Good news about good things to enjoy here: from the ridiculous (the campy horror musical Evil Dead) to the sublime (Jessica Molaskey's new CD), plus a couple of enjoyable jazz outings. It's all good.
Every day a little death: Evil Dead is the campy horror musical comedy to die for. There is plenty of life in the brash performances by the eager cast and, hey, it's fun. Cast album producer Robert Sher who brought us the Broadway revival cast recordings of She Loves Me, 1776 and the Paper Mill Follies among others has done a super job making a show that depends so much on visual impact, physical business and character reactions work as a listening experience. With judicious use of sound effects and dialogue, the ambience is captured; it might easily have been insufferable auditory assault. The loopy broad humor and simultaneous embrace and mocking of the scary movie genre works like a (demented) charm.
Based on the same-titled cult movie and sequel, the plot involves a group of college-age people at a cabin in the woods where the ancient Book of the Dead is found and troubles begin. This story of bloody buddies is not for fuddy-duddies - the parental advisory warning label on the disc indicates that there is liberal use of curse words. I'm not a fan of cavalier use of such words in lyrics and dialogue, but it works for comic effect here.
With screaming protagonists and screaming electric guitars, things can get pretty intense, but there's respite in a couple of changes of musical style and humor. "Bit Part Demon" is a welcome change of pace with its vaudeville-style celebration of an actor's small role and also amusing is the pastiche number aping early rock and roll, "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons."
The ensemble cast is a treat with no weak link. I especially like the gleeful and daring-scaring work by Jenna Coker as the first to turn evil dead. Ryan Ward holds interest and is a smash as Ash, the central character; he was with the show in its 2003 beginnings at a bar in Toronto and is back with it currently, in a Canadian stage production.
The booklet has 11 color photos from the show and all of George Reinblatt's lyrics but not his dialogue segments heard on the disc (though the track list doesn't specify it, some of the 26 titles are brief dialogue sections). There's a credit to Christopher Bond for additional lyrics; he co-directed with choreographer Hinton Battle, and contributed to the music along with Reinblatt and musical supervisor Frank Cipolla and Melissa Morris, with "additional music" by Rob Daleman. (It's not specified who wrote which melodies or if all was really by committee.) Despite the evil epidemic of false rhymes, the songs have audacious and zingy lines very specific to their situations.
The four-man band conducted by keyboard player Daniel Feyer is wild and wooly. Another plus: having theater songwriter Eric Svejcar provide the arrangements and orchestrations, adding sharp musical ideas as he did for the recent production of Jacques Brel. The characters here may not all be alive and well, but the cast sure is alive and, well, terrifically entertaining with one of the year's grand guilty pleasures.
On Jessica Molaskey's outstanding new CD, Sitting in Limbo, she has settled on the theme of that unsettling state where things aren't black or white, but confusing shades of gray that often lead, emotionally, to shades of blue. It's an intriguing idea, and the talented singer-actress sets out to illuminate in song the times where there are more questions than answers. Bringing new focus to some familiar songs, it's a serious expedition - but not overly gloomy because there's a sense of hope that hovers in this carefully and artfully constructed work.
This is the fourth and most emotionally ambitious of her solo albums, a welcome addition to what is becoming an impressive body of work which also includes diverse performances on cast albums like Songs for a New World, Weird Romance, Dream True, and the recent collection of John Bucchino songs, It's Only Life. A sense of longing and thoughtfulness that has often come through in her singing is particularly evident here; her heartbreakingly melancholy performance of "There Will Never Be Another You" crystallizes this. The usually offhand "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" dares to be taken seriously, and the gambit pays off. Also, there is Jessica's tender singing of lonely wishes for love, the same absent lover she seeks in "Walkin' After Midnight." In another mood swing, Sting provides material for wry observation of literal clouds on the horizon: "Heavy Cloud, No Rain," on which Jessica's voice is multi-tracked for harmonies.
Musicians are all on the same page to create moods and fill in details on story songs. Keyboard duties are shared by two talented players, Larry Fuller and Larry Goldings, with four arrangements by the latter. Tony Tedesco is on drums with Martin Pizzarelli on bass and some sax work by Harry Allen.
John Pizzarelli produced the CD with attention to detail and a warm sound. He is Jessica's partner in singing, songwriting, humor, radio show hosting (the syndicated Radio Deluxe heard around the country and on www.JohnPizzarelli.com) and marriage (not necessarily in that order). This CD has two of their originals: "I Woke Up Early One Morning," the touching album-ender, a satisfying glimmer of better days; and the cute list song cataloguing personality quirks and habits, "Knowing You," which John sang on his excellent CD of the same title. In addition to his sensitive and invaluable guitar playing, John provides vocals on two cuts. What is effectively stream-of-consciousness is literally about a stream with "The Waters of March" (John's third recorded version), which they sing as Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" flows in and out of it. Their other vocal duet is the cheeriest track, a back-and-forth sally forth through a combination of co-dependent assurances, "I Want to Be Happy" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," with a bit of "Get Happy" tossed in for good measure.
In a more subtle way, within an effectively slowed-down take on Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls," there are unbilled instrumental appearances of two songs. Like "The Waters of March," they are Brazilian melodies of Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Meditation" and the song of sadness, "Triste." They work subliminally, adding to the ache and sense of resignation already present. What's present throughout is an intelligent, grown-up look at those frequently wide gulfs between one of life's chapters and the next, when you wonder when the page will be turned. Each page here is full of artistry.
Jessica and John, who each won a Nightlife Award for Major Engagement this year, are currently at The Cafe Carlyle. Jessica will also be appearing as part of the Any Wednesday series of free half-hour concerts at Barnes and Noble on West 66th Street on May 23 and at the 92nd Street Y on June 12. Such activities fill this period of limbo before a return to musical theater.
JANICE FRIEDMAN TRIO
Better known as a jazz pianist/ band leader, Janice Friedman has sung over the years, but Swingin' for the Ride is the first CD on which she sings on all tracks. As her own pianist, the album still very much keeps the spotlight on her excellent piano work and it's a real joy to hear. Mood-wise, the emphasis is solidly on happiness and the musicality is solid.
Janice's piano playing, which gets ample time, is fleet and engaging. Her singing voice is in a natural, unfettered style. She approaches the lyric with a warm, direct way. Her two selections from the work of Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields suit her especially well: "Don't Blame Me" is down to earth and a bit flirtatious, as is a winning "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Her "Summertime" is surprising, taking the Porgy and Bess classic into a more empowering and even fun mood that's more of a jog than a rockabye baby soother. Janice is unpretentious and refreshing enough to make it seem acceptable rather than saucy or gimmicky. She remains upbeat with Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," skimming over any of its more romantic pictures. It's a celebration instead.
Her Brazilian choices might have brought out some sorrow but, despite the lyrics, Janice resists that here. "Meditation"'s lyric of loneliness zips by with the focus instead put on the anticipated reunion of the lovers. "A Day in the Life of a Fool," a more direct tale of solitude and pining away (the English language version of the theme from the film Black Orpheus), sounds more like the tragedy is on the level of a broken nail. It's an odd juxtaposition, perhaps, but the melody has always been an elastic one with its samba origins.
Five of the dozen tunes are her originals (one, "You 'n' Me" is co-written with husband David Prager). The trio is filled out by Sean Conly on bass with Diego Voglino on drums. Daniel Sadownick sits in on some percussion. They swing indeed and this is a feel-good, happy ride.
UNDER THE RADAR
Another breezy ride through Jazzland that brings an easy-to-take male vocalist: It's his second album, but he's new to me.
With his ten-track CD Taking a Chance on Love, smoothly soulful baritone Lou Watson mixes standards and R&B. Beginning with a catchy-tempoed "I Just Found Out About Love," he sets a mood of good spirits and confidence, amplified by the well-known title song. There's some variety with a simple and sincere version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance" and a pretty funky take on "My Girl" that owes little to the original Motown version. One of Stevie Wonder's simplest but less distinguished songs, "Send One Your Love," about saying it with flowers, doesn't bloom into much and in songs that can be more ardent, Lou tends to paint in broad strokes, not going in for nuance or getting deep into the lyrics. He sets a basic tone and sticks with it, but it's generally very relaxed with more attention to the musical flow than any drama. For example, two Johnny Mercer lyrics get a rather light going-over: "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Fools Rush In" are enjoyable for his rolling deep tones but don't dip into the bittersweet potential.
The band's work is a bit curious. They are good and interesting players, but better when spotlighted in solos. There are times when it doesn't feel like accompaniment but more like a slight competition or crossed agendas as far as tempo or mood, specifically with the pianist, Onaje Allan Gumbs. He's interesting to listen to nonetheless, as is guitarist Bob DeVos who has some tasty licks. The tracks have a band with three to six players, except "Fools Rush In" which is just voice and piano.
Lou occasionally paraphrases a lyric, substituting a word, which can be distracting. He substitutes a word in the title song twice, but at least he makes it rhyme. In "Time After Time," he sings "you kept my love so warm" (instead of "so young") which is makes love seem more like something one can just reheat in the microwave instead of tending to a relationship together. But these are small quibbles when the bigger picture is very attractive.
Have a good Mother's Day and a good week until we reconvene with a new pile of CDs to spend some time and paragraphs trying to answer in some good detail the simple question: "Is it good?"