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Sound Advice Reviews

Hunting for Hope: Prioritizing Perspective, Finding Faith,Opting for Optimism
Reviews by Rob Lester

During these very troubling times, I've been going through the accumulated music submitted for review during the year, seeking recordings that include some persuasively performed songs that soothe and/or encourage hopefulness. Here are findings that can lighten the mood or suggest light at the end of the tunnel. Notably, some resonate all the more because the people singing include those with the wherewithal to persevere, despite having to cope with such challenges as blindness, addiction, a spouse's grave medical diagnosis, widowhood, raising an autistic child, and surviving Covid-19. Although there are many differences in musical personalities and favored styles, one noteworthy coincidence is that there is something from the Beatles songbook in each item.


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In the liner notes for her first release in four years, singer-pianist Diane Schuur states, "I believe with all my heart that music has the ability to comfort and heal." Over her four decades being in the spotlight as a recording artist, she's been open in interviews about handling not only blindness since babyhood and being just 13 when her mother died, but also her struggles with weight, sobriety, and even the temptation of suicide. In more recent years, her once-happy marriage was clouded as her (eventually divorced) husband was diagnosed with cancer, Parkinson's, and dementia. It's remarkable that this survivor's affect has typically been joyful, often imbued with humor; knowing her history makes one embrace her as an inspiring role model. Even when her multi-genre agenda finds her running into the blues on Running on Faith, we sense that she's down, but don't count on her being down for the count. "The Sun Will Shine on You" she promises—and is serenely convincing. Her singing and accented self-accompaniment are focused and commanding.

"Let It Be," a Beatles-born balm extraordinaire, feels fresh and fervently felt, a much-needed prescription for patience in coping with today's "times of trouble." The lyric's very frequent repetition of its title/message doesn't result in dull redundancy or being endlessly lost in a loop of a mawkish mantra; there are subtle variations in color and intensity. Heed-worthy advice also registers and radiates with the sung life lesson that "There Will Always Be One More Time," the mellow, slow-but-steady approach blessedly absent any preachiness or pat Pollyannaisms. Elsewhere, an irrepressible spirit of spunky or funky indulgence pops up to counteract the potential quicksand of self-pity in blues-styled numbers or uber-earnest declarations. The M.O. is to include some spoken asides and self-aware chuckles, such as the self-deprecating awareness of insecurity in doubting the viability of "Something So Right." In tackling this moody Paul Simon selection, the phrasing and accompaniment of its first sections respectfully honor the contours of the writer's own version and then take off into original jazz territory.

Diane Schuur's touch on the keys is also something so right. One very satisfying track is just her piano, taking the project's title word Faith in the religious sense for the only time (assuming you know the lyric). It's the spiritual about being Heaven-bound, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." But otherwise this is no one-woman show; there are five other musicians, the most prominent being sax man Ernie Watts—also co-producer with the lady of the hour (or the hour plus six minutes and change, to be precise) most prominent. The players' big chance to stretch out in solos is "Chicken," which also lets Diane Schuur show off her way with wordless wailing to complement and match their moments.

Running on Faith is no run-of-the-mill eclectic set of covers mixing the blithe with the blues (despite including a lyric version of Miles Davis' "All Blues" which Diane Schuur navigates with distinction). Don't dare designate her as Downer Diane because you'd be fooled or surprised until the final line of the Dinah Washington signature song "This Bitter Earth" comes up shining: "This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all." Faith restored, mission accomplished.


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Sometimes it can take lots of squinting to see glimmers of hope on the horizon, and the title song of You Must Believe in Spring is a welcome reminder that time's passage eventually brings renewal and revitalization after days of dire darkness. The reassurance in the philosophically spot-on lyric by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, wedded to Michel Legrand's gentle melody, is gracefully rendered by Sue Anne Gershenzon in a debut recording after many years teaching voice and as a singer in live performances, including musical theatre.

Her Broadway credit is playing a few roles in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George, but her sweet and youthful sound would not suggest someone who'd been there/done that for a Stephen Sondheim work 35 years ago. Although she doesn't sample that score, we get a fine Sondheim fix via his earlier "With So Little to Be Sure Of," a more-than-ever-relevant revelation about the value of positive experiences, even the ephemeral ones. Caring phrasing permits the vulnerability to come through, projecting a character's fragility with just the right amount of vibrato, aided by a discretely tip-toeing piano and the elegance of a string trio. Lasting less than three minutes, this version does not include the entire stage lyric which became a duet; here it ends with the line "We had a moment/ A marvelous moment." But it's still pretty marvelous. And "With So Little to Be Sure Of" is an inspired mate for You Must Believe in Spring's titular number which includes a line about how "what you think you know you can't be certain of."

This long-gestating project has arrangements by its pianist, Glafkos Kontemeniotis, who co-produced it with the vocalist. The most successful tracks, as I hear things, are those like the two described above in which Sue Anne Gershenzon's strength of acting the material with the nuance and freedom permitted by arrangements with less rhythmic drive and denseness. Slow tempi bring out such favor. However, there's sometimes a more muscular and more complex jazz accompaniment that seems to find the songbird and high-flying instrumentalists colliding at distractingly cross purposes. Mood-wise, the instrumental breaks can feel as though cut from another cloth, although the players are decidedly skillful.

Still and all, all of the 11 renditions have some peaks of pleasures to offer and all are worthy compositions. As examples, although the take on "Good Morning Heartache" would benefit by suggesting a bleaker, weaker frame of mind and the upbeat things would benefit by daring more friskiness or abandon, they still can coax smiles. On other selections, we might sit back and dig Joel Frahm's soaring sax work or the way Ms. Gershenzon can use her appealing voice like an instrument, especially fortuitous for our ears in an engaging visit to "The Fool on the Hill." On this Beatles character portrait, her notes are splendidly sustained or stretched like taffy.

In an interview, the singer explained that the repertoire choices reflect her life story, including marriage and divorce, giving up her Manhattan home, and raising a son who is on the autism spectrum. Even without knowing the specifics of that last fact, one would be struck by the awe and protectiveness enveloping the love-lavished reading of "A Child Is Born" (Thad Jones/ Alec Wilder). The humanity so present in the highlights of You Must Believe in Spring and its dose of cheer can be good therapy for days with cloudy emotional skies—to borrow another of the titles—"When Sunny Gets Blue."


Miranda Music
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The pop songs on Clearly Now often acknowledge knowing the sad sides of life and love, but some laments suggest the compensation of lessons learned via thoughtful introspection. And, happily, happiness gets much more than a cameo role. The unhesitatingly emotive singers Lina Koutrakos and Marcus Simeone are accompanied solely by excellent guitarist/arranger Sean Harkness (who chimes in vocally with both for four trio tracks and gets two instrumental solo tracks). These New York City-based folks, all honored with cabaret awards, have collaborated in the past and complement each other especially well. A few of the song choices have appeared on their various prior recordings, but not with the same collaborators. Wardrobe policy is to wear their hearts on their sleeves and that's an overall strong suit. The performances often feel startlingly intimate—soul-bearing to the max.

I've had, heard, and held on to this recording for months; I hadn't gotten around to reviewing it, but was reminded of it when I read of the death this past week of Johnny Nash, who wrote and recorded the 1972 hit referenced by this collection's title, "I Can See Clearly Now." The lyric's metaphors, exulting in evidence that bad weather is being replaced by a rainbow and a coming "bright, bright sunshiny day" feel apt in 2020 as we long for the post-pandemic world. (Let's call the trio's mature, considered, effectively slow treatment a "sneak preview" of good news.)

Alternating solos with three-part harmonies on the repeated simple chorus is the pleasing strategy with the blissful "Baby You're Mine" (recorded by pop artist Basia, who co-wrote it with Danny White). The three musketeers of music join voices cheerily, too, on "With a Little Help from My Friends," the Beatles recipe for coping with comradeship. After a romantic break-up, moving on (or not) is the issue in "For Now" with points of view on view in a Koutrakos/Simeone co-starring drama with the empathetic, understated guitarist shadings. "I'll Never Love Again" (introduced on film by one of its writers, Lady Gaga, star of A Star Is Born's latest rebirth) is graced by Marcus Simeone's high, pretty voice accenting loss and palpable pain. He knows whereof he sings, in recent years having dealt with the deaths of parents and close friends, as well as the loss of his husband who was in a coma and ended up paralyzed. He has been quite public about his sorrows.

Likewise sharing online her news of struggle, Lina Koutrakos had a lengthy battle with the Corona virus. Although that was some time after the recording and release of Clearly Now, and thus was not relevant to the performances here, we still find evidence of a survivor persona. The gutsy, throbbing vocals are evocative of both daring and dancing with the possibility of defeat. To witness her wandering through Hell and back as she drifts through the U2 hit "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is to find a woman in a world of woe, but not without hope. Harkness' fine instrumental solos are his reprised "Nod to John" (his self-penned salute to multiple Grammy honoree, guitarist John Scofield) and then there's Toto, too—meaning that rock group's chart-buster "Rosanna." It's so vibrant and breezy that you might forget that the unheard words are about missing a gal who got away. That's fine on a sorrow-heavy set. And the simpatico accompanist strikes a chord (literally) with listeners hankering for a classic Great American Songbook inclusion, anchoring his colleagues' serious-minded duet on "God Bless the Child." This Billie Holiday trademark, advocating for the hard-won triumph of DIY independence, re-emerges as memorable and timeless truth in Clearly Now, one of is many candidates for catharsis.

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