Bravely venturing where many have trod, several singers this week honor musical heroes by adopting (and to some degree adapting) their songs and style. The honorees are Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington and Oscar Brown, Jr. Let's start with one who not only shares her subject's way with a song, but also shares her DNA.
Well, what can I say? Her mother taught her well. Many singers have called Judy Garland an influence, but only two could call her Mama. It's been a long time coming, but strong-voiced Lorna Luft's loving tribute to her mother, which she has been performing in concert for some time, is finally on disc. At times channeling her legendary parent's force and sound, at other times being more relaxed and herself, it's a remarkable, sometimes eerie - and inevitably moving - experience. There's no denying the historic and emotional weight of this. Lorna's big belting voice, with vibrato, is theatrical and has both power and passion. There's always respect for the burned-into-memory-and-history renditions. Naturally, that means a studied approach with a certain lack of spontaneity in this aural equivalent of following the yellow brick road step by step - with the famous phrasing and arrangements. But that's the plan, much of the time.
And it's also the very first solo album by Lorna, forty years after singing with her mom as a teenager on a live album at the Palace Theatre. Scattered individual songs recorded over the years include participation in a studio cast album of Girl Crazy, a movie Judy starred in, and that score's "But Not for Me" is one of many heard briefly within the album's guided tour of the Garland career. That is, Lorna tells the story and punctuates it with snippets of songs, often consciously adopting the trademark style and arrangements. Her cue is a scripted plea from her own children to recap it all one more time. She begins and ends with with the famous "Born in a Trunk" from A Star is Born, with a combination of the original and some special lyrics. Along the way, we hear bits and pieces of movie songs along with commentary and her kids' bursting-with-enthusiasm comments along the lines of "And then Aunt Liza was born!" Hokey? OK, I guess so, especially with the sound effect thrown in of a baby crying with each birth mentioned.
There's also narration in the beginning of the album where Lorna explains why she avoided this repertoire for years ("fear," she explains tersely) and why she finally decided to go for it. This is done between sections of "I Feel a Song Coming On." But this is not a live recording where that would seem more reasonable and effective. The orchestra was recorded in England, with Lorna's husband Colin R. Freeman as pianist and conductor, with the vocals recorded in California and produced by Barry Manilow.
Musical theatre fans will especially appreciate the inclusion of "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park with George. And it's refreshing to hear Lorna sing this in her own way as a memory piece among all the recreations of the Judy classics. Addressing it to her children who were born long after the legend's death in 1969, it's touching to hear her sing, "You would have liked her ... "
It's not indicated on the song list that some titles in the big montage are heard only instrumentally. Nor is it stated that you'll hear the voice of Judy Garland several times, too. The album begins with her singing "Lorna" by Johnny Mercer and Garland musical director Mort Lindsey, as heard on the star's TV series of the 1963-64 season. This custom-written number is an important part of the daughter's legacy and it is logical to start there, hearing that thrilling voice, but as Lorna herself states, "How do you follow a legend?" By the fourth track, she tries technology, singing along with her mother's recordings (which she did for a single once before, with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," not included here). The duets here are on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" with appealing harmonies and then a strong impact with the lyrics of "Through the Years" taking on new layers of meaning and power. I got chills. Lorna sidesteps singing her mother's most famous song by letting the Garland recording play and interweaving herself singing something else in counterpoint to it. Plaintive at first and becoming inspirational, it's "Shining Star" by Ken and Mitzie Welch who directed the endeavor and wrote the new lines for the show.
Lorna, whose resume includes many performances in musical theatre roles (the latest being White Christmas in Europe) is certainly theatrical here. This labor of love feels labored at times but it's the love that comes through giant voice, giant heart saluting and embracing one of the giants of our musical legacy - and hers.
Her stint in the title role of Broadway's Aida in 2004 tipped the scale to make me want to seek the new CD by Deborah Cox, better known for contemporary R & B and dance music. Destination Moon is a salute to her longtime favorite, Dinah Washington, often called Queen of the Blues. It includes a few songs from older musicals, which also sparks interest. Well, it turns out to be a very fine recording with the singer sounding very much at home with this material, truly at ease and in charge. She never sounds like a pop singer out of her element or treading lightly in unfamiliar territory. What a pleasure!
This is a deluxe production, with a large orchestra, classy arrangements and invigorating work all around. Nothing sounds tired or phoned in. The ensemble includes the much-respected jazz bass player David Finck, which is good news in itself. The pianist, arranger and producer is Rob Mounsey who should get a major tip of the hat in this tip of the hat to dynamo Dinah, who some theatre fans will have gotten to know more about from a recent theatre piece about her, Dinah Was. Deborah's voice is quite versatile here: she can sound glossy, gutsy or graceful, growling or gliding through the bluesy and seductive material. A warmer and youthful quality works to her advantage, making the songs that might be tough and gruff come off as more reflective. Dinah's work may strike some as brittle and harsh; Deborah definitely has a prettier sound without being toothless. She may be "Dinah Lite" to some degree, but she's definitely got some dynamite in her delivery and phrases as Dinah might.
Deborah has done her listening and absorbing: she's definitely doing some Washington trademark inflections, brassy qualities and cut-off notes and wailing familiar from the more famous records like "This Bitter Earth." The signature song "What a Difference a Day Made" is more on the cooing/girlish side than the original. Not everything feels fully realized: some sections where things turn bluesy or sultry seem mild where they might be spicy, or just repetitive in tone and putter where they could sizzle more. But the title song is definitely upbeat fun.
The Irving Berlin classic, "Blue Skies" starts with a luxurious rubato section emphasizing the vulnerable side of the Cox voice and features sublime piano work. It then builds and builds to smashing climactic bursts of joy. The other show tunes are Roberta's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," starting similarly and gaining steam in the opposite emotional way: going from awestruck and romantic and becoming sadder until it becomes an agonizing cry of anguish about the "tears I cannot hide." My favorite track of all is from the 60-year-old score to Finian's Rainbow, sounding fresh as today because of the way Deborah sounds so in the moment and is really telling the story and philosophy of "Look to the Rainbow." The accompaniment centers on the piano with Rob Mounsey playing thoughtfully and it's the best fusing of the singer's contemporary sound and sensibility with the traditions.
The first version of this album I received has two extra tracks. One is "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," a slow lament with a tinge of country and a twinge of regret, and a spare arrangement. The other is the standard "All of Me," swinging lightly and letting Deborah scat sing ever so briefly. These tracks have more minimal accompaniment and less sheen than the rich orchestral treatments of most songs, but they are strong components of the tribute, and there's nothing very similar to either among the other 12 tracks.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Washington, D.C. (Miss Washington via Deborah Cox).
An accomplished and respectful tribute to the late songwriter-performer Oscar Brown, Jr. (1926-2005) comes from vocalist Linda Kosut. The challenging repertoire includes slyly humorous numbers, those with socio-political commentary, mournful pieces and jazzy celebrations of life. The majority have both music and lyrics by Brown but there's also his alternate lyric to the classic jazz melody "'Round Midnight" and his words for the Jacques Brel "Old Lovers' Song." Linda treats them all with dignity or a sense of offhand fun, as appropriate. She does not shy away from the heavier themes and the the slave auction set to music, "Bid 'Em In," is unblinking and chilling.
Some of the material has a dirge-like quality or a lack of melodic variety, and the performances don't always find a way to compensate for that. Linda does not quite try to emulate Brown's gritty soulful and haunting singing. But she has integrity and a warmth that comes through in the more openly emotional songs, comfortable with the poetic images and story songs. With the invaluable help of Max Perkoff on piano and trombone, there's great atmosphere conjured up and sustained for "Summer in the City" and the pensive "A Column of Birds." The only other musicians are bassist Tom Shader and Paul van Wageningen on percussion, and all work well together with taste and restraint. This is a classy and intimate listening experience, and a few lighter, uptempo numbers provide respite and fun, like the ingratiating "Mr. Kicks" that invites finger-snapping and a smile.
I'm glad to see someone taking on this repertoire and to hear it from the point of view of a woman. In her well-researched cabaret show of this material (recently seen in New York and presented this coming Monday in San Francisco at The Plush Room), Linda talks about the seeming polar opposite match: a white, Jewish girl from the Bronx taking on the mantle of an African American non-traditional poet who took on racism and poverty in his writing. She has been a Brown fan for some time: her pleasing earlier album, Life Is But a Dream ..., has the writer's "Dat Dere" along with pop and more traditional theatre songs. Her singing on that CD and in her recording as one-third of the group The Kitchenettes is accomplished, but the Brown material really shows her serious side and developing jazz sensibilities.
Methinks Brian Evans has been listening to Frank Sinatra records. His repertoire for this gig recorded live in Key West not only consists mostly of Sinatra standbys but incorporates many of the lyric embellishments the superstar used in concerts and recordings. Many of the arrangements are based on those versions, and the phrasing often follows the path. This is a breezy ride through familiar territory but full of good spirits. Brian is a cheery, high-energy performer. Other albums show him off to better advantage, as do some videos on his myspace page. But there's some good energy here, and youthfully strong chops, with a Vegas flavor and some bite that won't hurt.
There's more originality on some of the Frank fun, like most aspects of "That's Life" where the song wails and soars and ends on a big belted note. When the flash and splash take a break, Brian shows his skill at sincere ballad singing, turning in a well-phrased, sincere "All the Way."
We also get two interludes with actor William Shatner, of all people. He makes some comments about his search for love and the meaning of life. No, he doesn't sing. He recites lyrics. First, with gravitas extreme, he intones the words to "What Kind of Fool Am I" as if it were a soul-searching Shakespearean monologue and then switches moods and tells us why "The Lady Is a Tramp." Meanwhile, in each case, the band plays the melody behind him. I don't get it.
The CD ends with a bonus track, recorded in a studio, a snappy and happy "Oh! Look at Me Now" with a more original and varied arrangement and a clear, bright vocal. The zest and goodwill come through in full and it's an enjoyable and ebullient finish. The sound quality is noticeably better on the bonus track; the live portions leave a lot to be desired in that department.
Brian also has a new single and the Canada-based singer is working on his first widely released album, which will include songs he wrote.
UNDER THE RADAR
The last tribute is a nod to two different music figures ...
Long sitting on my record shelves back in the corner is a little, bright yellow wooden toy vehicle because that's what the set of four cassette tapes of children's ditties came in: The Little Wonder Bus, with its songs of Wild and Wacky Animals, etc. The comforting and peppy voice belonged to Jane Norman, who some may know from the long-ago syndicated TV show where she portrayed the character of Pixanne in a Peter Pan-style outfit. The once-upon-a-time pixie now sings the standards, but the supreme sweetness and light, smooth voice are the same.
With Love is billed as a tribute to Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, but that's just a reference point, it seems, for song choices. The arrangements and vocal stylings owe little to either legend. Jane avoids the Sinatra hits he introduced; the one most closely associated with him is his concert staple, Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You."
Jane sings gently but with confidence with a huge orchestra arranged and conducted by her longtime musical partner, Richard Rome, who also plays piano, and they produced the CD together. The arrangements are pillowy soft on the string-filled ballads and full of detailed rhythmic figures on the occasional lively tune like "The Trolley Song," which, though introduced of course by Judy Garland, was also sung by Sinatra along the way. Likewise, "Come Rain or Come Shine" was recorded by both, though Jane doesn't seem to be drawing from either's determined way with it. On this, and other numbers, she has a stylistic habit of speaking some words or short phrases rather than singing them, which I find very rarely effective, especially when done in a breathy whispered tone. She has a lovely tone and I'd rather just hear her sing the lines.
Most of this is very low key; her "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" makes her sound only slightly bewitched, and not a whit bothered or bewildered, just bemused and and floating on a dreamy musical cloud. But it's so pretty and ... yes, relaxing ... I couldn't be bothered to object too strenuously.
Two duets with a hip singer Paul Jost, whose appealingly gruff voice complements her honeyed quality, are highlights: "I Thought About You" and "Love Is Here to Stay." They bring out her jazzier and playful sides, with kickier arrangements. The Brazilian classic "Corcovado" ("Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars") finds her sharing singing duties with Joao McDowell, but they never sing together. Though both treat the Jobim melody with grace and care, she begins and ends the track crooning the Gene Lees English lyric and in the middle, he sings in Portuguese.
Of the two songs she wrote herself, both ballads, "In Your Heart" is a simple, direct, sentimental love plea, but "The Newness of the Morning" is far more effective. It sets a more specific and memorable mood, with mature emotions in perspective.
As tributes to other singers go, this is a subtle salute where you rarely think of the subjects, but just enjoy the floating romanticism.
And so ends this session of the various icon-honoring fan clubs. Meeting(s) adjourned.