's secretary and wives). This piece is in that oft-tried-and-true "And then I wrote ..." format (with spoken comments here and there). Quite a few of the repertoire choices and singers have been heard on other Deffaa-produced recordings, so it's fair to say that Say It ... is a close cousin of its predecessors. Its raison d'ĂȘtre is a response to a request from a theatre company seeking a small or flexible cast project about the material and the man.

For this studio cast album, Michael Townsend Wright, Mr. Deffaa's go-to choice to play Berlin, is once again on board, handling much of the singing. I note a more intimate style of vocalizing from him here, a gentler approach that adds to the fondness for the material's warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia. It's also appropriate for the plot wherein the iconic writer is supposed to be already well into his 90s. But the collection still presents a substantial amount of the brash, frisky, presentational style from our star and a bevy of enthusiasm-heavy performers, both established and greener ones. As per usual, the spiffy, precise accompaniment on piano is by reliable Richard Danley. The solidly built, ingratiating melody lines and accompaniment figures as he plays them make us appreciate the craft of composing with structures that emphasize what seem to satisfyingly be the most natural and inevitable series of phrases developing a tune.

As has become the custom, the emphasis is on songs from early in the 20th century, so there are spunky, super-catchy tunes, the novelty numbers, comic bits, ragtime flavor, making things generally lighthearted and brisk. Many tracks are brief, some just shy of or not much over one minute in length—short and (very) sweet, thus allowing for more material. We get some evergreens like the first big hit ("Alexander's Ragtime Band"), the rousing "I Love a Piano," and the ballad inspired by the death of the first Mrs. Berlin ("When I Lost You") and several more "usual suspects" (or semi-usual ones).

Art imitates life—or, rather, recreates it—in an inspired scene near the end dramatizing the night one Christmas season (1983) when carolers met outside Berlin's Manhattan townhouse. They sang his material (an annual tradition) and were surprised when the 95-year-old reclusive icon invited them inside and chatted. Berlin mega-fan Jacqueline Parker, one woman who was actually there that mega-memorable night (and many a Yuletide thereafter, with Deffaa and others), participates in this studio cast. She plays herself in touchingly delivered dialogue and is part of the group as they warmly warble "Say It with Music," an item that debuted in Broadway's Music Box Revue exactly 100 years ago this coming September and still stands up proud today (as does the same-named theatre bearing the name of that series of revues, built specifically for that purpose and co-owned by Irving Berlin).

Entertaining renditions abound and there are a whopping 42 tracks in all, including a few reprises and instrumentals (the cute ode to a "Piano Man," anticipating Billy Joel's signature piece by decades with its melody by Ted Snyder, and that song that gives Say It with Music its title fall into both categories.) You have to look high and wide to find extant treatments of obscure, high-spirited antiques prompting wide smiles such as ""I'm Down in Honolulu Looking Them Over" and "Araby" (both delivered with zing by Jon Peterson and Caroline McFee) or Berlin's prospective father-in-law advice to "Always Treat Her Like a Baby," which is earnestly intoned by Keith Anderson.

Yes, there's plenty of rarely covered stuff that casual fans of the writer and the era might not know. But those of us who've happily done deep dives into what is now a series that's serious in scope as a revived repertoire are starting to think of them as treasure no longer buried. So, dig in.

For information about the project as a stage piece and rights to it, see:

EVAN ARNTZEN [bandleader]
Dot Time Records
CD and Digital

With a playing time of an hour and five minutes, clarinet and sax player Evan Arntzen's newest recording as leader gives us plenty of time to appreciate the sounds of individual instruments played by the seven men, soaring melodies, percolating rhythms, and five vocal tracks that enrich the celebration. But, as Countermelody's title and accompanying liner notes bring to our attention, while songs' main melody lines and featured soloists naturally get primary and initial attention, a countermelody that's part of the presentation can be especially rewarding to focus on, too. Any satisfying meal has its main course, but owes much to the side dishes, dressings and spices. This collection has a few originals composed by bandmembers and a few other things beyond the scope of what feels like the defining style choice—classics now a few years past their centennials or approaching that mark soon. In style and attitude, we're often transported to the distinctive approaches of New Orleans music and early Chicago jazz.

A big and sentimental hit from 1917, "Smiles" was soon interpolated into a Broadway production, The Passing Show of 1918. Although we don't hear its lyric that seems perhaps corny now, giving free rein to the melody to be loose and sly, "Smiles" brings smiles via a bolder approach. Things are rollicking and free-spirited with most tracks full of unpretentious fun. It's simply feel-good music that feels both old-fashioned and fresh. Born in the roaring '20s, roaring loud and strong again in the 2020s are treats like "18th Street Strut." The expert players give a nod and a wink to a less prestigious instrument and a guy who makes music on it with the 1928 novelty "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo." Titles like that make a strong suggestion should you not know the words, but you can still get a kick and a hint from the cheery melody by Sammy Fain. And you can't feel down with "Down by the Riverside," that old spiritual that has had many lives.

The band's very colorful trombonist, Charlie Halloran, has his own new "Alvita" shown to good advantage, Jon-Erik Kelso, one of two trumpeters, contributes his zesty, hip "Counter Intuitive" (nice wordplay on Countermelody's title), and leader Evan Arntzen offers a moody and then mood-switching "Solitarity," inspired by the pandemic in the midst of which all the tracks were recorded. Yes, all parties in the same room at the same time, interacting and reacting to each other's sounds. The band is completed by brother Arnt Arntzen on guitar and banjo, Mike Davis as the other trumpeter, pianist Dalton Ridenhour, bassist Tal Ronen, and drummer Mark McLean. Hats off to all—and thrown high in the air in jubilant celebration and gratitude.

Vocal tracks are especially invigorating and full of personality. Our fearless leader sings "Georgia Cabin" with flair and the others are courtesy of Catherine Russell, who has made a name for herself partially by specializing in this kind of vintage jazz. She is in her comfort zone with it, informed by her parents being veterans of the music that came before, and songs come off as authentic and natural. She delights with two versions of the frisky "Muskrat Ramble," one recorded to the format that preceded records: the cylinder disc. Now that's "old school" and then some! The same process is on her agenda for the classic "After You've Gone." Her other track is "If You Were Mine," a sweet number by Johnny Mercer and Matty Malneck that was heard in the 1935 musical film To Beat the Band (Mercer was on screen in it, by the way.)

In what is an unfortunate policy of crediting writers on some recordings by instrumentalists, only the composers are credited here when the lyrics aren't heard. But they still rightly deserve to be listed, if only to let newcomers know there are words to a cool composition, and they can likely be tracked down on tracks appearing on vocal releases. You might say that in our memory as we listen, the ghost of the absent lyric is a kind of unheard "countermelody," too. With or without vocals, count on Countermelody for a pulse-quickening, flat-out wonderful time.

It's time well spent.

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