Sound Advice Reviews
My ears have been filled with the sounds of fine female voices this week, starting with a second collection of Stephen Sondheim songs reinterpreted by Eleri Ward, namesake Elizabeth Ward Land visiting Linda Ronstadt territory, and two women with their third full-length releases (both happen to choose the jazz piece "Bittersweet," among other interesting selections). They are Celia Berk and Vicki Burns.
Among the singers, instrumentalists and arrangers who have tried with varying success to vary the same old/same old treatments of Stephen Sondheim's songs, one woman who fits all three aforementioned job descriptions stands out triumphantly in the crowd. She is Eleri Ward; her second Sondheim collection provides another set of reimagined stylizations that are decidedly original, as opposed to being closely related to performances on a musical's original cast album. Named for a phrase in the included "Marry Me a Little," Keep a Tender Distance's selections may have, as Ms. Ward has stated, the common theme of some kind of distance (from a goal or what we might have called social distance before the term became pandemic-specific), but "tender" is the operative word in describing much of the tone and intimate approach. This is true even of numbers that were born big, bold or throbbing for their stage characters.
Vocals are liquid; ultra-high head tones float and then soar. Notes can almost seesaw, as if flirting with the unused potential to grow into mini-yodeling. (Don't worry, that doesn't happen.) The folky, indie-pop swirl and sweep is a keeper: a heady, kaleidoscopic experience with the wide-ranging Ward solo voice and guitar as the nucleus, with technology often used liberally so that multi-tracked singing and instruments create layers of sound and harmonies. Large-scale string arrangements are granted to several pieces while others are kept relatively spare, with a gossamer quality. When the feats of production are at their most dense and intense, there's a risk of upstaging the essence of the material's drama or delicacy–at least on the first or second hearing. And I suppose that would be even truer if I didn't know the lyrics and music like I know the back of my hand. However, I am using my hands to applaud these uniquely affecting–and yes, dazzling–interpretations. Vulnerability and pensiveness prevail, with wistfulness also present.
Like its predecessor, A Perfect Little Death, this grouping samples eight different Sondheim scores (not the exact same ones), with only one musical getting represented by more than one or two songs. This time the favored property is the one that's on Broadway again now, Into the Woods. Four of its gems are here: "I Know Things Now," "No One Is Alone," the pleading "Stay with Me," and a version of "Agony" that downplays the humor to make it more of a straight-faced lament. While the 2021 collection had her crooning the Sweeney Todd "Johanna" lyric from its second act, the new set has that melody as a shorter track, with the words from the first act romantically delivered. The other pick from that score is "Not While I'm Around," which morphs from soothing lullabye to demonstrated robustness and adds repeats of the lyric's phrase "Not to worry" to bookend the song, serving as a mantra. (She and Josh Groban sang this as a duet this year on the concert tour of this man who's taking up the razor to play the title role in next year's Sweeney Todd Broadway revival.)
Expected later this year is a CD release of this 14-track bewitching bounty of art and craft.
ELIZABETH WARD LAND
When it comes to performers taking on the hits of icons for a full-length project, deciding how much to change things up, I know it can be an error to err on the side of caution too much. I admire throwing caution to the wind somewhat, but Elizabeth Ward Land and her musical team seem to want to have it both ways. For me, their work is most engaging when they veer off the beaten path on Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt. Memories are stirred, not shaken, and it all goes down easy (like a good martini).
A big, flexible voice and being adept at adapting it to different styles, with abandon, are prerequisites for taking on much of the Ronstadt repertoire, and with this release we have someone with chops and gusto. Based on a live show with stories of both women's lives cuing songs, Still Within the Sound of My Voice is produced by performer Ken Land, the singer's husband. Both were on Broadway in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Accompaniment is by a quintet including pianist/arranger Andrew David Sotomayor and violinist Joel Waggoner, who is the vocal arranger for the solid harmonies he and Catherine Porter provide.
The highlights for me–by far–are "Blue Bayou," "Long Long Time" and "Desperado" (for which she takes over on piano). "Blue Bayou" brings welcome fresh phrasing, adding depth and drama to the yearning to be "going back someday." There's sadder-but-wiser melancholy in both "Long Long Time" and "Desperado." In both of these the singer most effectively channels the distinctive cry in the voice of her model without sounding forced. Some other tracks provide increased emotional shading in moments when the tempo slows down to give room to linger over words, such as the languid start to "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" before the Motown momentum kicks in for the familiar brisk percolation. It's tougher to bring nuance and personalization or to backphrase and seem more "in the moment" when singing right on the beat at fast tempi.
Song choices rely very heavily on the pop/rock hits, with some country crossover and folk flavoring, but giving shorter shrift to other genres Linda Ronstadt is notable for embracing. This is less true of the live show, noting what was not preserved for the studio version. There are 13 tracks, but structuring three as medleys allows for more trademark songs to be included, and the grand total of titles gets pushed up to 21. This doesn't count two little sassy inserts that fall into the Marlene Dietrich signature "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)" with a vocal assist from an energized Waggoner; the interlopers are both from the same Broadway musical. (I won't spoil the surprise; the context of auditioning for that show is not evident.) The Dietrich number is the only pick from the memorable trilogy of lush albums of old standards (unusual in its day for rock-oriented stars), and an outlier since it's not by birth part of the Great American Songbook, being a German import. There's just a fleeting within-a-medley appearance of Linda Ronstadt's bluegrass/old-school country content. The ignored detour to new wave/punk with the Mad Love album might have been too jarring to mix in and only a completist would argue that the Christmas album's songs should be plopped in out of season.
Unlike in the live show, the studio recording doesn't bring in the versatile idol's musical theatre roles (Pirates of Penzance on stage and film and back on the boards briefly in La bohème) or give more than one example ("Frenesi") of all the Spanish language/mariachi material.
Despite her retirement over a decade ago due to health problems, Linda Ronstadt's legacy retains appeal. Singers Ann Hampton Callaway and Sony Holland are currently presenting tribute shows to the Grammy winner; earlier, Travis Moser and Rita Harvey brought their love letters to Linda at the same midtown Manhattan venue that welcomed E.W.L. (The Green Room 42). All over the country, there have been tribute bands, many named after the hit songs; I did an internet search to get an idea of how many, but lost count somewhere around 20! Elizabeth Ward Land takes on another kind of diva to play the lead in Sunset Boulevard through October 2 at Music Theatre of Connecticut.
In this wide world of female vocalists that is crowded with belters, soaring sopranos, and jazz ladies swinging gymnastically, the low-key style and low voice of Celia Berk get high marks as a refreshing change. There's warmth, maturity and wisdom suggested in her resonant tones and attentive phrasing. In her third full-length recording, Now That I Have Everything, everything shows care and understanding, enhanced by the excellent piano work of Tedd Firth who seems to be breathing with the singer, sharing or inspiring a point of view. The few but fabulous musicians are sublime throughout. Most cuts also feature guitarist Mike Munisteri and bassist Jay Leonhart (David Finck takes over the bass as sole accompanist for an earnest "Right as the Rain" from the musical Bloomer Girl) and Rex Benincasa contributes percussion on four numbers. Arrangements are credited to first-rate Firth alone or co-credited to Sean Gough, who'd done earlier development of the project and accompanied the singer in live performances.
This is a ballad-heavy set, favoring slow tempi and reflection. If you listen to the recording in its presented sequence, however, you'll find the upbeat stuff stuffed into the first few selections. Thus, a listener might be charmed with the breezy fun of "How Are Ya Fixed for Love?" (Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn) and the brief, bouncy "Boum!" before being pulled into the more contemplative moods. Celia Berk can deliver a seemingly casual line with serious intent so that what could have been glib gets gravitas–a bit or a bunch. Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" isn't the usual exuberant burst of energy, but relaxes to ruminate and luxuriate in gratitude. In the case of a number included in the 1939 Broadway production Yokel Boy, "Comes Love," the effect comes right away via a seemingly dark tone for the oft-discarded introductory verse setting up the list song that enumerates daily irritants that, unlike love, can be easily dealt with. But there is a wink in there, too.
"With Every Breath I Take" from City of Angels, a piano/vocal duet, has a kind of regal dignity in its grown-up acknowledgment of the ache of loneliness. Your ears may hear a kinship between part of its melody and that of the one by Ervin Drake that gives Now That I Have Everything its title, although the latter's mood is far brighter. And a major jazz/art song excursion comes with a graceful reading of Roger Schore's lyric to Billy Strayhorn's melody with the inclusion of "Bittersweet." Bittersweet is just one of the many flavors of music and perspective Celia Berk can take on.
Looking at the past as a time of lotus blossom days sounds like an idyllic dream, but in the tales spun by the very versatile Vicki Burns on Lotus Blossom Days, things can be bittersweet as well as blissful. Thus we have the lotus-perfumed title song recalling a happier period as well as "Bittersweet," which began life as an instrumental called "Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus-Eaters." Both were compositions by jazz legend Billy Strayhorn and were later given lyrics by Roger Schore ("Lotus Blossom"'s words were also contributed by veteran singer Carol Sloane.)
While this release boasts other pieces that started as jazz compositions without words, gaining text and thereby new titles, there's plenty more to dig into. Among the offerings are two items of the singer's own creation (words and music) and a pair of deftly done classics by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer heard in 1940s movies ("This Time the Dream's on Me" and "Out of This World"). Accompaniment comes from a core group of three ace musicians: pianist Art Hirahara, drummer Billy Drummond, and Sam Bevan, who plays bass, co-produced the set with the singer and did arrangements for eight of the dozen arrangements, plus four guest players, variously appearing with significant impact on one, two, or three tracks. Sometimes it gets kind of "busy," but it's mostly a good sort of busy. Vicki Burns interacts with them with flair and scats up a storm.
Jazz regulars will comfortably welcome compositions of superstars and may know them in their lyricized incarnations, too (John Coltrane's "Equinox," aka "A Long Way to Go," and Thelonious Monk's "It's Over Now," aka "Well, You Needn't"). A jazz-hesitant music explorer will likely need to be patient with the less accessible melodies, long instrumental breaks and developments, and atypical lyrics before they can be fully appreciated. But the very appealing sound of the bright Burns voice itself will likely be enough to encourage return visits until the songs start to feel more like comfortable old acquaintances. Those Arlen/Mercer ballads or the slinky 1933 standard "Close Your Eyes" might be easier ways to open your ears to this collection's allure. And the zippy romp "If You Never Fall in Love with Me" is a reasonable place to start, too–and not just because it's the first track. It takes off right away, like a rocket, and keeps a peppy pace.
Vicki Burns' originals intrigue in their own lovely, languid way; they are "Love Spell" and a reworked version of the title song of her first release, Siren Song. Certainly, Lotus Blossom Days is an adventurous presentation by true musical pros. She's singing with some frequency these days in both New York City and California and I hope the future will find her recording more regularly, too–an output of just two studio recordings and one live set over the span of 19 years takes too literally the show-biz axiom to always leave the audience wanting more.