Sound Advice Reviews
A few women with vocal CDs
On her first CD in some time, creamy-voiced and oft understated singer Stevie Holland starts off with two Johnny Mercer lyrics in a row. The first, the delicate but immortal "Skylark," the bird travels through the air at a faster pace than we're used to, following the track's opening false promise of a gentler, more pensive styling. The quicker tempo for Hoagy Carmichael's aching melody comes off as jarring, rather than invigorating. But I understand the desire to try something new; "Skylark" is an oldie many singers have favored. It still survives here. But Mercer and Harold Arlen's "Out of This World" fares far better. To be honest, it's a standard that can bore me when it's done in a heavy-handed or off-hand way, and Stevie stays the course to mine its ardent potential as a breathless and wondrous declaration of long-awaited ideal love. All the tension and exultant appreciation register and accumulate, step by rewarding step.
Arrangements on the album are by Gary William Friedman, who composed music wedded to her lyrics. (They're also wedded in private life.) Theatre fans may know him best as the composer of The Me Nobody Knows and Taking My Turn. Stevie was seen on the musical stage in a one-woman musical, Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter, with all Porter songs, which produced an album. Their two originals here present the sweet, upbeat mood that declares "Tomorrow's Looking Brighter Today" and the reassuring promise to a love partner that there will "Never" be a desire to leave. ("Never" could thus be a kissing cousin to "Always" by Irving Berlin when it comes to lifelong commitment, sung with true commitment here, and is likewise unblinking in its devotion.) The lyrics are uncomplicated and unfussy and the melodies the same, with a touch of elegance.
Although sung pleasantly, Albert Hammond and Hal David's "99 Miles from L.A." lacks the nervous anticipation that gives it a needed pulse in its worried "Please be there" wishes. Sometimes the singer and arrangements can be quite laidback, holding back, it seems. It may be a conscious choice to be more subtle and fall into the groove set by the jazz players on the date, and not rely on drama.
The show tunes show a varied approach. The senior citizen of the set, "Tea for Two," is duly credited to Joe Mooney's hip reupholstering, with Holland-aise dressing lyric additions. It's fun. "Not While I'm Around" is tender, taken out of Sweeney Todd's ominous contextas many have doneto make it more of a straightforward soothing lullabye. Sondheimites may miss the drama and passion, but as an uncomplicated balm, it works too. (I've even heard it on some lullabye albums.) "April Snow" by Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Fields is graceful and presents its images clearly and with real feeling, taking time to etch each detail of the Nature scenes with respect and appreciation.
While the trio of pianist Randy Ingram, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Jeff Davis anchor the proceedings, the participation of a string quartet is extremely effective, bringing both beauty and gravitas. (The cellist in the group, Jacob Yates, also enhances Life Goes On's thoughtful title track, its final one, written by Bernard Ighner.)
As life goes on, I'll look forward to more from Stevie Holland and Gary William Friedman, both with CDs and the theatre projects they are working on.
Clearly the lovely-voiced Dheepa Chari and company show a streak of originality. Not only are the three included songs co-written with her keyboardist/arranger Lars Potteiger adventurous and disarming, but fresh takes on the standards here are daring. Better than that, they work and make me hear them in ways that are not just refreshingly different, but valid and intriguing. The Johnny Mercer/Woody Herman/Ralph Burns "Early Autumn" is typically approached as something approaching an art song, its mysterious melody and lyric that's like a series of descriptively detailed fragile paintings. Singers tend to luxuriate in its unusual and long-lined melody. Ms. Chari instead rushes words and shortens notes as if they are waves coming in quick spurts or, more to the point, sudden gusts of autumn's wind intruding sooner than expected in what should be balmy summertime. That "dance pavilion in the rain" and the color "russet brown" are now in sharp, high relief instead of misty water colors. Johnny Mercer's wish that is the piece's summation line, "Let's never have to share another early autumn," feels unsettling as well as melancholy. And when Mercer and Jerome Kern's "I'm Old Fashioned" is infused with riveting rhythms and fierce energy, it's anything but a museum piece gathering dust.
Gratifyingly, the new thinking goes on. Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," facing resistance to acceptance in its day as the frank portrait of a prostitute's daily existence is another surprise here. It is too often approached in one of three ways: (A) a weary, self-pitying lament; or (B) a bitter and brittle declamation; or (C) a showpiece sidestepping its origins and sanitizing the tone. The Chari/Potteiger path doesn't take any of those paths that can be disappointing when exaggerated; instead there's a mix of toughness and surviving tenderness that refuses to bow its head. Part of this unlikely combination is because the singer's voice has a natural sweetness that doesn't cloy because she sings in a confident, non-fluffy manner. And the keyboardist is unblinking and muscular as he plays and leads the band.
Most remarkable of all of the new blood transfusions into old standards is the stunning approach to "Ain't Misbehavin'." As performed indelibly by co-writer Fats Waller and many who followed, including its presentation in the Broadway revue that bore its name, most of us have long assumed its happy fate was to be eternally coy, playful, and funnywith a big ol' wink. But wait! It's totally reinvented here as a cool-as-a-cucumber number with its promise of staying faithful, staying home all alone, "saving my love for you" taken with the utmost sincerity and seriousness. Now the usually shrugged-off isolation comes through as being felt with a pang, truly missing the absent lover, with the nights and days feeling long and lonely. A believable sigh and cry in the voice and taking the melody in a gentler way lead to a stunning re-casting.
The vocalist's delicate voice and the pianist's most percussive chords don't always find the same felicitous teaming. On the opening track, their own creation called "Semblance of Truth," his attack, though stark, drowns out some of her words, making them difficult to distinguish. (Lyrics are not included in the packaging.) On some of the ten tracks, the moods can be tense and the arrangements can get dense, so the final one is thus most welcome as it is luxuriatingly slower and simpler. It's called "Black and Blue," credited to a total of seven writers, and is a nicely sculpted, sensitive questioning from lover to lover.
There's marvelous musical teamwork here, with violin especially effective as a new, joining the usual jazz suspects of sax, bass, and drums, in addition to the aforementioned keys, with that player varying the sounds via acoustic and electric pianos, celeste, and mellotron. For me, the mix sometimes doesn't put the singer as out front as I'd like, to catch all lyrics and nuances. But that's certainly not the only reason I wanted to hear these tracks again.
Returning to music after raising a daughter and a career teaching in New Jersey schools, and along the way marrying two men drenched in jazz music, Ellen LaFurn seems quietly confident and at home with her quartet of jazz musicians and old standards. With the opening track, Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger's "I Remember You," my first reaction was to be a bit puzzled. The tone isn't the expected warm remembrance and hint of a romance that might have been more which I associate both with the song and the song's history. That is, the fact that the very married lyricist wrote about his love for Judy Garland and that he presented it to her on the eve of her wedding to someone else, while his own wife always vehemently objected to and shunned the piece. Ellen LaFurn projects some unresolved mixed emotions and I can't see why she'd take the liberty to change some words, beginning with the opening line. The classic's lyric includes the lines presenting the fond memories of "I remember you/ You're the one who made my dreams come true" and "You're the one who said 'I love you, too. I do.' Didn't you know?" Instead, she disposes of that and it becomes the far harsher revisionist "I remember you/ You're the one who begged me to be true/ You did. Didn't you, though?" and shuffles the order of other words. She repeats her "adjusted lyric" again later in the track.
The album also ends with a Mercer lyric, his Academy Award-winning collaboration with Henry Mancini, providing the title song for the film The Days of Wine and Roses. As with the first track, I feel there's a sense of detachment from bittersweet, reflective words, and that the brisker than expected tempo added to that impression for me. It's not surprising to learn that she was a big band singer and flutist, so it's a reasonable leap to guess that such experience plus the jazz environment have led her to put more emphasis on melody than words. And certainly she navigates melodies very well, seeming to easily hit the notes and to fly or float in any tempo, with her dips into Brazilian music (Jobim's cozy melody for "Dindi"), as well as brightly swinging, or slow and slinky ones.
My initial theory that she was diffident or eschewing songs' emotional content was soon partially rejected as Ms. LaFurn sounds more convincingly involved in other numbers. Her thoughtful treatment of the words to "When Sunny Gets Blue" is such that this portrait told in the third person could easily be viewed as autobiographical. It's tender and sympathetic, echoing the loneliness of the "Love is gone, what can matter?" mindset. Her very cozy snuggling up to the words and music of "Girl Talk" somehow make what could (and has been) scorned as a dated, sexist lyric merely playful. Even when self-identifying as "just a dame/ We're all the same," obsessed with nothing but gossip and hair styles and what outfit to wear, it's more a mink-lined comfort zone than offensive rusty relic.
"It Was a Very Good Year" by the late Ervin Drake evokes the appropriate different stages of romantic reflections and perspectives over passing years. Throughout the CD, the singer's diction and adeptness at handling melodic lines are admirable, her timbre is attractive, and intonation is solid. But when she lets herself be enveloped in the full potential of a song's story, it makes all the difference. What good is "Teach Me Tonight" if one seems blasé rather than either sexy or nervously quivering at the threshold of anticipated ardor? And "I've Got the World on a String" demands more joy and delight. At times, the aloofness might be seen as a throwback to what was once called the "cool school" of jazz singing in the 1950s, and there are hints of some such songbirds. And that's not such a bad ambience if accepted on its own musical terms and for its own accepted stylistic boundaries.
Although no arranger is credited, Ellen LaFurn seems able to adjust to whatever path her musicians are taking and when their instrumental breaks take them on more adventurous jazz journeys, her return to the spotlight afterward is a welcome to form and not anti-climactic. The gentlemen, like the lady, are not showy or sentimental. Vic Cenicola's guitar work is especially prominent, heard to great advantage, whether spotlighted or in sturdy support. Pianist Rave Tesar can be impressively fleet in longish flights of fancy or subtle. Drummer Patrick Cuttitta is generally understated. I would have liked bassist Ron Naspo to be more out front, as he does some sophisticated and interesting things when given the opportunity to be the focus.
The feistier, higher energy of the band in large swaths make for an interesting balance for the more laidback vocal moments, and when all are on the same page, or complementing each other ideally, C'est La - Furn is at its best. For example, on yet another Mercer lyric, "I'm Old Fashioned," the track becomes rich. Vocalist Ellen shows unapologetic affection for those old-fashioned values while getting a tangy touch of something modern, so that Mercer's images of "starry songs" and "sighing sighs" don't come off as corny and the band makes the decades-old Jerome Kern melody a living, non-old fashioned romp. When all concerned meet up to mix nostalgia and newness successfully, it's a win/win.