Sound Advice Reviews
Three very different offerings among the new releases
Well, it seems that the three recordings reviewed for this first column of September are indeed diverse. But there's actually a bit of a connection. It's not the obvious fact that almost all of the vocal performances are by women. Something about Japan is the link. Our lead item is made up of songs written by Harold Arlen and Martin Charnin, many from their abandoned musical Softly, set in Japan. That's where vocalist Linda Purl, whose new release is our second item, grew up and began her acting career in musicals, and has returned for recent gigs. And our third set is by songbird Misumi Ormandy from Japan, who sings two numbers partially in her native language along with American standards, including one with music by the aforementioned Mr. Arlen.
SYLVIA McNAIR (vocals), KEVIN COLE (piano)
For every musical we count among Broadway's hits, there are many more that don't find commercial success: those shows that don't have long runs, the "also-rans" that stumble and fall. And then there are the ones that don't even get to the starting gate because they close in out-of-town tryouts or never see a production at all, often leaving little trace of what might have been. Fans of the genre may be understandably curious about such cases when the writers are people whose earlier (or later) work was notable in a good way. This brings us to the worth-discovering Softly, a musical that never saw the light of day or the lights of Broadway as planned and hoped during the two years in the mid-1960s when it was written and rewritten by composer Harold Arlen, lyricist Martin Charnin, and bookwriter Hugh Wheeler. Material intended for that project, most of it sung by Sylvia McNair, makes up a large portion of a most welcome, well-done new release called You Are Tomorrow. Arlen, represented on Broadway since 1930, had dipped into his deep well of musical styles, moods and attitudes–jazzy, jaunty, melancholy, languid, slinky, bluesy, bittersweet.
Independent songs by the team and a few of their own performances from the 1960s (just one with Charnin) are special additions to this intriguing investigation. The clarity and elegance of the voice of Sylvia McNair, which has graced classical music and the American Songbook standards and more, makes for classy, creamy renditions. Some of the 19 tracks will likely feel instantly accessible and others have a less assertive imprint, but repeat plays reap rewards to lose the "elusive" impression. This doesn't boast musical comedy splashiness or big bravura showstopping anthems, at least not in these interpretations. The agenda does not seem to be to mine the maximum potential sorrow or anger content in the heavier stuff. Without being overly formal, there's certainly more reserve than abandon.
"You Are Tomorrow" is especially lilting and its concise lyric would make it the perfect candidate to be sung to those beginning or graduating school or at the cusp of any adventure, and could even be an ode to the newborn. A simple sample: "You are deeds to be done/ You are worlds to be won/ What is not yet begun." I love the way the playfulness is not overplayed in cute numbers so that something like "Works Both Ways" works as cute verbiage and a shrug of acceptance that we have to take the good with the bad and "it evens out" because "for every Mulligan stew there's a bouillabaisse" and "for every sweetie pie there's a sauerkraut." (The lyric also name-drops Fred Astaire, who was once considering the male lead in Softly).
The theory that "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" was addressed again, with the same title, in Annie, but the rest of Charnin's cheerful words are not similar to what he concocted for that later score. The charmer heard here specifically concerns Adam and Eve and the fig leaf fashion statement. Vocal duties are shared with Kevin Cole and it becomes a spiffy counterpoint number. He also has a couple of tracks that are piano solos, which are engaging, and I am very fond of the treatment of "Once I Wore Ribbons Here" that wisely lets him play its very pretty melody for a generous 90 seconds before the McNair voice enters and warmly delivers the wistful words.
Demos by a musical's songwriters can bring insight as to what the original intentions were, and there's often a kind of zest and sense of ownership that makes up for the lack of polish that later interpreters might offer. Such is true of some of what's heard on the three demos here. In the rangier melodies, Arlen sounds like he's reaching for high notes at times in the key du jour. I've heard other recordings by him where he's more assured, for sure, but it's great to have the endearing souvenirs of historical value. Charnin and Arlen combine their voices effectively on the likeable "Fish Go Higher Than Tigers." The multi-page booklet's notes that fill us in on Softly's plot–and much more–helpfully explain some context, such as the fact that this number is about children's kites in the forms of those named creatures. We're told that Hugh Wheeler's ever-evolving expansion of the plot of a short story set in Japan concerned the relationship between an American man and an Asian woman, both with other entanglements.
Not everything will be unfamiliar to devoted musical theatre fans of various stripes (selective collectors who've sought recordings of Arlen material that included some rarer things or hard-core Softly sleuths). The last track, the composer's own vocal with orchestra and back-up chorus on the socially conscious "That's a Fine Kind of Freedom," is borrowed from the album Harold Sings Arlen (with Friend); the "friend" was Barbra Streisand, for whom it was written to perform in a benefit, and who also recorded it.
This is the latest carefully curated and created release from Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project presented by dedicated label co-founder Bill Rudman. The preservation/excavation efforts, like this one that came along just before Labor Day, are lovely labor-of-love sets adding to great songwriters' legacies.
Coloring individual words and notes with varied shades of specific emotions and attitudes, Linda Purl's acting makes the most of opportunities in the details. Varying her vocal approach to veer from quieter pretty crooning to blasts of power, with huskiness or heft, Linda Purl's singing adds adventure to melodies she takes on, buoyed by the surprises and support in pianist Tedd Firth's arrangements. Imbuing some phrases with quiet wonder, others with joy, she's quite captivating in her latest collection, This Could Be the Start, from start to finish.
Listen to how she sighs into the word "easy" on "Let Me Down Easy" (Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh, from an unproduced musical based on the film The Heartbreak Kid). Note the extra energy released that demonstrates remembered hostility on the word "hated" as she sings, in the wisely included introductory verse of "Blue Moon": "Once upon a time, before I took up dreaming, I hated the moonlight." These are just a couple of examples of the in-the-moment presence. And the ability to cast a mesmerizing spell is definitely in the Purl/Firth skill sets, most rapturously evident in the cozy "Let's Get Lost," "Dream Dancing," and "Two Hearts (Lawns)."
Repertoire sizzles or soothes. Those contrasting energies are exemplified, respectively, by two numbers from the Stephen Sondheim songbook: "Live Alone and Like It" and "Not While I'm Around." The first is fierce with insistence that isn't content to show contentedness with the single life, but more interestingly lets us see the lurking ambivalence. The piano/vocal partnership on the second begins with a gentle keyboard tinkling that suggests a music box's daintiness, then there are phrases in the arrangement that anticipate the ones that will soon be sung with increasing conviction about protecting someone.
The splendid musicians really shine in the arrangements, which can be delicate, muscular, drenched in gauzy atmosphere; some start off with minimalism for a conversational setup and then swing suddenly into a zingy Latin rhythm or other jazzy pace-changer. Hooray for Tedd Firth's creativity and keyboard command and three cheers for his three accomplished accompanying musicians: David Finck on bass, Ray Marchica on drums and percussion, and Nelson Rangell on reeds. This is very much a team effort that respects the material but brings fresh perspectives, too.
Linda Purl celebrates the release of This Could Be the Start with a performance in midtown Manhattan on September 11 at The Green Room 42.
There's a kind of flower called the Japanese anemone that takes some patience until its sweet prettiness pops up, a late-blooming item that needs a year or two to establish and then activity increases markedly. Similarly, Masumi Ormandy, a Japanese late-blooming singer with a lovely sound, didn't begin her recording career until age 77, but she made up for lost time by recording five collections of songs in seven years. Beyond the Sea is the newest and finds her, at 84, recording in the United States in the company of top musicians. (Each track has a different line-up.) Her caring, careful approach to the material is notable for her attentively crisp diction, not surprising for someone who studied her musical craft, learned English as a child, and spent years teaching it to the younger generation in Japan. She seems to be a gentle spirit projecting positivity and when she sings "Smile"–well, how can we not do so?
The singing is rather straightforward, unpretentious and amiable. It's understated but focused; there is energy without big sustained notes or showiness. The sterling instrumentalists do the heavy lifting, as far as sweep and swing or taking melodic liberties and embellishments. It works. Miss Ormandy imbues "Here's to Life" with sincerity and authenticity, gratitude and gravitas. But things don't get heavy or droopy anywhere, so don't look for much sadness in the moods here; "I'm Through with Love," the most likely candidate for a self-pity party, is more wistful than weepy. And "Sentimental Journey" is not at all a gentle, sentimental sojourn suggesting nostalgia. It's taken at a peppy clip, with the instrumental break adding to the vitality.
Houston Person's sashaying saxophone and Mino Cinelu's clicking percussion set the mood and get much time to keep Harold Arlen's tune for "It's Only a Paper Moon" in an enjoyably relaxed comfort zone. Also gratifying on various tracks are the contributions of trumpeter Bria Skonberg, string players Sara Caswell and Jody Redhage Ferber, and pianist Allen Farnham, who did the arrangements along with producer/mentor Roseanna Vitro. She adds some vocals to the English portion of a bilingual entry born in Japan, "Ringo No Uta" ("Apple Song"), a version of which is on an earlier release. "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" features Danny Bacher on sax and grabbing the spotlight for a shared and playful vocal. The lyric's now-dated mention of the store Woolworth's is replaced with his mentions of the names of two chain stores ubiquitous in some cities.
Beyond the Sea is currently available digitally; physical CDs, like the one I was pleased to receive in the mail for review, are expected to soon be sold through the singer's website.