Sound Advice Reviews
Getting Soulful, Swinging, and Cinematic, too
Once again it's tribute time. We have one gentleman named Parker giving a salute to Broadway in his soulful way and another Mr. Parker getting a salute (the iconic jazz sax star Charlie). A major Motown star gets a big tip of the hat, too. And music heard in movies (some inherited from the stage and elsewhere) also is celebrated and tweaked. As we survey these recordings, come be our guest (speaking of guests, two releases have the same guest as a duet partner). Let's start on Broadway.
Having played drag queens (Lola and an Angel) in Kinky Boots and a character named Mrs. Greene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Kyle Taylor Parker knows a thing or two about gender-bending, but his recordings spotlight genre-bending as his musical specialty. "RuPaul's Drag Race" participant Jackie Cox and Blaine Alden Krauss (another Angel/Lola) and others are on board for the latest roller coaster ride, arranged, orchestrated and produced by Sonny Paladino. For these folks and their cohorts, there's no mission impossible when it comes to repackaging familiar show tunes to coat them with a kind of R&B soul and sass, new tempi and embellishments. In being ready, willing and able to embrace the identity reassignments, listeners' expectations need to be as malleable as KTP and team think the songs are. The 2019 risk-taking recording called Broadway Soul, Vol.1 proved to be quite the entertaining romp and now, again throwing caution to the wind, with a wink and a wave of a musical magic wand, here comes Broadway Soul, Vol. 2.
Things start off promisingly, with the title of the Ragtime number "New Music" gaining a double meaning due to its reshaping that works like a charm. Next up is "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" from The Wiz, an odd choice because in its original form it already was in the genre du jour. Likewise, a kind of ringer is the 1934 non-show tune "The Glory of Love," which has had high-profile R&B treatments over the years. On this, Shoshana Bean's voice sounds warm and wise in the duet she gets the most of (and the most out of) it. Messrs. Krauss and Cox sizzle and strut in solos and a duet (Cole Porter's "Love for Sale").
Leading man Parker sounds invested, infusing his work with charisma and lush, liquid sound. Melisma and rich tones are lavished on two vintage, sturdy Richard Rodgers melodies with words by Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, respectively: "Falling in Love with Love" and "Some Enchanted Evening." There's some authentic passion in different shades than the originals, and that's what the agenda is. When slowed down to sloth-esque slinkiness, two Stephen Sondheim numbers lose the effect that comes from frenzied frustration when it came fast and furious, so the star's truncated "Buddy's Blues" and Natalie Joy Johnson's "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" are mopey rather than madcap.
This ambitious follow-up takes on a new conceitconcocting a concept, offering an original storyline for the now-also-repurposed lyrics and characters to serve. It's set in a grim future time, when the legacy of the pandemic includes loneliness and a continued taboo concerning physical closeness. The somewhat spooky plot, about a gay man seeking meaning and connection is written up in detail so that it takes up two and a half pages of the physical CD's booklet. Reading this explains some of the attitudes and moods and sequence of the songs, but only occasionally are the saga's elements audibly directly indicated. The questionable device, for me, is not worth the price of burdening the material with this second responsibility. It's not all wall-to-wall wallowing in feel-good grooves or weepy blues either.
While Broadway Soul, Vol. 2's style-swapping huntthe "soul-searching," if you willmay not be as daring and revelatory as its predecessor in what it reaps, it rewards us with dazzle and daring.
Do a quick internet search for tribute albums titled or subtitled A Tribute to Charlie Parker and you'll find well over a dozen such items with latter-day jazz musicians paying homage to the revered master of the saxophone whose centenary was last year. His impact is all the more impressive when we recall that he only lived to be 35, the same age just reached by the latest artist to pay/play recorded respects: pianist/singer/arranger Champian Fulton, joined here by four other players. Inviting a saxophonist certainly seems logical and, fortunately, a top tenor sax man answered the RSVP; participating on all but two of the 11 tracks is Scott Hamilton. Also aboard are bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, with a flugelhorn player on four tracks who is also the recording's producer and the leader's dad, Stephen Fulton.
In his too-brief career Parker was a composer and interpreter who played and recorded many songs that have stood the test of time, and Birdsong includes some gems. Prepare to swingmostly gently. There are four instrumentals: a terrific and terrifically speedy "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" and three compositions by Parker ("Yardbird Suite," "Quasimodo" and "Bluebird"), all dispatched with flair and solid professionalism. What's projected is a sense of comfort rather than the trepidation that might intimidate awestruck worshipers of a giant or cockiness of the irreverent. There's a kind of modesty and respect prevailing. The vocal tracks, which all have longish instrumental mid-sections, are fine renditions of quality songs. All are from the 1930s and 1940s, and nearly every one was first heard in a motion picture, some sung by legendary stars. They include Bing Crosby's first chart-topping hit," Out of Nowhere," which he sang in two 1931 films, and "My Old Flame" introduced by Mae West. The 1946 Harry Warren/ Mack Gordon assertion of a love that is destined to last"This Is Always"was previously essayed by Champian Fulton on her 2007 debut album (this is her twelfth release).
This self-accompanying vocalist can allow her expert piano skills to dominate by taking a deceptively offhand approach to phrasing, singing with a modicum of heft or drama. But there's canniness in the quirky minimalism. She bites into some words while floating breathily over others. This gives some phrases punch or slyness. When so inclined, she can inject a sweet sincerity, but never veers into sentimentality with lyrics that have the potential for idealizing romance (proclaiming that "Somewhere in Heaven you were fashioned for me" in "Dearly Beloved") or milking the melodrama of it fading. Without seeming totally impervious, in "If I Should Lose You" she appears to shrug off the hyperbole describing fears of consequences of such a lossthat "the stars would fall from the sky... leaves would wither and die/ The birds in Maytime would sing a mournful refrain"). And the tale of onetime lovers segueing into being "Just Friends" seems almost as easily processed as its lyric is terse: "We loved, we laughed, we cried/ And suddenly love died/ The story ends." Drama queens may feel shortchanged, but the breeziness of acceptance (or denial?) can be refreshing and makes for relaxing listening.
Fondly following in the footsteps of soulful singer Marvin Gaye, Ryan Shaw is no latecomer to the late artist's legacy in recording Imagining Marvin. A longtime aficionado of the star, he also had the challenge of channeling him in Motown The Musical, going on as an understudy (in addition to playing other roles, including Stevie Wonder). The already-established stylist is a good fit for this project, which combines that seasoning with his previous recording experience presenting his own musical persona, with original songs. This recording's tracks are split almost evenly between picks from Gaye's discographysuch as "I Want You," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and his own composition "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"and things Shaw co-wrote with others. Those in the latter category were inspired by the icon and his sensibilities, imagining the kinds of things he might have written or sung had he lived longer.
The new stuff and the covers sit comfortably side by side. The originals are certainly crafted and sung in the right spirit, and the two men appear to be kindred spirits. The Shaw timbre isn't a clone, but shares sheen and shimmer as well as the requisite R&B robustness. He also has some grit and a bit of a characterful rasp on some high notes. Ably matching the modeled repertoire, the new material offers simmering slow jams, funky moods, and confident poses, with subject matter touching on social consciousness, eroticism and confessionals.
Those not already dyed-in-the-wool fans of Motown/post-Motown soul sounds might not become belated converts via Imagining Marvin; it stays in its authentic lane, not aimed at some hybrid of reconstituted genre. Form follows function, with some material more redolent of glossy atmosphere than complex thoughts. However, "Strong Men Can" is one new piece that is impactful with a message, arguing against how males are conditioned to deny their feelings. There's a cool link to the past in the fact that this new number (also released as a single) and an included 1969 piece, "Good Lovin' Ain't Easy to Come By," were both co-written by veteran Valerie Simpson. The oldie, one of the numerous items penned by Ashford & Simpson that Gaye recorded, here gets renewed life as a satisfying duet by Shaw and the vivacious Shoshana Bean. Once a deft duet recording by Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1969), history handily repeats attractive results with Shoshana Bean as Mr. Shaw's very capable partner.
There's one representative of Marvin Gaye's recordings of standards, "The Shadow of Your Smile," and it is full of "Marvinisms" imposed on the Johnny Mercer lyric and Johnny Mandel melody, embellished with the same word substitution/insertion and distinctively spreading the same one-syllable word over several notes. Conscious imitation here is the grandest form of flattery and fandom.
Keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell is music director, sharing arranging and producing credits with the singer. It's a noble effort, blending the nostalgic and the new, being on the same page and also turning the page.
Having been used in a movie is the qualifying reference point for inclusion in the music in Music in Film: The Reel Deal. It's a creative collection of instrumentals (plus one vocal track), although only four of the 12 songs here were initiated as material for motion pictures. All found their way to the screen sooner ("Everybody's Talkin'," a 1966 pop item featured in 1969's Midnight Cowboy) or later (the 1877 ditty "Chopsticks" used in such films as 1988's Big). Four were introduced in hit shows from the musical theatre before being adapted for the screen: three born on Broadway in the 1950s (Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music, West Side Story) and 1996's (Rent).
It's understandable that top-billed drummer Richard Baratta is cinema-centric, as his career for over 30 years has been in films, beginning as a location scout and most recently as a producer. A few of the melodies were in projects he worked on. The brisk, busy drumming is splendid, absent of indulgent lengthy solos, but sprinkled with nifty flourishes in mini-spotlight moments when the other musicians pull back or pause.
Pianist Bill O'Connell, also the music director/arranger, impresses mightily with his fleet-fingered runs as well as affecting delicacy. His long experience with Latin jazz makes its influence felt in some of the more percolating passages. Sax player Vincent Herring does much of the heavy lifting as far as strongly and straightforwardly establishing melodies at the start, before the band's (and his) improvisations, explorations and embellishments take over. His occasional switch to playing flute is especially enjoyable, and I wish there were more of that. Bassist Michael Goetz gets some gutsy solo spotlight, with guitarist Paul Bollenbock and percussionist Paul Rossman adding other complementary flavorings. There's a sense of true teamwork here, musicians listening to and responding to one another, with nary a trace of one trying to upstage a bandmate.
"Seasons of Love" from Rent is the one vocal, courtesy of guest Carroll Scott. His tone and treatment are appealingly mellow, bringing a burnished quality to what you may be used to as more of a bravura, life-affirming rouser.
Warmth is also abundant in the instrumentals that can linger lovingly in a sweet spot. West Side Story's "Maria" is marvelously understated and "Alfie" is all about moody introspection, with slinky sax leading the way and some gracious keyboarding. A cozy "Luck Be a Lady" and an atypically percussive approach to the title song from The Sound of Music invite us in with easily accessible choruses before more challenging detours from the comfort zones. Cautious visitors to the world of jazz may initially resist the seeming hijack. There's some playing that gets muscular and even wild, straying for longer times from the architecture of a melody on these tracks, more than half of which extend for well over five minutes. After the first lighthearted dancing steps, some may wish for a musical map as a guide to follow the once-familiar yellow brick road during a hectic seven-minute journey with "If I Only Had a Brain."
All in all, Music in Film: The Reel Deal packs a good deal of variety and adventurousness into one recording of melodies welcomed onto the silver screen. Bring your own popcorn.