This mid-June column finds us looking first at an iTunes exclusive set of five songs featuring the talents of four very musical theatre-friendly women. Then, it's reissue time, as we listen to three other women (all born within months of each other, now all gone): one named June, the other two celebrating the great songwriter born 118 Junes ago, Cole Porter.
Yes, it's true, sometimes good things do come in small packages. This is a small gem, a download-only glory called Alphabet City Cycle, consisting of five songs with a total playing time just under 20 minutes (and priced at $3.99). But it's a rich and satisfying set, beautifully written and performed.
Intelligent, emotional and instantly accessible, The Alphabet City Cycle is a series of solo character pieces with lyrics that are specific in their details and emotionstheatricality and literate, grown-up character studies with recognizable situations and images: big emotions that come from remembered love, haunting loneliness, determined denial ("Who needs a lot of space?" asks the divorcee who's moving to an apartment on Avenue C). In "The Wanting of You," desire is, "a never-ending storm/ I wear it everywhere I go/ Just like a coat that doesn't know/ That it is supposed to keep me warm." Loneliness haunts characters here, for example, a widow who protests "I Hardly Remember." A jilted actress rages through metaphors comparing the "other woman" to being as right as a "Blanket in July." Calmer moods come in "Sunday Light" as a lover reflects on being "wide awake and wider dreaming."
The singing actress who captures these many thoughts and changes is the excellent, focused-like-a-laser-beam Kate Baldwin. Never overplaying her hand and giving into the temptation to oversell, she makes the "almost" moments when emotions threaten to burst or overwhelm even more interesting than when catharsis comes explosively. She shows no wasted energy in these sometimes coiled and taut pictures of people approaching, retreating, reflecting, regrouping.
Words are by Marcy Heisler, from poems she's written over the years. She's probably more visible for her lighter, sunnier lyrics for family musicals like the recently recorded Dear Edwina and a clutch of clever songs that cabaret singers flock to. The poems were set to music which alternately employs gushes of melodic force or taut lines that match the rush or control of emotions of the characters' soliloquies. It's the work of versatile Georgia Stitt. (An impressive album of her songs, This Ordinary Thursday also shows her ability to capture feelings deftly and daringly through music that grabs the mind and gut, but in a fresh, non-calculated way.) She plays piano dramatically, in the sense that she sets and sustains moods and tension, on four tracks; Grant Wenaus is pianist on "Blanket in July" and Ms. Stitt conducts. Violinist Victoria Paterson, whose resume includes work in Broadway musicals, is the final and essential ingredient in providing the moods, the subtext, the commentaries of sorts. The teamwork is striking, and this piece commands attention and is exceptionally moving.
There's lots of Broadway and throaty singing in a tasteful jazz style on a DRG release that reissues recordings originally on vinyl on Capitol Records. The double bill pairs the great jazz singer June Christy (1925-1990) with Jeri Southern, who was born a year later than June and died a year after her. Both left a bunch of classy recordings, with striking and creative orchestral arrangements that bring new colors and rhythms to some familiar and some not overly familiar songs. One minor sign of the still cautious times (recordings were made in 1958 and 1965): one track on each lady's set finds her avoiding a lyric with the word "hell." The tracks are not remixed and re-anything-ed, but the sound is fine. Original producers, coincidentally, were both men named Miller: Bill Miller for Christy, Tom Miller for Southern. Especially informative and insightful liner notes are by jazz writer Will Friedwald who puts the times and tunes in perspective.
Recorded in 1965, June Christy's original album, arranged and conducted by Ernie Freeman with a bevy of top jazz musicians, brought the Latin and bossa nova sounds then quite the rage to a group of 11 songs, several from Broadway musicals of the time, and it's a refreshing, rich and respectable recital. Purists who don't like jazz and big band folks fiddling with the drama or pizzazz of the original contexts might fuss and fume. They can make an argument that some highs and lows of emotion the theatre versions were born with are smoother and more laidback when the musical adoptive parents take over. For example, with two songs from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the original key element of real frustration is hard to find in "Come Back to Me" or a percolating "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" But both feature marvelous singing and intriguing arrangements that don't disrespect the material or exactly turn it on its ear. Golden Boy's "Gimme Some" trades its urgency and restlessness for a more generalized insistence in a jazz comfort zone. And there's a sense of relaxed contentment in the recording of "He Touched Me" ("She Touched Me" in the show Drat! The Cat!, the deliciously romantic words by Ira Levin, graceful melody by Milton Schafer). That contrasts with the wonder and awe it's imbued with in the context of the show, but it should be noted that the Christy version was recorded a few weeks before the show played its first preview.
Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's title song from Do I Hear a Waltz? retains its sense of exultant joy and, naturally, was a good fit for this project that put a lot of focus on the tempi and musical sway, swing or swirl. With the narrower agenda being mainly theatre songs that were new in 1965, there are song choices that might have been lost in the shuffle of a generic "Broadway songs" album. For example, "Long Ago," the simple and sincere love ballad from Half a Sixpence, receives a rather perfunctory gloss-over, but Skyscraper's "Run for Your Life" gets more juice and vim. Its jaunty lyric by Sammy Cahn brings a sense of fun, as does a lively-getting-livelier spin through the melody by James Van Heusen. One of his older melodies is here, too, warmly approached: "Here's That Rainy Day" (with a Johnny Burke lyric) became something of a standard, but it is from a 1953 Broadway show that lasted just six performances, Carnival in Flanders. The remaining Christy cuts are not Broadway, but stay with the cozy "Latin" feel. Added to the original album is the bossa nova classic from the pen of Jobim, "One Note Samba." From a rare single, it's a perfect fit.
Contrariwise, there's one extra track on the Jeri Southern set of Cole Porter songs, but, oddly it's not a Porter song at all. Stuck in at the end as an odd P.S. after the sophistication and high polish of Porter, it's the old and rather corny but likeable "Love Is the Sweetest Thing" by Ray Noble. The previously unissued track is a light charming bit of fluff, though the dopey back-up chorus chirping is annoying. Jeri Southern, who started as a pianist, had a lower-profile, shorter career, as she retired early to teach. But her recordings are satisfying and she's quite attentive to the Porter priorities of lovingly respecting the lyrics and lush melodies of ballads like "I Concentrate on You" and a ballad version of "It's All Right with Me." No gimmicks, no pretentiousness, no flash, just quality unfussy singing. The Porter songs were arranged and conducted by one of the giants of the era: Billy May, frequent collaborator on classic albums by Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and his own instrumental records. Though more celebrated for his brassy, boisterous charts, his ballad work here with strings is lovely and sympathetic in gentle settings for such cuts as Jeri Southern's plaintive, reflective rendition of "Why Shouldn't I?" (a real highlight).
Less frequently approached Porter nuggets "Weren't We Fools?" and "Which?" are pure pleasure to hear, especially treated with such intelligence. There's little of the more showy, sly, brittle or smug Porter picks with cascades of wordplay. The only "list" song is "You're the Top." Those looking to delve into the rich Porter canon and find something other than the usual suspects and the more common emphasis on just the sassy wit and highbrow hijinks are urged to make a Southern turn.
... The "Choicest" Cole Porter, depending on who's choosing what's to be deemed the choicest, could easily be many lists of terrific, accomplished songs. In the case of this Julie London collection, it turns out to be many of what we'd consider some of his most famous, often-recorded songs. An exception is "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," from Panama Hattie, which gets one of the sharpest, most entertaining readings here. Very often, the famously sultry Miss Julie London seemed content to (or was directed to) coast on her reputation as breathy siren, with rather "even" phrasing, presentational approaches to the songs. She doesn't toy with phrasing or melody much, doesn't personalize beyond the stance and persona of the languid lady in satin. The epitome of what back in the day they used to call a "song stylist" focused on mood-setting and ambience rather than impressive vocal chops or a broad musical palette. She can be quite musical within the limits of what she described as her "only thimbleful of a voice." Sometimes she seems done in by the echo chamber approach to recording and oh-so-close-up mic technique.
Two simple but effective tracks, "I Love You" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?," prove that the cleaner and leaner studio choices could work just fine with just bass and guitar for accompaniment. In these two, there is more integrity to the vocal approachmore "real" singing(interestingly, they are the two cuts produced by her husband, musician Bobby Troup). The poutier, whispery, uber-sly insinuating approach was her marketed claim to fame and most tracks succumb to that to some extent. Most of the tracks present what might seem like the odd coupling of these lazy-lush or relaxed, purring vocals and a sensational, high-energy jazz accompaniment with generous-in-length instrumental sections. Decades later, when many of us have heard all the more renditions of these famous Porter songs, the inventive, juicy, rollicking instrumentals make this endeavor more interesting. Thank goodness they went this way usually, rather than "play along" with some kind of lounge mush ambience. And there are some star jazz musicians in rare form here, soloists clearly in the spotlight in splendid sound. They include Bud Shank on flute and sax, guitarists such as Joe Pass Barney Kessel and Al Viola, plus pianist Russ Freeman. He also arranged the original LP, which is expanded here with Cole Porter songs from other Julie London recordings.
Unlike most such CD reissues, the "bonus tracks" aren't all at the end. Instead, they are spread out, and there are never more than two tracks in a row from the original album, which was recorded in 1965, the year after Porter passed away. The miscellaneous ones were all recorded before that, as early as 1956. There are two versions of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and comparisons can be easily noted: the one from 1961 with a larger orchestra conducted by Felix Slatkin is looser and breezier, with the 1965 one more self-consciously effortful in playing coy and "naughty."
But underneath the satin-covered, programmed fantasy image, there was more of a "singer" lurking and, on tracks like an effective "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," that comes out, too. For those who want to go along for the ride of the image and appreciate it in its time and on its ownand also go in for some exciting big band jazzhere is the best of both worlds. If that's you, you'll be "So in Love" with this Porter package.