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Sublime Sondheim Time!...
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There are three new releases to please fans of Stephen Sondheim; all took some time coming down the pike: a mammoth piano project of commissioned works recorded over the years 2010-2014; a veteran singing pianist's live album capturing a 2008 concert; and another vocalist's album of his Sondheim studio tracks that sat on the shelf since the beginning of this century.


(3-CD SET)
ECM Records

"It started out like a song….."

But now each song, informed by its lyric, becomes a new piano piece as reinvented and reflected upon by a different composer. That's the three-disc set of adventures commissioned by—and played by—pianist/composer/creative curator Anthony de Mare. Thirty-seven different works born from Stephen Sondheim songs are connections to their origins and links to expansions, integrations and new musical ideas, with the project aptly titled Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano.

Some results are largely fairly loyal to the song's architecture and melodic lines, while others use the melody and mood merely as a germ for new material, a jumping-off point. An appealing little figure or phrase may become the focus, replicated and adapted. A minor character in the melody can become the star and new cast members mingle. It is never less than interesting, mostly mesmerizing, and sometimes genuinely astonishing in the expansions, re-shaping, and audacious blending of material. Time and tempo are used as playthings, controlled and adjusted as if with a magic wand. Some are like the offspring of the original songs: For example, composer Peter Golub titles his lovely piece, inspired by a Sunday in the Park with George song, "Child of 'Children and Art'." (Mark Eden Horowitz's booklet notes have appreciative comments about the 37 contributors' efforts, nicely observed, which are placed in a show-by-show manner. Most Sondheim fans, however, won't have much need for the plot summaries for contexts of the songs.)

Although I have devoured and immersed myself in Sondheim scores more frequently than the oeuvre of any other theatre writer, I'm inclined to think that even those with less familiarity will still find pure pleasure in simply listening to what's here as stand-alone pieces. Those of us who recognize the many nooks and crannies of the blueprints can delight in the scavenger hunt of things we find with their new twists and turns. Like those braver fairy-tale character travelers who venture Into the Woods, there are surprises galore. Some come in the very title theme to that 1987 score, as envisioned by Andy Akiho to begin the third and final disc, with pianist de Mare gamely shouting out the line from which all things will spring, "Once upon a time ...!" as he jumps into the playing. And what a tricky trip it is, the basic rollicking and persistent melody getting variation via hesitation and pauses for thought or tension. And some of the melody line's little phrases grow and grow from the tiny seeds of melodic bits, with Akiho honing in on distinct nuggets like the notes that match the words "to go to the festival" in the Cinderella section and unusual sound effects added to represent the Witch.

One might be sagely advised to keep your ears perked up for the recognized snippet and follow that at first, more than the foreign figures and mini-intermissions, and you'll find there's much familiar ground (or slightly shifting sands in basically familiar territory). Then, welcome the new more, after you get your bearings. You'll find happy hybrids and new discoveries to chart and admire.

Sweeney Todd is frequently dipped into for inspiration, and there's a lot of A Little Night Music. But Sondheim's screen songs, his latest (the show eventually known as Road Show) and earliest (the long-dormant Saturday Night) are untouched. Indeed, his early work gets short shrift, with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum only causing inspiration via one song—and one that was cut from the score, "Love Is in the Air," made into more than a meringue of lightheartedness and gossamer charm by fellow theatre composer David Shire, who plays with various tempi, musical styles and periods. He also gives a brief nod to "Comedy Tonight," which replaced "Love.." as the 1961 musical's new opening number. Anyone Can Whistle from 1964 is represented just by its opening number and that's what opens this whole three-disc set, with William Bolcom treating the title phrase as the basis for a fugue. A bit of the composer's best-known piece, "Send in the Clowns," makes a brief appearance here, too, an idea seized elsewhere (it does get its full due with Ethan Iverson creative combustion of the traditional and the odd).

While Bolcom's contribution provides a short-but-sweet little affair of about one hundred seconds of music as the first course for this banquet, some selections are far longer: the aforementioned Golub and Akiho contributions and four others pass the seven minute mark. They seem programmed for variety in tone, though sometimes two selections inspired by songs from the same score are side by side. And, with my mind on the unheard words always in my head, I notice that Derek Bermel's reflections of "Sorry/Grateful" with its message in (and about) Company that, despite having a marital partner, "you're still alone" is followed by the "No One Is Alone" piece. The latter is the captivating creation of Fred Hersch, a giant of jazz. And four pieces that begin or end a disc likewise are reflections on songs that begin or end one of the two acts in the shows from which they came. Indeed, while much changes here, some bursts of energy that make strong beginnings or powerhouse punches not meant to be followed remain such and retain that impact not sensibly shifted to another spot.

If you thought some Sondheim was locked in impenetrable forms, think again. With full reign of artistic license, not having to consider or use lyrics, and some composers not previously entrenched in Sondheim, it's like that lyric in Follies, if you will: "Everything was possible and nothing made sense." And as the very much approving and satisfied Sondheim himself says in his liner notes/endorsement: "They aren't decorations of the songs. They're fantasias on them, responses to the melodic lines and the harmonies, and occasionally the accompaniments." Given this full freedom, Company's "The Ladies Who Lunch" is taken at a tempo slow and meditative, bringing out the simmer more than the rage, thanks to the mind of David Rakowski. And the same score's "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" has usually been locked into its boop-a-doop bounce and cheery sarcasm (except in Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway where it was re-set as a grouse-fest for a mutually peeved couple and didn't translate so well), here it gets a more successful blood transfusion and multi-hued look from Eric Rockwell.

There's so much marvelous stuff here that it's difficult to single out more (at least without being a spoiler with lots of specifics, and much is better experienced with the above summaries hopefully sufficient to adequately describe and tantalize). But I think theatre fans will want to note some more familiar names from the genre, two of whom go on sprees with Sweeney Todd treats, and both add extra textures to the de Mare solo piano sound: Jason Robert Brown brings his fertile imagination and energy to a more manic and populated menagerie that only starts with the caged "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" for what he calls "Birds of Victorian England," while Duncan Sheik gets trippy with an engineered backing track for what's now known as "Johanna in Space." It's great space-age fun, while still resonating with Sondheim's glorious, aching long-lined melody of yearning. Then there's Ricky Ian Gordon's rebirth of "Every Day a Little Death" from A Little Night Music, emphasizing bittersweet tenderness over the sting of acceptance of fading happily never afters.

While all paths start from Stephen Sondheim here, these new companion pieces make the results sound like what could arguably be described as more than suggesting a very diverse range of genres: modern pieces with classical music foster parents, elegant art songs, and magnificent mixed marriages of minimalism and explosive but refined splashing. If we'd heard the end results of these imaginative musical minds playing in the Sondheim-lined sandbox before, by other players (the composers or others), we'd be turning our attention more to the scope and skill of Anthony de Mare's formidable, focused—and fabulous—piano skills. He is magnificent and commanding and masterfully versatile, as proven by the great diversity of feelings and styles here, from jazzmaster Wynton Marsalis' survey of iconic historical piano styles on "That Old Piano Roll" to the Japanese-flavored Pacific Overtures piece restyled by Annie Gosfield, "A Bowler Hat."

Does anyone still wear a hat? Yes, de Mare wears many hats and wears them well, and gets the last "word" here, with his own piece to end this remarkable three-disc set. It's "Sunday," remarkably bringing new colors to the summation of painter George's "perfect park." The dignity of the original remains, with the original de Mare ideas letting us see—or do I mean "hear"—things in a new way.


Harbinger Records

One title absent among the dozens of tracks on the newly issued Sondheim collections reviewed in this column is, for me, implied. It is "Old Friend." So many of The Songs of Stephen Sondheim feel comfortably like treasured old friends, because we've known and loved them for so long. Likewise, the presence of Steve Ross singing and playing quality songs of wit and wistfulness is certainly an old friend to ears and hearts after his decades as live entertainer and recording artist. This album is titled after another gem from the same score as "Old Friend," Merrily We Roll Along, and appears in the show in many guises, emerging as "Good Thing Going." (Curiously, that anticipated song isn't sung either!)

While Steve Ross entertained with his trademark flair in many a posh room over the years, described as dapper and sophisticated (guilty on both counts), let's banish forevermore any idea that elegance can't co-exist with being vulnerable and real. A prim carnation may seem to actually take root and grow upon his neatly pressed lapel, but his heart is on his sleeve and an air of refined politeness can also put that heart into songs that cry out "Please love me." Erudite? There's no question that this is one singer who actually sounds thoroughly at home with the vocabulary and references this lyricist (or his more usual Coward or Porter) spout, and he breathes them as easily as his caring and careful articulation emphasizes them. He's as much worldly wise as world weary. He's convincing at all the above and can be spiffy spinning some sass and loopiness, too. His slowed-down treatment of "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues"(a.k.a. "Buddy's Blues") lets us relish every quip of frustration and insecurity.

The set list is a satisfying mix of the usual suspects many audiences will expect ("Send in the Clowns," "Losing My Mind," and "Broadway Baby"—all admirably executed sans clichés) and some numbers often overlooked. "I've Got You to Lean On" is done with zest, a perky celebration of friendship, shorn of the added shady duplicity of its context in Anyone Can Whistle. And a little interpolation of Company's "Side by Side by Side" as a side commentary is the cherry on top of this fun sundae. Few would think to include the quaint "One More Kiss," which, outside its grand operetta diva dazzle for Follies, becomes a tender, smaller-scale heartrending plea. Also from that well-mined musical, Mr. Ross chooses to toss off the peppy paean, "Ah, Paris!" (we get the full lyric, thank you very much). And then there's the rarely done "Sand" from the unproduced film Singing Out Loud!.

Speaking of singing out loud, there isn't much that's loud and boisterous. Yes, less is indeed more on some numbers where we are more accustomed to angsty pleading or out-and-out belting. A gentle, delicate "Marry Me a Little" and the number written to replace it, "Being Alive," are especially moving in this concert's more pensive and knowing approach. While some of the discrete and understated vocalizing may be a concession to age and caution not thrown to the wind when ever-aware that a live performance is being recorded for posterity, some tip-toeing suits the endeavor and allows for attention to well-executed shading. There's a lived-in wisdom coming through the voice and the finely tuned timing. Rather than having some material come off as solipsistic introspection with the spotlight turned on himself, there's a sense of the singer sharing observations or lessons learned about human nature in general.

For example, the Steve Ross take on "Take the Moment," a once-grand musical moment from Do I Hear a Waltz?, where the male character has a very vested interest in what happens next; instead, we have a life philosophy of experienced carpe diem lessons being passed on from a trusted mentor. It's part of the encore, but there's also an encore to the encore with a bonus track recorded in a studio a year after this live London set. The final track is "Goodbye for Now" from the film Reds, one more gem well served.

This live album recorded in England at the cabaret called Pizza on the Park has some patter, focused on the material, and it's charming and terse. Only the longest segment is tracked separately. It is a welcome to the crowd, an appreciation of the composer-lyricist as "groundbreaking," exploring the darker, conflicted sides of human nature, and a salute to his willingness to be "audacious." Gracious and gregarious, Mr. Ross recalls having seen an early run through of the original Company and how "we all" knew it was special then. Later, acknowledging the hand-holders in the audience, he jokingly invites them to step outside and take up smoking while he sings the decidedly non-romantic lyrics about marriages which Richard Rodgers rejected from Do I Hear a Waltz's "We're Gonna Be All Right."

Ross the singer is very well served by Ross the pianist and vice versa. His piano playing and stylings very much respect and honor the original intents of the songwriter. His touch is loving and shows his deep knowledge of, and connection to, the material. He plays as if breathing, but never shortchanging the meaning. The integrity and care shown are so palpable that things feel almost astoundingly new and true. It's called dedication and affection. When his "Who Could Be Blue?" instrumentally incorporates a quote from Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," it's one more sweet and creative touch, like his segues in song pairings from one trademark to the next as one Steve salutes another Steve, who indeed could be blue?

Having just returned from another London engagement, Mr. Ross is in the midst of a busy Manhattan week, having done a big concert at Birdland on Monday with an orchestra, and he'll be performing a show with The Ziegfeld Society at Hunter College tomorrow (Saturday, November 21, 2015) and headlining a benefit at Feinstein's/54 Below the next night.


Emenar Records
Also available at CD Baby

If you think you can't be happily surprised by an interpreter's successful new ideas inhabiting any Songs by Stephen Sondheim, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Aaron Morishita. He does it. And with refreshing, inspired panache that feels natural. We're not talking gimmicks or labored phrasing. With the kind of smart, disarming acting choices that make you scratch your head with delight, you'll think, "How come nobody phrased it that way before?" And in the 15 years between the recording and release of his Singing Sondheim, that question remains. So many seem married to the way these songs sound on the original cast albums that their renditions—tempo, phrasing, key, straight-off-the-page accompaniment/ arrangement—are too often redundant. But the wise Mr. Morishita and his arranger/accompanist, the very present partner Jon Delfin, know that it's not always the seismic shift (whole concept for a number) that will make waves, but a lot of smaller details and nuances.

Aaron has popped up in New York City cabaret, such as with an impressive show of the pop songs of the late Harry Nilsson and some guest spots. For a long time, he did a mad mock spaced-out lounge act with pianist partner-in-crime Ricky Ritzel called The Lounge-o-Leers, both poker-faced and droning intentionally tacky homogenized pop behind sunglasses. The put-on was giggle worthy and bewildered those who didn't get the goof, but both had and have genuine musical talent and energy galore. This album is the real deal as far as musical entertainment goes.

The bar is set very high from the get-go with a true mash-up, as Aaron seesaws many times between two songs about excited anticipation: "Something's Coming" (Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story number the only example of a non-Sondheim melody) and Merrily We Roll Along's "Our Time." Joy bubbles and spills over with energy that transfers to the listener to set up the experience of a grand ride through Sondheimville with 22 titles included, some others in wisely matched pairings, too (but without the frequent back-and-forth switches the first track has). For example, the regretful/stiff upper lip but begrudgingly "philosophical" tone of "It Wasn't Meant to Happen" shivers as if trying to summon up stoicism and then blends into a confessional "Not a Day Goes By" bringing a sober acceptance to the latter. This is a welcome approach, rather than unrelenting rounds of unrelenting devotion, sorrow and anger that some overplay ("day after day after day after day ...").

The singer hits his marks with ease—notes and musical colors, with an appealing vocal timbre and notable clarity in diction, without sounding studied. Assured of these abilities and his considerable range, he also knows a singer need not keep proving and demonstrating his skill set over and over (with a full album to stretch out on), and that sometimes speaking a word crisply can be more effective for emphasis and contrast. He uses this tact especially well in the comedy moments, varying the expected placement others have used—so that even the well-known line is newly funny.

The characterizations and attitudes he imbues them with get results. Case in point: In "What More Do I Need?" He shivers on the opening words, recalling "Once I hated this city," cheerily announces "I love the grime all the time" and revels in onomatopoeia as he makes the most of words "slushy" and "gritty" and then dwells on the seemingly mismatched adjective in the line that follows: "What a pretty town." With Delfin re-setting the usual beats and tempo, it's all reinvigorated and Aaron has looser time to underline the funny and exaggerated, exasperated descriptions of a noisy Manhattan, inside and outside a tenement apartment. These are just a handful of tweaks personalizing a number, and the inventive singer does this on most tracks, as a matter of course. The many specific images in "I Remember" are delivered attentively "sharp as thumbtacks ... crisp as paper." On a serious rampage, "Could I Leave You?," without relying on mere rage or pouncing, he is more subtle in his mocking tone calling out his lover on the received "sullen glares from those injured eyes" and coolly confident and sarcastic answering his own question: "Would it pass? It would pass."

Almost each track demonstrates another strength and unified idea: The title song from Anyone Can Whistle, with its character self-conscious about how, frustratingly, "what's natural comes hard," Delfin's simple accompaniment is halting and echoes the awkward, uptight persona. From the same score, "With So Little to Be Sure Of" shows a wistful, clear-eyed maturity. For vocal and dramatic strengths, "Move On" and "Silly People" impress without being strident or overstating. And idiosyncratic "bits"—laughs, asides, etc.—add to the very different humor styles of "Love, I Hear" and "I Never Do Anything Twice."

More variety comes from the arrangements and orchestrations, which vary between piano-only and tracks with other combinations of sounds—with Jack Bashkow impressively appearing on one instrument or another (clarinet, sax, flute), a cello adding gravitas on "Silly People" and the engineer Chip Fabrizi being a cool drummer helps a lot, too, on a couple of slots. There are others guesting, too.

This is a bright and engaging recording and what with knockout renditions of "More," "No More" and "What More Do I Need?" what more can we hope for—except more Morishita? Please.

- Rob Lester

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