Sound Advice Reviews
Here's to the ladies who sing
In my most recent music-listening binges, women's voices have been filling my ears and thoughts. Broadway Records has released two female-focused theatre projects that get our attention. Then we have three interesting women vocalists, all choosing the same song: at the Tony Awards on an April night 60 years ago, awards were won by the two who introduced the number in the musical which itself was honored"My Favorite Things."
A NEVER-ENDING LINE:
Get ready for passions, frustrations, and hopes reaching boiling points. With the material in A Never-Ending Line: A Female Song Cycle, musical portraits present personal concerns that can be recognizable via universal emotions expressed. This set of 17 standalone story-songs is a mostly intense, eyes-wide-open collection of catharses, mantras, and female perspectives. The singing and lyrics, and the impactful cello-playing in the trio accompaniment all by women, while the male-gendered participants are composer/conceiver Jaime Lozano, his co-arranger/orchestrator/pianist of the trio, Jesús Altamira, and its harpist, José Enrique Guzmán. Cellist Natalia Vilchis completes the small-but-mighty army.
Lozano hails from Mexico and has been making a name for himself in American musical theatre projects, having studied the form and had shows produced shows in New York City (and elsewhere). Most of the numbers are solos, but four are for four singers and another has three comparing notes and dating horror stories. It is "Why I'm Single," with its sitcom-worthy examples penned by Sami Horneff, the person among the nine different lyricists contributing the most tales of woe and wonderfive, also including the strong title number. This song cycle is intended as a tribute to his own matriarchal upbringing and has been presented in his home city as well as Paris and an Off-Broadway run. (This recording does not use that four-member cast, but employs a large number of singers, some with recognizable Broadway names.) There is a separate recording of the material sung in Spanish and one fine singer appears on both versions: Florencia Cuenca, the composer's wife and a recording artist who developed the piece with Lozano and Horneff.
Souls are bared and fears are shared in the series of straight-talking first-person accounts that don't typically aim to disguise, minimize, or romanticize life's struggles. Self-empowerment, self-examination, and the need for bonding versus isolation are common themes in these self-aware and serious reflections. With "If Only," June Rachelson-Ospa's lyric artfully brings brutal honesty in the presentation of someone who knows she doesn't sufficiently love her should-be-more-special someone; performer LaDonna Burns captures the reality check of this rarely delineated situation. Daphne Rubin-Vega offers a sense of empathy and realistic hindsight with no easy answers about feeling "Lost in the World" (lyric by Marina Pines).
Perhaps it isn't surprising that the renditions of sagas more fueled by anger or worrying can be so explosive that they start and stay "big" and voices can be shrill. A more calibrated build, such as Natalie Toro's well-considered reading of "And the Years Go By" lets Neena Beber's words feel all the wiser and more thoughtful. Making the most of Lisa Mongillo's whirlwind of words to accompany mood swings, Emily Skeggs, best known for her role in Fun Home, has some fun (and angst) with her character's relative prospects with "Maybe in Florence." It's a hyperbolic charmer, as long as you don't mind a couple of stress-releasers in the form of the F-word. Some gentler and thoroughly humorous items balance things along the parade of pathos. A list of threats about physical harm to expect "If You Break My Sister's Heart" is the most blatant (wordsmith Lindsay Erin Anderson; tough cookie singer Arielle Jacobs). Slyer and with its own subtler punch is a cute wink at denial about accepting the inevitably of aging: "Hello Forty" (Beber again looking at the consequences of tempus fugit, this time nailed by Doreen Montalvo with comic sensibilities).
The common factors are the dominant presence and talents of the composer and the distinctive choice of those three instruments. Although they are the constants in the cornucopia of women's voices (singers, characters, and lyricists), there's variety within the musical sounds. While he clearly likes pulse and power ballads, Lozano's compositions and the settings show some diversity in density, dynamics and ambiance. Some melodies and their surroundings are simpler and more accessible and diverting than others and some take more concentrating while listening to digest. Of course, that is also attributable to the fact that there are certainly cases of voluminous loads of lyrics coming at you. Some may be like opening a vein or a can of worms, so it's rarely breezy or what radio and records category-assigners used to call "easy listening." Yes, sometimes things may feel transparently agenda-driven, feminist manifestos pulled from editorials or unlocked diaries, but much undoubtedly comes from the heart and the heart of reality.
[Note: Proceeds from the sale of A Never-Ending Line go to MAESTRA, advocates for raising the profiles of women in musical theatre, founded by songwriter Georgia Stitt. For more information, wee www.maestramusic.org. This organization was scheduled to have its big fundraising event in New York this week, but, like all events, it had to be cancelled by state order, due to the coronavirus pandemic.]
PLATINUM GIRLS: THE MUSICAL
Arguably, a winking and zippy musicala show happy to show its silliest sidecould be the right kind of non-demanding distraction in troubling times. So, here's a mind vacation that offers some brash funand feisty female bonding to boot. The plucky Platinum Girls aims for sass rather than sophisticated style or anything deeper than coaxing a smile. Together and separately, the studio cast recording boasts a terrific trio of Broadway belters for star powerBrenda Braxton, Debbie Gravitte, and Beth Leavelwho do all the singing except for the first number, in which three others play their younger selves. (They are Felicia Boswell, Carla Mongado, and Natalie Weiss; that last-named performer pops up on several recordings by up-and-coming musical theatre writers, including on the final track of A Never-Ending Line, where she's one of four singers.) This is the story of three girls who, back in high school, wrote and recorded "If I Only Knew," a bouncy, bubble-gummy pop song about friendship that met some success"one-hit wonders" who wonder if they could try again, even though it's 40 years later.
The project, born at a theatre in Indiana where it was produced, morphed from being a simpler storyline using pre-existing songs or fitted melodies of oldies with parody lyrics tailored to Platinum Girls' tale. Later, Andrew Beall and Russell Moss added their own wholly original melodies and lyrics. (This recently released recording has just those.) There's some dialogue, too. Moss co-wrote the revised book with project originator Brad Zumwalt. Beall is also the main orchestrator for the band which is made up of 17 players who, among them, handle 25 instruments along the way.
With just nine tracks, including a quite enjoyably energetic overture, the Platinum Girls recording is on the short side, but it is not short on big and bombastic characterizations. Performances of most numbers veer toward unabashedly low comedy: over-the-top loopiness as the middle-aged women characters unleash memories in song, with increasingly ludicrous premises. One relives her unenviable theatre credit performing the title role in a musical version of Jaws with an actual water-filled tank. Another married nine times, all husbands with first names that oh-so-coincidentally began with the letter B. And then there's the demonstration of the dance craze requiring moving around with the insertion of a grapefruit in one's ... don't ask; yes, they go there.
Just when you think things are hopelessly dopey and beyond the potential of resembling something close to three-dimensional characterization, the veterans' acting chops suddenly shine through with real emotion as all three show vulnerability with "We've Been Here Before." And with their own mature reprise, truly owning the plot-generating "If I Only Knew"slowed down and invested with wistfulnessthe fluff is strikingly effective. The score's highly contrasting two tones don't match and may severely stretch credulity, but the post-nuttiness sweetness is a relief.
Don't be bothered or bewildered by the name BewitchedNot Bothered, Not Bewildered. It simply means not to expect the usual suspect implied, the song from Pal Joey, when you see the title "Bewitched." Instead, the title number for Suzanna Ross' collection is the cheery theme from the 1960s TV sitcom "Bewitched," with the rarely heard lyric. As heard here, it's a charmera word that can pretty much apply to the singer herself and her set of songs. Her voice may recall Peggy Lee: attractively husky in a way that, in the less sunny selections suggests vulnerability or, depending on the song, a wounded but valiant spirit. Pianist Gregory Toroian's expert and sensitive arrangements are supportively with her phrase by phrase, very much painting mood pictures exquisitely, especially on "Laura," the theme from the old movie of the same name. His work here, with his evocative solo, is the exquisite highlight of the 15-track endeavor.
When it comes to swinging, the game singer is looser on some tracks than others, but the jazz trio of piano, bass (Skip Ward), and drums (David Silliman) is in there pitching and encouraging. "Summer Me, Winter Me," a romantic ballad by Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman, surprisingly gets a very brisk tempo as if to prove that its requests for love need no specific tempo. It's worth considering, and has a lovely bonus at the end when things slow down for a moment, permitting tender vocalizing followed by a luxuriously slow piano fade-out repeating the ingratiating main phrase.
Emotion, especially yearning, comes through in the several tracks that have the songstress crooning in French. For the non-fluent, there will be less of a stumbling block with the choices of more familiar things that have also had previous exposure in English-language versions. ("Parlez-moi de lui" will be recognized by some as a once-upon-a-time hit for Cher as "The Way of Love.") The voluminously recorded classic "Over the Rainbow" is more than just one more trip over that colorful band here, as it is sung party in French (not a literal translation.) There's English for the start (the oft-dropped introductory verse) and the last section.
Two picks from the musical theatre repertoire deliver effective scenes of contentment for this New York City-based performer. The title song from the 1956 Sammy Davis, Jr. vehicle Mr. Wonderful is Suzanna Ross at her cozy, caring best and from later in the decade, The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" radiates joy as the tip-top trio finds just the right happy strolling pace through the images so the singer can be sufficiently unrushed in order to linger just long enough in the list of items deserving gratitude. I'm a bit more bewitched with each spin of this set.
SINNE EEG & THE DANISH RADIO BIG BAND
"My Favorite Things," and three other songs on singer Sinne Eeg's new collection are, I'd guess, among her favorite things, since she has recorded them before. But in those cases the accomplished jazz vocalist was accompanied by small instrumental groups (on separate albums) and now she's got the Danish Radio Big Band backing her. When we say say "Big" it also means bright and brassy, as there are 11 brass players, fully half of the total group, not counting the guest percussionists on three cuts. And what a dynamic and satisfying sound it isalways tasteful, never overbearingly blasting or wild. On all but one track, individual players get the spotlight with their improvised solos. Arrangement assignments are shared by three people, bringing some differing approaches.
Sinne Eeg projects a singer always securely in a comfort zone, with solid pitch and musicality, all of which is exemplified by her ease with understated scatting. Her sound is rewardingly listenable whether she's in laid-back modeas she often is on casual items she's co-writtenor indulging more vocal oomph on the 1948 song "Detour Ahead." That one gets the most drama, smoldering into a style that veers toward the crossroads of R&B and jazz. She is able to sail through tricky tempo changes in the inventive treatment of "My Favorite Things." In her engagingly unpredictable rendition, successfully avoided are the overly sweet and sing-songy consequences that have resulted from less resourceful sources. It actually approaches being hip.
While most of the recital is in English, this is technically a tri-lingual triumph, with a movie theme from her homeland sung in Danish and a samba sung in both English and Portuguese. Her voice is so pleasing that it's a nice enough novelty factor. While some of the originals have conversational, matter-of-fact lyrics, "To a New Day" commands special attention as it has the benefit of brimming with an uplifting philosophy about looking forward to the immediate future with determined optimism. And while a total of 10 tracks may at first seem skimpy, note that half of them have lengthy playing times over five minutes.
As an award-winning metaphorical big fish in the smaller pond of her native Denmark, Ms. Eeg has been gathering fans around the world with her appearances which, later this year, are scheduled to include a busy American tour and a stop in Japan.
A seven-and-a-half-minute treatment of "My Favorite Things" that sustains interest? You bet. Kaylé Brecher and her band explore all the potential in the melody of Richard Rodgers and the words of Oscar Hammerstein to reveal all the languid lushness the music can reveal when taken at a luxurious pace, stretching and reshaping it at their will. (There's some borrowed structure from the jazz blueprint "Stolen Moments.") All the while, involved lyric interpreter Brecher relishes the revisited phrases as if even the simplest of the things on the list are truly her cherished very favorite things. And she makes it all feel as warm as those referenced woolen mittens and the melted-into springtime. On Kayleidoscope we have a truly original, adventurous singer who writes the arrangements (alone or, in two cases, with a musician who's in the band on the track) and has writer's credit on seven of the tracks (music and lyrics on three, just words on the otherseach with the melody by a different composer, two of whom are present and heard). And she produced the recording herself, and designed the packaging.
The elastic-voiced adventurist is quite compelling to listen to and follow, rarely making safe or predictable choices in her performance or song-crafting. In her highest head tones the sound is especially lovely, with delicacy, and I wish there were a whole lot more of that. But the deep dives into rich low tones have their own thrill, and the zig-zagging around rangy melodic treks are impressive. Mindsets indicated in the originals favor a persuasive carpe diem appreciation of life's natural pleasures and other people. Lyrics can be poetic, abstract or direct, but the music often is non-conventional and may feel elusive or kind of "out there" to some. Vibrant and soothing, she could be a nominee for Jazz Earth Mother. From track to track, ever earnest Kaylé Brecher is joined by many varying accompanists on piano, percussion, bass and guitar. Then there's the exception of an a capella rendition of Lerner & Loewe's classic from Gigi, "I Remember It Well." I don't remember any singer trying this as a solo, but it works to delightful effect with a few tweaks to the words (mostly replacing what would be the other character's alternate facts by inserting the word "Or" to question her own recollections of details).
Ms. Brecher, based in Pennsylvania, has been releasing albums for about 25 years and the eclectic Kayleidoscope includes a few pieces she recorded in the past, including "Sea of Dolphins," with her lyric set to jazz giant Herbie Hancock's melody. And she revisits "She," the touching bio of a homeless woman. A more muted piece, it's more accessible than some of her free-range excursions. But the artist can self-clip her wings for a fairly traditional take on an established Brazilian jazz piece like "The Gentle Rain" which she showers with affection, grooving well with tasty guitar partnering by Frank Butrey. Speaking of partnership, she shares vocals winningly with Miriam Suzzette Ortiz on "Something About You" which the two women co-wrote.
Experiencing this Kayleidoscope collectionwhose moods go from her happy invitation to enjoy "The Fruits of the Spirit" to the desperation woven into Jimmy Webb's "Shattered," and the very, very new knockout vision of "My Favorite Things"is much like looking into an actual kaleidoscope. That is, it makes one look at things in new and wondrous ways at each turn.