Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Comet, Constellations, Stars
Reviews by Rob Lester

Perhaps it's a cosmic coincidence or the recent NASA events involving a moon rocket, a flying telescope, and the hit on an asteroid that subliminally influenced what I picked from my "to-be-reviewed" submissions for this week's column. The comet at hand is not the celestial object but a musical comedy with a title character named Regina Comet. Constellations and Under the Stars are the names of cool jazz releases. In any case, there's some heavenly music in the air.

Time-Life Records

What fun! Filled with bubbly energy, humor, and spunky charm, the recording of A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet is a shot of adrenalin. This pop musical popped up for an Off-Broadway run last fall with a big-voiced small company (three actors plus three musicians) and a short playing time (80 minutes). Regina Comet is a singer past her peak popularity with the coveted youth demographic, eyeing a way to get back in the public eye by marketing her own fragrance. The advertising campaign needs–you guessed it–a jingle for the commercial, to be sung by the fading star. Two eager-beaver BFF songwriters seek being chosen for the assignment of crafting a cute melody and the mots justes. Will they come up with a winner or come up short? The task tests their talents, patience, confidence and friendship.

The book and the spiffy music and lyrics are by Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse. These writers also play the writers. Bryonha Marie Parham has the role of Regina Comet. The recording has 17 tracks, including reprises and a 22-second instrumental opener. Miss Parham nails the character of a disillusioned diva past the first bloom of youth and fame whose shows were once a hot ticket but are now on Groupon. She worries and wonders if the advice to push the fragrance called Relevance will push her back into the spotlight with the sweet smell of success, as expressed in the neatly rhymed lyric about being top tier "Again," singing, "As for the scheme my team has planned/ Will it revitalize my brand?/ A fragrance named for me/ A jingle in my key/ Could help me be/ On QVC again."

Some may feel that Fankhauser and Wyse unwisely wrote too many songs about writing songs–the joys, the frustration of writer's block, the actual process of collaboration and brainstorming. But those are some of the most impressive and entertaining pieces, both in the zippy performances and actual craft of demonstrating a work-in-progress draft, with stops and starts, revisions, and side comments. The ambition-fueled bright energy and wide-eyed youthful teamwork zeal concerning creativity is sweetly similar to "Opening Doors" and other elements of Merrily We Roll Along. In the kinetic "Connecting the Dots," all three contribute ideas for a possible presentation ("The music will start and they'll carry you in/ I'll wear a tiara and play violin.. I love it! I love it! The music makes sense/ I'm jotting it down, shut your mouth, no offense.") The guys have their eyes on the prize that is bigger than having a 30-second ditty accepted; they also sing an appropriately very catchy number about their dream of having "One Hit Song."

The numbers are delivered with gusto and great interpersonal chemistry. Lyrics incorporate some pointed attitudes toward pop culture as well as vocabulary full of references to technology (Google, a pitch via what I presume is a Zoom or FaceTime call, a private message going also to unintended recipients). When the characters' relationships and feelings make the atmosphere more fraught than funny, the tension and troubles are less compelling–at least in the experience of just hearing the songs without any significant amount of dialogue, and not having seen the production or script. The plot does thicken and the ending is upbeat without being predictable.

I hope this bright but too-quickly disappearing Comet will streak across some theatrical skies again soon. It sounds too adorably entertaining to flash and fade away.

la reserve
CD, Digital

Just as constellations are groups of stars that form a pattern, the dazzling duo billed as ChimyTina have shown a pattern of making great music together. Their release called Constellations finds them with a shining group of jazz instrumentalist stars as guests. The moniker ChimyTina is derived from the combination of the names of the talented pair: bassist Dan "Chimy" Chmielinski and vocalist Martina DaSilva. This 12-track issue follows a 7-song EP, their Christmas collection, and many internet-posted videos of them performing. Both have also worked with others in live gigs and on recordings, but there's something especially captivating about the way they interact and sound when it's just the twosome.

The singer's striking voice is lovely legato liquid, evidencing superb command and intonation. With seeming ease and confidence she can take interesting liberties to elastically reshape melody lines and make any tricky tempo her comfort zone. It takes astute musicality–and some bravery–for a vocalist to consistently traverse songs' musical maps and side journeys with just a bass. Martina DaSilva is that rare kind of artist. And the nimble Mr. Chmielinski is no mere background support just providing a subtle guiding pulse, but an inventive and involved player better described as a full co-star in much of their work.

An athletic, brisk race through the 1925 No, No, Nanette smile-inducer "I Want to Be Happy" is a carefree romp, contrasting with a brooding, pensive take on the potentially akin "Smile." Trumpeter Marquis Hill adds appropriate moods to both. On "Smile," rather than placate with a pat put-on-a-happy-face plan to face heartache, there's added emotional depth and drama. This comes from musical tension that implies a difficult challenge in navigating past sorrows. The realistic acceptance of the struggle makes the sighing resignation of "I'll Never Be the Same" land all the more convincingly, enhanced by Lucas Pino's haunting saxophone. And then there's the ultimate lament of "Lush Life" with its devastation and bleakness only leavened by the prettiness of the singer's voice and graceful, dignified bowing of the bass.

The Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is sleek and serene, with the extra added attractions of some light scat-singing and swirling saxophone (Pino again). Other guest musicians, with one or two tracks each, include vibraphonist Joel Ross, saxophonist Grace Kelly, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, and cellist Ken Kubota.

Constellations has no title song per se, but its shortest cut, "Twin Flame," ends with the word "constellations." It's one of two eloquent DaSilva originals, and like the other ("My Universe," about walking at night in Manhattan), it's just the singer and bassist. And, with Chimytina, that's a whole lot of wonderful.

JRL-SGS Records

If at first you don't succeed, play it again. It took me a while to get into Under the Stars, but it's growing on me. I needed to chill more to let some of these 10 tracks wash over me and listen harder to others. Instrumental group San Gabriel 7 and their guest for this collection, Scandinavian singer Sinne Eeg, have (apart from each other) made quite a few albums and are an interesting combination. To me, it's the songs themselves that were not immediately accessible or fully engaging when they clocked in at more than five minutes. I didn't catch some of the words or find them very meaty (although they don't all actually have lyrics being sung, instead opting for jazzily vocalizing on la-la-la and other sounds). They are all originals penned by the vocalist, a couple of lyrics co-written with Chris Gordon, who plays some piano on "Never Let You Go," and did the vocal arrangements for the two tracks with background vocalists (one of whom is Trist Curless of that great vocal group The Manhattan Transfer).

While the band's style is sometimes described as "funk," they really are often on the mellow side, coming off more as an amalgam of genres, with their brass-prominent sound reminding me of the group Chicago (without the vocal component). Chameleon-like Sinne Eeg's smooth voice can coo, wail and strut, convincingly taking on characteristics of soul, sultry R&B, polished pop, and jazz. She has recorded numerous old-school standards in the past, but her own songs and her approach are in a more contemporary lane. The percentage of time given to vocals compared to (sometimes very lengthy) swaths of pure instrumentals varies. It doesn't always work to the advantage of a song, as we can lose track of the lyric and its images before they return. However, it seems like folly to fault the fine musicians, who keep the low-flame musical embers glowing so tastefully. And, after all, the instrumental group has top billing.

"The Festival" makes for a dreamy ambiance; it celebrates the love of music, describing the fantasy of being able to "live forever in a world of jazz and love." My favorites are "The Barista," a cute tale of loving times at the coffee shop due to not just the caffeinated beverage but also the cute guy serving it, and the soothing "Hymn" (no words, but voice and burnished brass are balm-like). File Under the Stars under "E" for eclectic, and it has moments that sparkle like those stars we're under, and sometimes it really takes off–which seems appropriate since trombonist Jim Lewis, founding member of San Gabriel 7, trained as a rocket scientist!