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Taking one's own path:
See Rock City ... &
re-imagine folk-rock's Nyro

The road not taken (yet) can be a more interesting—and braver—choice than the well-trod path. In the musical See Rock City & Other Destinations, various traveling characters embark on important trips via auto, subway, ship, and barrel—and often find themselves at life crossroads. In the recording studio, intrepid jazz journeyer Mark Winkler navigates the adventurous Laura Nyro songbook, striking out on in his own in a bold new direction to re-think and re-interpret. I'm glad these two emotionally compelling, stimulating items came across my path.


Yellow Sound Label

A kind of road trip musical, or rather, a set of musicalized short stories involving trip-taking, See Rock City & Other Destinations is a journey worth joining. The traveling itself or the anticipation of what will happen at the destination may be the focus, but it's often more about going from one place to another emotionally. The character studies strike chords, sparks, and raw nerves. Friends, relatives, strangers—traveling companions get to know each other, with each member of a cast of seven double cast in the half-dozen varied vignettes. Often featuring a sense of tension and uncertainty more than just wanderlust, these aren't casual jaunts and joyrides, but often weightier decisive and determined moments.

The musical language is kinetic and, while hardly old-school show tunes with lilt or waltzy bounce, to just call it "contemporary musical theatre" would be glib and insufficient. The score, by composer Brad Alexander and lyricist Adam Mathias (also writer of the Drama Desk Award-winning book), has many flavors and enfolds numerous genres. To match the vigor of the driver excitedly looking forward to the imagined pleasures down the road a ways in "Rock City," his high hopes and excited impatience are captured as musical speed and intensity build (vocally and instrumentally. It's sung first, feistily, by Bryce Ryness, with a restless sprit and buoyant thrill-seeking with the music and mood compounding the sense of freedom and an idyllic life and place ahead. The longing for a better place is palpable, carrying more weight than a basic change of scene/vacation would normally suggest. This imagined utopia is the "answer to every prayer ... You can be happy there." Saying he's "got to" see that place is what it's about. At album's end, a bonus track finds the powerhouse, charismatic Jeremy Jordan in the driver's seat in a wholly new arrangement.

Music direction/orchestrations/vocal arrangements are by remarkable and highly creative Justin Hatchimonji, who is on piano and conducted the string teammates (excellent all: guitarist Chris Biesterfeldt, bassist Rob Jost, with especially felicitous work by cellist Garo Yellin who adds so much depth and drama). Jangled nerves mixed with catch-your-breath excitement or exultation is marvelously communicated with brilliant instrumental work for strings in staccato, pizzicato, or lush release moments in series of mini-bits and builds. The tension of alternating cautiousness with risk-taking, with any moment being the one where suddenly—good surprise or otherwise—there's a new twist or the other shoe may drop. I'm reminded of the similarly effective playing and orchestration in Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins where uncertainty and worry dance with hope. The beauty and heart of the instrumentation make things far more interesting than the easy but dull choice of halting or highly discordant music for the edginess and angst. Frequently, characters tiptoe, backtrack, and then get ready to dive into their escapades and risk-taking, and the equivalent contrasting changes musically—tension and release seesawing—work to great effect, predictable mostly in the rewarding inevitable kind of development. Whether it's new car-mates Ryness and Mamie Parris getting to know each other by pointedly trying to read each other ("I Can Tell," with some welcome humor and cute rhyming fun) or people who know each other perhaps too well, the human dynamics have power surges illustrated through song.

There's an underlying aching loneliness in many of these people and it's visceral and heartbreaking. With some requisite clichĂ© nerd factor and one-color character wash, but genuine appeal, Stanley Bahorek plays a guy convinced that "We Are Not Alone," as humankind on earth amongst other life forms, as he waits in the legendary location of Roswell to make contact with aliens. And a woman (the reliably capable and direct Sally Wilfert) feels just as frustratingly non-communicative as does her stroke victim grandfather (Ryan Hillard) in their solos, unsatisfied with expressing "All There Is to Say" for her, and "Grampy's Song" for him, as he recalls and senses the spirit of someone who's passed on. Three numbers chart the macho bravado and schoolboy panic as two buddies play hooky and seem to find another unspoken side to their relationship. Sprinkled with vulgar language oh-so typical of teens taunting each other and griping, it has a loose real feel with a twist of tenderness and daring. Ryness and Bahorek shine in these roles, bully and quivering kid. (In "Dark Ride": "I was safe back in school/ I was safe in the light/ I feel strange/ I'm losing my mind./ Strange feels—good ... ."Losing track,/ But leaving traces/ Holding on,/ Letting go").

Completing the cast of seven is the formidable and fearless Donna Lynne Champlin. With the other two women, she's one of three adult sisters reunited by familial duty, with a truly delightful moment as they recall a sweetly goofy song from their childhood with pert harmonies, "Three Fair Queens." It's a gem of pastiche that brightens a sometimes dark ride. Donna considers a barrel as a jittery bride going over Niagara Falls and falling into her own troubles or merrily rolling along, the situation ripe for metaphors about life ("Taking a step/ Taking a stand/ Holding your breath/ Hoping for land/ Well, some people fell,/ But some people grew").

The fork in the road and the road's sharp curves are all mapped out with some open-ended questions, but there's no question that it's a riveting, rewarding ride. And like many, more than a bit unsettling.


Café Pacific Records

While taking the familiar road to the daytripping "Stoned Soul Picnic," the multi-faceted marvel of a songwriter Laura Nyro hooks us with the seductive repetitive line, "Can you surry? Can you picnic?" Leave it to creative genre-mixer-upper upbeat Mark Winkler to impishly interpolate the lines "Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry/ When I take you out in the surrey ..." from Oklahoma!'s "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." That might seem on the fringes of sacrilege to the purist who treats the divine Nyro as, well, Divine and her words and song forms as gospel. But give this artist a little slack. Inventiveness he does not lack. He takes a different road map to the musical journeys of Nyro's quirky or visceral songs, and triumphs in a jazz-based alternate universe journey at times seeming as risky as Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole. But he lands safely, shifting rhythms and emphases and tones.

Winkler opens fearlessly and brashly, with a digging-into-life emphasis on "And When I Die." He's gonna go down swingin' and enjoy life 'til the end. It rocks. This starter-upper was the closing track of Nyro's first album, from which five of the 11 tracks owe their origins. Frolicking where Nyro danced with desire and/or despair, exulting comfortably in the womanly wonder of "Emmie" where Laura felt as much awe as passion. And layering more years of observing more men and their predictable commitment-phobic ways, the solo road ahead (escape) for the guy characterized as of a dyed-in-the-wool known type in "He's a Runner" is even more so wise words to the not-yet-wise newbie to romance. "Billy's Blues" are a deeper, darker indigo—nothing easily solved, as the words "He's so endlessly sad" describes much more than a pat on the back or vial of Valium will cure.

In this one of three Nyro collections from artists in a year's time (Grace Cosgrove's thoughtful and warm embrace precedes it and one's on the way in June), Mark's way takes sharp curves and side roads. Deeply, admiringly affected—but clearly not slavishly intimidated—by the artist for years, he cuts his own special path. The unique, ever-shifting Nyro original blueprints might seem like clear and definitive one-way streets, perfect in their complexities and fusions of styles and unmatchable, unbeatable grooves. Improving would be a tall or foolish order. Instead, there's a sense of a respectful alternate universe—"what if it had been written this way?" sense, some changes so bold and fresh they seem improvised rather than a labor of love of well-thought-out options considered and chosen.

While not all tracks are as dramatically re-shaped, and some are straight-ahead fun or ballad sincerity, much is turned gently on its head and returned respectfully. It's like a fascinated longtime scientist taking apart a machine, piece by piece, examining its components, making notes, putting it all back together in different ways, stretching this, slowing that, moving this here and re-attaching. And darn if it doesn't work, fondly familiar yet fresh and strikingly odd. Add a decided gay man's perspective of growing up and finding himself, recalling that, and making that part of the psychological prism and agenda. (This is thoughtfully explained in liner notes, but you might sense it anyway—and that it's not just a hipster cool cat's sandbox playtime.) "California Shoeshine Boys" becomes a dare and a flirt and a male strutfest.

With more sensitivity in his blithe, cozily laidback and un-showy jazzman's voice than heard in other settings, there's still a playfulness present on some tracks. It's not by any means the powerhouse or pristinely pure or elastic voice of one drowning in drama or just creamy crooning. But when he sets his sights on some sweetness or soulful storytelling, he shows pleasing tones and compensating grit and authority. All the while a jiving jazzster stands by if needed. "Buy and Sell," which he co-arranged with Larry Koonse, who plays a moody and insistent guitar, benefits from some rough edges that are evocative of a truth-telling, lamenting witness. But so much of this is not about vocals in the spotlight.

Beyond singing storytelling by Winkler, the musicians are often equally in the spotlight and applaudable. I cannot overestimate the collaborative and cumulative impact of their contributions to the superb soundscaping. It's true teamwork and musical magic. Past collaborator Eli Brueggemann plays keyboards (piano and organ) on a good chunk of the project, and five of them. Eric Reed is pianist/arranger on the exquisite "Billy's Blues" and a determinedly positive "Save the Country." "Time and Love"—which jettisons a significant swath of lyrics, eliminating the references to Jesus and womankind, and serves more as a mere surface perky ol' pep rally— is a disappointment for me; its arrangement is based on an old jazz treatment of a standard. Instrumentation varies, but we hear sax, guitar, bass, percussion and one track each blessed with trumpet or flute. While Laura often layered her voice, ethereally echoing upon itself or being her own cloned back-up group, we have a few guests here: there are Mitch Ellis along for the aforementioned surrying to the picnic; Cheryl Bentyne (Manhattan Transfer) adds harmonies on "Emmie"; and "Sweet Blindness" has the nostalgia-sweet added bonus of two current members of the iconic group The Mills Brothers.

The Laura Nyro Project is the musical equivalent of a daring re-setting of a classic play with a non-traditional cast rising to the occasion in new, surprising ways, offering a valid other way to go. They're not just gingerly trying on the old costumes and hauling out the scenery: they're ripping and restitching the seams, adding feathers, new layers of velvet, stretching some fabric as much as they can, honoring the design, but adding a multitude of new colors and lighting effects to make us see it new and fresh.

- Rob Lester

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