Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Glow from Ghostlight and A Little Bit of Moonlight:
Betty Buckley; Ellynne Rey


Our spotlight shines this time on intriguing CDs from two confident female vocalists. Musical theatre veteran Betty Buckley's Ghostlight is named for that perhaps spooky sole light that traditionally is kept on in theatres so they are not completely dark. The Ellynne Rey ray of light shines from her talent and nominally from moonbeams; that is, her jazzy album's title is inspired by the included classic "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Both albums have variety, drama, and personality. Enjoy the glow.

BETTY BUCKLEY
GHOSTLIGHT

Palmetto

Admirably adventurous, highly dramatic, dreamy, intense, intelligent ... Betty Buckley boldly goes her own way. The Broadway and cabaret veteran inspires some, infuriates others, can seem self-revealing or self-indulgent. What some hail as her musical experimentation, others find it exasperating when her repertoire or treatments find her trekking far from the Broadway musical neighborhood where her strong work won hearts. The lady burrows inside songs with fierce commitment and hangs on. She has that distinctive voice that can be strong as steel girders or as fragile as fluttering feathers on a tiny bird braving the storm, demanding our sympathy. And her artistry and guts, sometimes both, irrationally, co-exist. Attention must be paid.

The haunting and haunted qualities, with that trademark quavering vibrato, are on full display on the moody Ghostlight. Come embrace the metaphor of the traditional bare-bulb theatre lamp casting its eerie lonely glow to ward off or accept the spirits from the past. Are the emotions in the songs and singing as naked as that light bulb? Is the resultant new light a warm glow bringing new light to material we thought we knew? Or is it a harshly unforgiving glare from which there is no hiding and the tough or tender truth is exposed? Well, maybe all of the above if you're more willing than wary. I suspect some will find they like swimming through the deep, dark psychological deep waters very much while others will find it all just "a bit much."

While I often felt pulled in, I also felt pulled in both directions. The atmosphere-drenched sonics and sorrows may be overkill before the album is over, despite it containing a relatively modest number of tracks—just a dozen. Some are on the long side, notably "Lazy Afternoon" which, at the end of the day, has its mystical and mesmerizing almost endlessly stretched and tested. Running more than 10 minutes in length, the Buckley voice doesn't enter for more than a full minute and the last few minutes consist mostly of her echo-enhanced humming and repeating the final words "with me" and plenty of eerie electric instrumentation. Lush and languid, the source of this sorceress-styled seduction is the god and goddess-populated Off-Broadway musical The Golden Apple where Kaye Ballard introduced it.

I'm more taken by the treatment of a Rodgers & Hart classic that literally puts the "bewitched" in "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Many performers opt for taking it close to its original context—a clear-eyed, embittered sophisticate taking in stride the reality of her relationship with that adorable rat of a lover, Pal Joey. The character has woken up and smelled the coffee—in between belts of stronger liquids. But Betty skips the skeptic's path and finds the sorrow and human weakness without any of that armor.

Those who are hoping for the thrilling belting side of Buckley, holding onto the memory of "Memory"'s magic spine tingles or the diva power of Sunset Boulevardy bravura blasts from the past will not find any of that here. It simply isn't that kind of album. Sticking with the quieter, gentler introspective ruminations, more typical is the tremulous trepidation of "If You Go Away." Sung in English, its pleading doesn't get too pathetic, but it's a fearful fragility, suggesting more the literal translation of the original Jacques Brel title ("Ne me quitte pas" means "Don't leave me"). The "But if you stay..." sequences don't go the energized hopeful route. The album's mood is painted with shades of film noir dark tones with a wide brush, but there are pretty understatements relieving the gloom and doom.

South Pacific's "This Nearly Was Mine" is stronger in its effect through its weakness of spirit, a true lament. Shorn of its well-worn operatic-styled origins, the Rodgers & Hammerstein warhorse is reined in, not wallowing in a pity party, just honest-to-sadness mournful and drained. It's quite effective that way. The included pop and folk songs don't carry the same baggage of expectation for musical theatre fans. These please, offering some pensive and attractive singing. And there's plenty of prettiness throughout, vocally and instrumentally. Longtime friend T Bone Burnett is the music maestro/producer/ occasional guitarist. Instrumentation varies.

She has a longtime love for the song "Come to Me, Bend to Me" from Brigadoon, and provides an explanation for that and plenty of other info on the album's genesis and song selection in lengthy liner notes. It's no surprise that Ms. Buckley takes these serious songs so seriously, as she does the whole process and arrangements, some of which came from her concepts. Ever the actress, she acts the hell out of these songs—and they are impactful and resonating with integrity because of it.

ELLYNNE REY
A LITTLE BIT OF MOONLIGHT

If Ellynne Rey's album had become stuck in my CD player, I would not have noticed. I've kept it in there for days, happily playing it over and over and noticing nice new nuances each time in the singing and accompaniment. A Little Bit of Moonlight is a whole lot of interesting beauty without a lot of fanfare or a lot of musicians. With just five instrumentalists, and with the pianist or guitarist often serving as almost duet partner front and center, this lesson in "less is more" is more than gratifying. The voice of Ellynne Rey is one of the rare treats successful in finding that elusive perfect balance between a secure ever-so-cool jazz sound and a projected warmth. The cool is never chilly enough to come off as aloof or disengaged. The warmth never gets overheated to melt into soggy sentimentality. Suggesting a mature intelligence, words sound prudently thought out, or being thought and realized in the moment. Feelings, similarly, seem either being experienced or explored again in retrospect. The clear, clean alto is reliably pleasing and in control. Crisply enunciating the words and floating on the music or securely settled in the driver's seat and switching emotional or musical gears with ease, this Connecticut-based artist soars and succeeds with flying colors.

For many browsing years, the name of guitarist Gene Bertoncini printed on outside packaging as accompanist has been enough motivation/insurance for me to grab any singer's album. His sensitive and cerebral work is always tasteful and often moving. He is aboard here, getting plenty of the musical spotlight. As in the past, he can act as a give-and-take "conversationalist" with the vocalist, take the lead with consummate artistry or judicious minimalism, or smoothly step back more to the background to be the supportive team player (but never a disappearing act). And although this is my first review of her, the songstress's voice is not a new one for my eager ears. Two albums of recent years were not ignored, but since they focused on original material and she's not coming from the world of theatre, they weren't suited for this column. But they suit me just fine. (Two earlier recordings, shortly before or after my tenure here—which did have standards—did not come my way.) These earlier releases had her billed as Ellynne Plotnick; the name may have changed, but she remains safely and serenely in the comfort zone of a musically savvy songstress who knows the territory and seems to own it. The appreciative and appreciated liner notes by articulate jazz critic Will Friedwald are particularly perceptive in perspective.

Although none of her original songs are included this time, Ellynne is almost always quite original in her approach. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," most closely associated with Billie Holiday, is often employed by singers for zip, as a playful pick-me-up of aphrodisiac intent. Instead, more relaxed and slower, it becomes a genuine appreciation of the magic of the lunar lighting effects. Shunning the "cute" approach, she begins by snuggling up to the sole accompaniment of Paul Beaudry, bassist with potent presence, and then Bertoncini soon joins in, mining the moonglow in various economic ways. To invoke the album's title, a little bit of moonlight goes a long way and, without ever winking or getting sticky, it's romantic and sexy.

Although the writing credits on the back cover's list of the 15 tracks neglects to name lyricists in a couple of cases, the lyrics themselves get plenty of loving care. The involved phrasing sometimes takes us off the well-beaten paths in emphasis, partly through creative tempo rethinking and well-used pauses. There's a kind of determinedness in how many lines are delivered, which adds gravitas to what could be breezy. Things matter.

From the musical Do Re Mi, the standard "Make Someone Happy" has an intent and intensity that makes it seem both fresh and weighty. Bennett Paster's piano intro and stick-to-it-iveness make it serious, although we get a respite for a brief fanciful piano solo after the mood is established and confirmed. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's advice on prioritizing "the real stuff in life to cling to"—grabbing hold of loving relationships over the pursuit of fleeting fame comes through. Ellynne commands, too, the melody by Jule Styne. Styne's earlier graceful and fragile landscape for a ballad introduced by Frank Sinatra in the movie musical Anchors Aweigh, "I Fall in Love Too Easily," is another gem well cared for, with vulnerability and self-awareness mixed in satisfying balance as the wise but wistful lyric is illuminated—one of the most disarming and genuine in the work of Sammy Cahn. Cahn's poetic words also shun coyness wedded to McCoy Tyner's melody with the majestic "You Taught My Heart to Sing," masterfully shaped by singer and the partnered guitarist sharing center stage as a storytelling duo.

Things flow and flower here—artfully. Is it conscious curating or coincidence that later in the program we hear the opening line of the standard "'The Very Thought of You' makes my heart sing..." or that "You Taught My Heart to Sing" includes the line "You smile and suddenly it's spring" and another song selection is "Suddenly It's Spring" (words by Johnny Burke, music by Jimmy Van Heusen, Styne's other major collaborator)? "That's how my heart is singing" is heard again in the Brazilian "Dindi," sung in English. Its opening line, "Sky—so vast is the sky" and its question about where clouds go and references to wind, etc. are neatly echoed by a richly rendered "How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)," that Irving Berlin litany of questions and vow to travel "the journey from here to a star." In "So Many Stars" (another Brazilian-generated gem, courtesy of Sergio Mendes), the desired effect may be diminished by the affect not being quite convincing. That is, our interpreter doesn't "read" as being lost in the stars, neither awed nor overwhelmed, when asking questions in Marilyn and Alan Bergman's lyric ("Which one to choose? Which way to go?"). In "Soul Eyes," we hear "How is one to know which way to go?," and while Ms. Rey comes off as someone who seems to have an inner GPS about life, we "get" the more generalized observations, and it helps that it's stated in the third person.

Drummer Tony Jefferson and percussionist Daniel Sadownick—percolating or gently propulsive—are the fine fourth and fifth elements. Self-indulgence is taboo. While tracks tend to clock in at generous timings of more than four minutes, they never seem drawn out. Like the drawing on the outside of the album, and the small-sized band, lines are not wasted and there's "just enough" to present a perfect picture.


- Rob Lester


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