Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

A few of my favorite (recently released) things:
From... Benanti, Schmidt, Stritch, and Viggiano
Reviews by Rob Lester

Ladies and gentlemen, let's turn our ears to two lovely-voiced ladies and two very musical gentlemen. We'll lead off with Broadway leading lady Laura Benanti, and our closing act will be Lisa Viggiano. The two women both coincidentally hail from northern New Jersey, have 11-track recordings, and cover a range of genres and eras. In between these reviews are the men; both coincidentally hailing from Texas, have 12-track collections, showcasing primo piano skills. In the case of Billy Stritch, he's accompanying his own singing in a newly recorded collection. When we come to Harvey Schmidt, it's a keyboard cornucopia of gems from Broadway and movie musicals: an album made for private distribution 45 years ago.


Sony Masterworks

Lying luxuriously on satin sheets while listening to Laura Benanti's new solo recording would be redundant. Nothing could seem silkier or smoother than the way she cozily croons, spooling out her long-lined swaths of lyrics. Although several songs concern someone lamenting a broken romance, there's no hint of high drama. It's more self-analytical muttering and muted sobs—as if the wind has been knocked out of her sails and she's slowly collecting herself. Actress that she is, the Broadway veteran's mellowed manner never melts into a puddle of placidness. She wraps herself in artfully identifiable moods that retain distinct drama. While elegantly arriving in our ears because of the pure prettiness of the sounds, the scenarios have life and in-the-moment emotion.

The positions are either realizations about the lows of loss (such as "Someone You Loved" and "The Party's Over") or the highs of happy infatuation (like the strutting "Sucker" inherited from the Jonas Brothers and the lusty vintage "Go Slow"). Looking to the future contrasts inviting eternal coupled bliss ("What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?") and tips for women about staying married and enticing ("Wives and Lovers") with tips about becoming single ("50 Ways to Leave Your Lover").

Laura Benanti easily and slyly slips into variations of slinky and sunny attitudes to invoke a wide cast of characters. She is aided by the classy arrangements which provide ambience and are so engaging in the instrumental breaks that I wished some lasted longer. That old daffy character piece that parodies the 1960s Brazilian music craze, "The Boy from..." by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, underplays its hand by not taking the easy choice of leaning heavily on the comic cluelessness of the besotted gal. It has its own more authentic bossa nova groove, cool sax sway by John Ellis, with a noted quoted nod to its inspiration ("The Girl from Ipanema"). Arranger Gil Goldstein is heard to great advantage on piano or evocative accordion on all but one of the 11 tracks. The exception is the 1938 standard about a parting, "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," which has just Pasquale Grasso's sublime electric guitar accompaniment. Notable in the mostly smallish ensembles is Aaron Heick on bass flute on three tracks and once on clarinet and once on English horn.

This second solo outing (following a live nightclub set) is a pleasure to hear, even if I couldn't always clearly hear what each word of one of the pop lyrics was. The texts aren't included in the booklet, but can be easily found online and absorbed via pleasurable repeat-play sessions. I suspect the pleasure will be shared by the ever-increasing fan base of this Broadway leading lady in their listens to lilting, lush, legato Laura.



Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project

There is a curious paradox that we can explain regarding the timing of the official release of something whose title begins with the two words Merry Christmas: It might seem too early, but, actually, it's belated by four and a half decades. It's still early to greet the season and send "Season's Greetings" cards, but this collection of piano solos recorded by composer Harvey Schmidt was indeed an audio Christmas card, in the form of a 12-inch vinyl album. Privately sent only to those lucky enough to be on his Christmas list back in the day, Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project gifts the rest of the world by making it available for all to enjoy. If you were assuming that it's a collection full of holiday songs or melodies written by the accomplished Mr. Schmidt (1929-2018), you're wrong on both counts. He was stylishly tickling those ivories with a bounty of solidly constructed treasures composed by others who came to fame and acclaim with stage and film musicals.

Richard Rodgers is the composer most sampled, mostly earning bonus points in emphasizing the dignity of his creations, with five titles. Of these, probably the most unexpected choice is from the underappreciated TV musical "Androcles and the Lion": the gentle "No More Waiting"—a title that could be a tagline to advertise this release for those not connected to the man at the keys but who knew of the existence of this as a collector's item they hoped to come across eventually. Now it can be everybody's "Lucky Day," to borrow the name of another splendid inclusion. This happy listening assignment is a refresher course for me because, quite a few years ago, the LP was one of the fortunate finds rewarding my many haunts of thrift shops and library sales. (So I'm not merely reeling from recent exposure to a long-coveted but unheard prize.)

Among the dozen tracks—two of which are medleys—there is evident affection and delight in the material. But those flying fingers are not on automatic pilot; these renditions are anything but plain, plodding plunking. They are imaginative, often highly decorated with inventive fills and frills. There are some tempo choices and rhythms that increase one's admiration for a familiar melody's structure and development. And, without upstaging the melodists' accomplishments, this man who was an accomplished composer himself upped the ante with his own additions. In "Yesterdays," he distinctly slow-walks the individual notes of Jerome Kern's melody line, drop by drop, dropping his mini-commentaries between the original building blocks, without losing the thread. It is not a symptom of a musical theatre maven's overactive mind to claim that there are small memory tugs planted to reference other works by the composer at hand (meaning at Mr. Schmidt's hands). Likewise, if you have heard him play his own work or how piano is sweetly used in his score for The Fantasticks or other musicals, highlighting chords in the upper range of the keyboard, as a trademark, you'll notice that favoring of placement here.

Gershwin numbers also make appearances, including the title song of Oh, Kay! in one of the two charmingly peppy medleys (the other is a rewarding romp through a quartet of souvenirs from movies with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney). While these and the other performances will reignite memories for many, I don't think the reference points are crucial to enjoyment; this kind of playing is highly accessible and entertaining on its own.

The original agenda of this holiday package for friends is acknowledged with an appearance as the finale: the classic "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas." Close your eyes and you might imagine an antique music box's little dancer turning with metered precision when listening to Harvey Schmidt's way of wishing loved ones the best (or making the best of things when not currently living in the best of times—which rings a bell in 2020). Oh, and since The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" had already asserted itself onto many holiday albums by time of Merry Christmas 1975, we might point out that it's here, too, sparkling as shiny as its unheard lyric's references to "silver white winters" or "bright copper kettles."

This piano parade might become one of your favorite things—and something that will be a year-round source of comfort and joy for someone on your holiday list.


Club44 Records

As I learned first-hand long ago, an especially wonderful way to deeply appreciate good songs is going out to hear them in a bare-bones, close-up setting: with one singing pianist who seems to know and love every classic and shoulda-been standard. While live music venues and musicians are pretty much on the MIA list for now, Billy Stritch has a prescription for all of us suffering from PBDS (Piano Bar Deprivation Syndrome).

Withdrawal pangs are eased somewhat by the next best thing: the ingratiating, polished pro went back to an early chapter of his career—when he was a piano bar entertainer—and has been doing sets as solo singer/player/chatty host beamed from his home on his Facebook page (also now on Youtube), even taking requests and sharing song histories and anecdotes. This ongoing series, the cute conceit of which is that we pretend the apartment setting is actually a little club, a space called Billy's Place, and we're there with our cocktails, hearing his tales and tunes. This inspired a trip to Nashville for a studio recording—also dubbed Billy's Place—of selections culled from his set lists of his one-man shows.

The heart-on-sleeve intimacy of the invoked setting is the name of the game. This calls for choosing lyrics with sensitivity and honesty, to be supported by melodies, accompaniment and arrangements that allow them to be fully brought out. This means a bevy of ballads and beauty, but not lingering in the fields of regret and sorrows. Wistful and contemplative are more often the M.O. Ebullience is provided with his spiffy and spunky self-penned title tune that describes the pseudo-setting and invites us in. In taking on Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love with Love" with a lyric that can present the singer as wounded and jaded, dismissing romantic love as unrealistic and unlikely, Stritch pulls a switch. He invests it with energy and speed, suggesting resilience and recovery, lest we dwell on the downer aspect. In any case, it gives a welcome change of pace in Billy's Place among the slower and languid tempi. But it's not urgently needed with such an endeavor—it's nice to sit back and relax and listen carefully to so many thoughtfully phrased, nuanced, and personalized renditions by a guy with such a pleasing, natural vocal approach and decided deftness with the piano. It's a bounty of top-drawer material presented by someone who, without the need for flourishes or flash, can so directly communicate.

The repertoire includes the classic "Skylark," showcasing the song's poetic grace and the performer's vulnerability, and two numbers with words by Marilyn and Alan Bergman: "Ordinary Miracles," which inspires us to take opportunities to "all be quiet heroes" (music by Marvin Hamlisch); and the sweet hopefulness of "It Might Be You" (with Dave Grusin's melody). The Billy Stritch methodology is spot on in finding the sweet spot for these. Another treat is the heart-tugging "Since You Left New York," which he wrote with Sandy Knox. But the thing that gets to me the most is the encouraging, convincing promise that soon indeed skies will be "Blue Again" and life will be better. Although written before the pandemic's horrors that seem so endless, and using the oft-invoked weather metaphors to stand in for personal dark and clear times, its guilelessness is potent, not pat. It is the work of Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey, who also join Mr. S. on this collection's producing team. When you need a dose of hope, get your perspective fix by keeping "Blue Again" handy and on repeat-play.

Pull up a bar stool. Now is the time, and Billy's Place must be the place to happily hang out.



With the impressive amounts of perspective, warmth, and life lessons that come through in her performances, Lisa Viggiano could convincingly pass as an esteemed philosopher, earth mother, sought-after advice columnist, and guru. As a singer who seems a troubled soul's soother or soothsayer, she makes one hang on to every word. It also helps that her voice and presence are compelling; the simpatico accompaniment on her Invited to Stay release is limited to one instrument (alternately piano or guitar) for a superbly chosen repertoire. The material allows for balms, confessionals and catharsis.

After some time off for marriage, motherhood, and other career goals, Lisa Viggiano returned to the New York City cabaret scene in recent years, collecting fans, strong reviews, and a true sweep of awards in the last couple of seasons. With a voice full of heart and beauty, she strongly connects to her material, is focused and open, projecting empathy. That's a pretty thorough check-list of assets.

The pensive and fine supportive accompaniments come from either guitarist Monroe Quinn or pianist Tim Di Pasqua. The latter wrote the affecting "You"—a litany of reality checks about possible goals and priorities. It's delivered disarmingly and delicately. Invited to Stay is indeed inviting, and stays so throughout the proceedings.

The Viggiano voice choice palette has many striking qualities, but what's employed is always in the service of the song. Phrasing feels very natural, not manipulative, as if she's sharing real-deal, real-time thoughts and lessons learned. The choices of how to shade words and lines, whether instinctive or planned, seem effortless but effective in any case. Sometimes it means getting breathy or using just the right amount of feathery vibrato to accent caring or persuasive pleading (as in the excellent "The Heart of Her," which she co-wrote with David Friedman). Sometimes she'll let loose a bigger sound when a number demands becoming increasingly fervent (Bob Dylan's "Forever Young"). A slight pause or sigh or letting words be more spoken than sung adds special laser-beamed emphasis. (Check out the treatment of the last two words in the admission "I should be over it now, I know" in the sublime "When October Goes," the Johnny Mercer lyric posthumously set by Barry Manilow.) Two very different Cole Porter pieces present contrasting requirements well nailed: (1) She snuggles up to the mic in a lightheartedly loping "Don't Fence Me In"; (2) She imparts the pain of parting in his "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," laying all her vulnerability cards on the table. Simply said, she brings a lot to the table throughout.

In the CD's line-up, the final cut is a holiday from the heartrending and haunting stuff comes with the simple fun of strutting through the old novelty "Save the Bones for Henry Jones." Another Mr. Jones is represented with an on-target tender "Try to Remember" by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

I know that Invited to Stay will surely stay put in rotation for me as a major favorite.

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