Sound Advice Reviews
The "D" Files:
This time it's a "D" threesome: delightful discs and digitals from a male singer with the surname of Day (Spencer, with all-new takes on Broadway oldies) and then, two divas mixing some new material with what they'd released in the past. Dee Bell added two items to a mix of material from earlier years and Dee Daniels brings a "Deluxe" expansion of her most recent project.
Any day a new Spencer Day recording emerges has always been a good one, whether he's singing vintage material or fine songs he's written (or co-written). He has a strong and compelling presence, achieved without force or fakery, enveloped in an appealingly smoky, intimate sound. As its title suggests, Broadway by Day is his personal take on classic numbers that have graced the Broadway stage, now given his grace and care. The material doesn't really cover a huge spread of years (1949-1975) or writers (two dips into the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre, two Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice numbers, and the 12-track collection begins with "One" from A Chorus Line and ends with another from that score, "What I Did for Love"). But the lack of a broader scope is a non-issue when each item and the sum of the parts make for something so consistently satisfying.
Rather than seeming to be proclaiming or posturing in presenting these stage songs on a stage some distance away from you, it feels like Spencer Day is pulling up a chair and sometimes whispering in your ear to communicate directly and intimately. Whether it's the slinky, slow-burning boasting of "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" (Evita) or taking you for a spin on the Carousel classic to woo with "If I Loved You" (extra sweetness via guest Dave Koz's saxophone) or crooning "come to me" as come-on in "Bali H'ai," Day projects an authentic seductive manner that doesn't leave behind an oil slick. It's charm, not smarm.
Some jazz-inflected little liberties in note-bending and phrasing here and there (especially effective in "One") make for nicely nuanced new ways to experience a phrase without being radical. In Annie's wistful, hopeful "Maybe," the tiniest nod to "Tomorrow" may be heard in the intro, and the lyric is slightly adjusted so that the line "Bet they collect things like..." reflects the rejection of smoking and validates the resurgence of vinyl by replacing the word "ashtrays" with "records." Also therein, a pastime is not stereotypically gender-assigned (now the old line that imagines that "he reads" and "she sews" reverses the pronouns). Those are mini-surprises within something that's otherwise dutifully true to the tone of the tune's origins–no maybe about that.
A more daring a departure is the unconventional brisk pace when the born-as-a-ballad "It Only Takes a Moment" is taken and shaken; the Hello, Dolly! thesis that romance can be felt in a flash trades its sweetly hushed, perfumed awe for energized joy. Yes, the old warhorse can be trotted out again and then go off at full gallop and come in a winner this way, too. It helps a lot that the jubilation is shared by and with Jane Monheit, although they don't join their voices until the home stretch. The track is enhanced by the deft delivery by this jazzy songstress whose own most recent recording is also on Club44 Records.
In all the treatments, from the relaxed contentment of "Getting to Know You" to the unsettled feeling appropriately captured in "I Don't Know How to Love Him," it's clear that one thing Spencer Day and musician colleagues here do know–and feel comfortable with–is finding a sensibility that works for each selection. The band sometimes takes the reins and runs off in more boldly jazzy paths during instrumental breaks. Musicians vary from track to track, with a string quartet present for half of the cuts. Bassist Alex Frank is co-producer/co-arranger with the singer, except when guitarist John Storie takes over for an Oliver! piece that cooks and kicks into gear, "Who Will Buy?" And, from a marketing point of view, the answer to the question of "Who will buy Broadway by Day?": Well, it could and should be anyone who loves high-quality songs that have been lit up by the lights of Broadway and shine again in the bright Day way.
Here's a mix of tracks new (just two) and old (but remastered) from singer Dee Bell, who can mark this year as the 40th anniversary of her recording debut. Love for Sailin' Over Seas: Then & Now doesn't sail all the way back to the "then" of her first album, or her second, but the eight tracks that aren't new are culled from her third recording (made in 1990, but stalled due to a mastering glitch, salvaged and released in 2011) and the two that followed.
The two new pieces are "I Got Thunder (and It Rings)" by Abbey LIncoln (and introduced by her in 1990), the set's most assertive statement, and the old standard "I'll String Along with You" (Harry Warren/ Al Dubin, from a 1934 movie called 20 Million Sweethearts), which gets a suitably sweet and warm musical embrace.
No heavy drama or tears here. Much on the menu is laidback in cozy tempi, with a prominent presence of Brazilian fare, making room for a little singing in Portuguese with "Boa Nova." An exception to the chilled-out charts is "The Face I Love," which picks up the pace with a shot of adrenalin and a fast-dancing piano trip. On other songs, a confidently unrushed vibe is reinforced by the fact that half of the collection's cuts are over five minutes in length, giving plenty of time for the fine musicians to stretch out in the generous instrumental passages.
The singer's sound is easy on the ears, with a touch of romantic mystique, with a vocal quality and persona on these Then & Now selections having suggestions of Peggy Lee's languid coolness. "Watch What Happens" gets a medium tempo and fluid phrasing, with the insinuating saxophone of Houston Person. Ms. Bell's skill as a lyricist is on display on "You Can't Go Home Again" with Don Sebesky's melody and her "By Chance" English lyric to an Ivan Lins' composition. She's also credit with "pre-arrangements" on all numbers, with Marcos Silva named as arranger for seven of them (on which he plays electric piano and synthesizer).
While not a prolific recording artist (she took a long hiatus in the last years of the last century and the early years of this one), Dee Bell's work is worth the investigation. If you're on the lookout for professional and ever-pleasant jazzy journeys through music, this ...Over Seas overview should not be overlooked.
If you're in the market for tidings of comfort and joy and a few rays of hope in trying times, why not try a role model who's triumphed by turning to her faith? For her digital-only "Deluxe Edition" of The Promise, Dee Daniels has added three tracks that up the ante of an already quite potent, prayerful, personal collection of confessional, inspirational songs inspired by her struggle with cancer, meditation, and Christian faith. One traditional piece, "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," commandingly performed, joins the 2019 material that is all otherwise written by the singer (two have co-writer credits) which she says she was "gifted with" during her guided meditations, challenges, and periods of self-reflection as she reconnected with her family religious roots growing up in the church as stepdaughter of a minister. Of special note and pivoting to another subject is "Let Freedom Ring (The Ballad of John Lewis)," a strong and loving tribute to the legacy of the late congressman/civil rights icon, and his voice is heard as the track incorporates some excerpts from his last speech. Her voice really sails on this one. A second version of the thoughtful "One Moment in Time" is also here, with its instrumental intro recalling the AIDS fundraiser anthem "That's What Friends Are For."
The singer, whose numerous releases over many years featured many standards and show tunes, puts such fare aside here as she gets deeply serious and gospel-flavored in her earnest emoting. These declarations of praise and pleas for listeners to count their own blessings and to count on Jesus, as she does, result in knowing that one is "Never Alone." Further, the presence of background singers suggests similarly minded souls who've been there/done that, too, who endorse and support what's being sung. "Love Is the Answer" addresses eternal quests and questions with, incidentally, a little nod to the pop lyric "What the World Needs Now Is Love."
Listening to Dee Daniels testify, it's more about a burnished sound than raising the rafters and raising goosebumps with an exhausting tsunami of sound. She isn't relentlessly climbing the scale or modulating heavenward. That isn't needed to convince us of sincerity or passion. Although many of the tracks on the original 11-track release arguably have a certain sameness in tempo and tone–and certainly in subject matter and firm point of view–there are noteworthy differences. For example, some have a little more focus on admitting the earlier struggle rather than just celebrating the strength that can result. "Healed" emphatically emphasizes the joy and serenity that come with turning the corner. The selections clock in on the long side, beyond the four-and-a-half minute mark with most moving beyond five minutes and "I Am Forgiven" beating them all to luxuriate and then build dramatically for a total of 8:36.
Instrumentation features piano and other keyboards, guitar, bass and percussion, with some synthesizers. Also present are strings, both real and synthesized. But there's nothing synthetic, I promise, in The Promise, about the feeling and fervent flavor Dee Daniels delivers.