Showing posts with label Great American Songbook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great American Songbook. Show all posts

Monday, May 13, 2019

There Will Never Be Anyone Like Her

Doris Day is dead.  Ann and I have been dreading this moment and no sense repeating all the accolades that will be posted and written, all deserved.

But to me, a piece of me has died. The only way I can put it is I loved her public persona.  I felt the same way when John Updike passed away, one who occupied my reading life and made sense of the changes in America, decade by decade. Can it be he has been gone ten years now? 

Doris Day occupied my idealized fantasies of the girl next door during the same period, fresh, wholesome, shorn of pretense.  This is something that cannot be faked.  She was radiant, buoyant, and whenever I needed a pick me up, all I needed was to watch, yet again, one of her films as her inherent goodness was infectious. 

Her talent was peerless.  I don’t think anyone in film could match her for her ability to act, sing, and dance, especially in the comic realm.  She was the whole package, and projected a special kind of lovable personality.

One theatre/film critic, who will remain nameless, has criticized her as being merely an average singer.  Perhaps her voice was not exceptional.  Nor was Sinatra’s.  But there was that something else that made their singing extraordinary.  Sinatra’s phrasing and ability to capture his audience as if he was singing to you might be the best way to describe his gift.  Doris’ was to project her golden personality in song.  Just listening to one of her recordings, I see her radiant smile in my mind.

We’ve usually heard her with big bands but she would have made it as a cabaret singer if movie land did not appropriate her for their own in some 40 films.  One of those was a biopic where she played cabaret singer, Ruth Etting, with Jimmy Cagney, demonstrating both her acting ability and cabaret style in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955).  Or one can hear her with pianist AndrĂ© Previn on the 1962 album “Duet” and appreciate her gift for singing without the silver screen prop, that sparkling personality still shining through.

In a world sorely in need of rectitude and hope another “companion” of ours has passed, but at least we have her films and recordings to remind us of what can be.  RIP Doris Day.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Musical Week

It’s our universal language and while the political discourse is discordant, music seems to bring out our commonalities.  Our favorite musical genres are songs from Broadway, the Great American Songbook, and Jazz and so it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to last week which began with a show at the Delray Beach Playhouse, I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser.

Ann arranged a preshow dinner at Racks Fish House off Delray’s famous (and congested) Atlantic Avenue, a happening place.  It was a balmy early April evening, with a nice breeze so we dined al fresco.  Imagine our surprise reading the appetizer menu which included Copps Island, CT oysters!  Copps Island which is connected at low tide to Crow Island is where we have taken our boat for the last 35 years during the summers, anchoring there on weekends.  So here we were, some 1,250 miles away dining on wild oysters from those very waters.  These are bottom planted as opposed to cage or floating trays and the oysters are known for “sweet briny flavor and plump meats. “  It was a nice and nostalgic start to the evening.

Delray Beach Playhouse which opened in 1947 is a community theatre featuring everything from one person acts to full scale plays.  They have a dedicated audience, we now among them.  But who knew, the playhouse is on Lake Ida, a fresh water lake right off of I95, comprising 121 acres, but seeming much larger than that as it is long and narrow.  Looking at it is reminiscent of our days on Lake George in NY and Candlewood Lake in CT as one can see similar boat houses and lake front homes.

I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser was narrated by Randolph DelLago who has been the Resident Artistic Director of the Playhouse since 1982.  He also sings in this production.  When one thinks of Frank Loesser, one recalls the iconic Guys and Dolls, one of the great classic musicals of Broadway’s Golden Era.  It perhaps has more recognizable songs than any other musical, including those of Rogers and Hammerstein.  He only wrote four other musicals, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, being the most notable.  Songs were performed from all of these with original still scenes projected on a backdrop.  The Most Happy Fella has one of the most moving rhapsodic opera style songs ever written for the Great White Way, “My Heart is So Full of You,” one of my favorites for the piano, with an exotic bridge section of eight bars.

But Loesser, who was cast out by his family as they thought “songwriting” was beneath their dignity (his father was a piano teacher and his brother was a classical piano prodigy), found his roots in popular song in Hollywood before migrating to Broadway.  There are many memorable songs he wrote for The Great American Songbook and this show had many, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (the latter being another personal piano favorite of mine).  Along with DelLago, performances were given by Alicia Branch-Stafford, a soprano, baritone William Stafford, and Hanz Eneart who added a little cabaret dancing to the show as well as joining the ensemble in song with a comedic rendition of” Once in Love with Amy.”

Breaking up the week was a trip to Peanut Island with my friend John, a destination on the boat which will become more frequent as the water warms to bathtub temperatures.  Amazing that at one time in my life, jumping into the waters off of Copps Island into 70 degree water was refreshing but now wadding into Peanut’s current 79 degree water seems difficult!  Maybe that’s because the air temperature on Thursday was in the high 80s.  Got home late in the afternoon, just in time to clean the boat with John, shower, and get ready to go to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

There we saw West Side Story towards the end of its run, so I am not publishing a full review.  This is what the Maltz Theatre does best but, still, we were a little concerned about seeing this yet again.  Could it still possibly be fresh (although the music by Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim are immortal)?

The short answer is a resounding yes!  I think some of the classic musicals are being looked at in a new light, due to the times and the influence of Hamilton.  Most recently this is apparent with the Circle in the Square’s current production of Oklahoma which some have criticized as a travesty, irreverent to Rogers and Hammerstein’s intent.  I’m not too sure, although that was my knee jerk reaction.  Now, thinking about it, and reading more about it, I’m willing to be persuaded and therefore we’re going to see it sometime in August.  I’ll be lining up for the chili and corn bread!

There is a dark side to Oklahoma, as in all of the R&H plays.  Just think of Billy Bigalow’s corruptibility in Carousel, or the racial tensions of South Pacific and The King and I, the lurking Nazi shadows in The Sound of Music.  These musicals were played out for the audiences of their times with relatively happy resolutions (just what was expected then).  One could cast them now in an entirely different light and why not?

In a sense, the Maltz’s interpretation of West Side Story has been so influenced.  A framing device of Hurricane Maria has been introduced.  How ironic is that, the Maria of the story picking up after Hurricane Maria, alone with her memories of Tony?  This scene reprises at the end of the show.  It was a lovely, moving touch, particularly in the light of how this terrible storm has been politicized.

And with Puerto Rican born Marcos Santana’s direction and musical staging, we have more of a take on the Sharks rather than the Jets.  The hell-bent fury of xenophobic victimization is explosively probed by Angel Lozada who plays Bernardo.  Michelle Alves performance as Anita is more than up to the easily remembered performance of Chita Rivera in that part.  Alves is every bit as dynamic as a dancer and is a very talented vocalist as well.

Not enough praise can be directed toward Jim Schubin who plays Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria.  Schubin brings a strong sense of constant optimism and wonder to the role as well as a clear tenor voice.  Ortiz is the ideal Maria, a soprano and coloratura who is radiant in the role of Maria (she was recently on the West Side Story national tour).  They had the perfect chemistry as Tony and Maria and their duets soared.

The choreography by Al Blackstone (with additional choreography by the director), gives a hat tip to Jerome Robbins’ choreography but is original and pulsating on the Maltz stage.  It’s a smaller cast than the original musical, but one would not know it.

With the refugee crisis of our times, it was time to look at West Side Story through a different lens, and the Maltz comes through. 

And last night we attended the 1st Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, the first, we hope, of many in the future.  It is the idea of one of South Florida’s premier jazz singers, Yvette Norwood-Tiger, who has traveled the world with her interpretations of jazz classics, particularly songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  She performs in six languages including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Xhosa.

She created an afternoon and evening performance with different groups and singers.  We attended the evening performance and thus my comments are confined to that.

First up was Marlow Rosado, a Latin Jazz pianist from Puerto Rico, and his group.  Rasado is a salsero, and is imposing at the piano with his driving salsa rhythms, somewhat reminiscent of Monte Alexander.  I said to Ann that I’ve never seen a pianist who could pass as a football tight end and the physicality of his performance spoke wonders.  He posted last night’s performance on Facebook, so you can catch him there.
Next up was Eric & The Jazzers, a South Florida group of professional musicians that play swing/bebop from the great era of Duke Ellington.  Eric Trouillot also served as MC for the night’s performances, a guy from the Bronx who brought out the best of the very well represented NYC crowd (including us).

His group’s trumpet player, Yamin Mustafa, is one of the best we’ve heard and pianist, Chad Michaels, obviously has studied Oscar Peterson’s technique closely. As Mustafa said, the group’s musical selections are eclectic.

But the star of the night was clearly the evening’s organizer, Yvette Norwood-Tiger.  Yvette is a survivor of a benign yet life-threatening brain tumor because of its size and position, but had a successful operation some seven years ago.  Every time we’ve seen her she encourages the audience to “find that door opening” and for her it is singing Horace Silver’s jazz classic "Song for My Father."  Naturally, Yvette means it quite literally, thanking God for the opportunity to continue on with her unique gifts, a powerful yet sometimes subtle interpreter of the Great American Songbook. 

Backing her up musically were all the “old gang” we see almost every Sunday night at Double Roads in Jupiter, her musical director for the evening and oh-so talented pianist, also the co founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society, Rick Moore.  Along with Rick were Marty Gilman, on sax and flute, Joshua Ewers on bass and Michael Mackey on trumpet.  Marty is a multitalented musician who can play a large number of instruments at the professional level and we watched Joshua and Michael while they were still in high school, and have now grown into professional musicians in their own right.

And to bring this entry back to where it began (remember, Copps Island, in the Norwalk CT chain of islands), I learned that Horace Silver (Yvette’s tribute composer), was born in Norwalk, CT so it seems that all roads lead back to our years there.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

A Diva Blessing

A couple of months ago our friends Karen and Bob suggested we join them at Del Ray’s Arts Garage where Ann Hampton Callaway was performing.  As much as I love the Great American Songbook, memories of a parking nightmare in Delray made me hesitant to go.  That experience is a story onto itself, not worth going into here.  Easy, they said, we’ll drive and park, so we said you’re on.

The indoor parking garage was full to the third level but there Bob found a space.  No doubt, I thought, if I drove, it wouldn’t be there and I’d end up driving around in circles as I did one evening in Delray (ok, I said I wouldn’t go into it, but the memory lingers on).

The Arts Garage performance venue has been configured into a cabaret, six to a table, bring your own food and drink.  Karen supplied a delicious cream and fruit tart for dessert and Ann brought the wine (coffee for me).

My seat was ideal (thanks Karen!); with a full view of the piano, a Kawai Grand.  You rarely see a Kawai being used professionally, the instrument of choice usually being a Steinway or a Yamaha.  I have a Yamaha baby grand which I love, but I almost bought a Kawai as I think it has a brighter sound, so ideally suited for playing The Great American Songbook.

As I said, we were seated at a table for six and our two other tablemates turned out to be a man who we used to watch on NYC TV years ago, Bill Boggs, who had an interview show with some of the entertainment greats, and to this day does a professional speaking tour discussing those people, so watching the Diva perform with Bill and his partner, Jane was serendipitous.  This is how I remember him way back when we were in NYC, a photo of him interviewing Chuck Berry.

We’ve seen other great Divas in a cabaret setting before, and three special ones spring to mind, including a rare US appearance at the Colony by perhaps the greatest living female jazz singer, Stacey Kent.

Unfortunately, it was at a time before I had a smart phone and did not have a camera on me, but seeing her and meeting her was a thrill.  She’s been called the “Frank Sinatra” of divas, because of her unique way of phrasing a song.  Her husband backs her up on the sax but does not overwhelm her.  If she ever returns to Florida or to NYC while we are in that area, we will be there.

We also saw another fabulous Diva at the Colony, Jane Monheit, who has a distinctive style and great range with her voice.  She too performs with a back up group headed by her husband on drums.

When we lived in New York we were lucky enough to go over to a small Supper Club on the Upper East Side and there we sat right at a front table, mesmerized by the jazz legend, the late, great Carmen McCrea.  I think I have all her CDs.  Jazz doesn’t get any better than that.  She too was backed by a combo she probably worked with for years.

Of course we’ve seen other singers, Keely Smith at the Colony once, but usually on stage in an auditorium, as we once saw Ann Hampton Callaway at the Eissey Campus Theatre of Palm Beach State College many years ago.  She was accompanist by, arguably, the most original jazz pianist today, Bill Mays.  There is a world of difference, however, between a stage performance and cabaret.

The obvious difference is the intimacy created, resulting in the give and take between the performer and the audience.  One feeds on the other.  You get the sense that we’re all part of the Great American Songbook “family.”  And it is a family that loves its progenitors, the composers, the lyricists, the performers who have stylized this great body of music.

Ann Hampton Callaway preserves and has become part of this wonderful tradition in her program “Jazz Goes to the Movies.”  Her program fully realizes the breadth of the great songs which emerged from film.  In addition to the obvious ones, there are endless streams of classics that have come from lesser watched films, such as "This Time the Dream's on Me" by Harold Arlen, and lyrics by Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film “Blues in the Night,” just one of the many songs sung by Callaway during her two part performance.

Her song selection was broad.  I wrote them all down, but I’ll only mention a few of the 18 (yes, 18!) songs she sang.  Naturally, I’m going to focus on some I love to play on the piano myself.

This has to be at the top of the list, the not often performed song by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, “Two for the Road.”  Undoubtedly she chose to perform this wonderful song, I think Mancini’s best, because the co star of the film of the same title, the actor so many of us watched “grow up” on film from his first performance in “Tom Jones,” Albert Finney had just passed away.  This is the same song which Ann (my Ann) and I chose to “perform” at our son’s wedding last August, me at the piano and Ann reading (as, unfortunately, my Ann can’t sing – and neither can I) the evocative lyrics, so appropriate for Jonathan and his bride, Tracie.   

We hung onto every word as Callaway lovingly performed this number.

I interject an important observation here regarding her performance, unique among the cabaret divas I mentioned above, and that is she accompanied herself on the piano.  I mentioned above the Kawai piano.  I guess I simply expected a pianist and a bass player to come out to accompany her.  Oh, it is so, so much better when a great singer and pianist are one.  Her piano chops may not be in the league of a Bill Mays, but in accompanying herself, she is able to ring out every drop of emotion from The Great American Songbook.  It’s as if her piano and voice are but one instrument, in perfect harmony and symmetry. 

Her opening number, “From this Moment On” demonstrated her remarkable range, her smoky voice, and her ability to scat.  During another number, again one of the strengths of a cabaret setting, was taking the audience through a scat lesson and we found ourselves scatting along with her.  Really fun stuff.

Another diversion, about a third of the way through her program, she finally noticed a man in a front table and she was somewhat startled, saying, “Oh, my ex husband is here!”  Well, that got the audience’s attention, and from that point on, there were some very funny, but harmless jabs sent his way by Callaway.  She knows how to work an audience, including giving attribution to our table mate, Bill Boggs.

She incorporates all styles in her piano accompaniment, from a bluesy feeling playing and singing “As Time Goes By” and some bouncing boogie-woogie in her tribute to Fred Astaire (she knows his sister) in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Her jazz sensibility on the piano came out in “This Can’t be Love,” again demonstrating her incredible voice range.

One of my favorites when I play the piano is “Folks Who Live on the Hill,” by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II from the 1937 film “High, Wide, and Handsome.”  But, oh, my heart be still listening to Callaway play and sing this song, channeling Peggy Lee with whom the song is closely associated.

Her rendition of “At Last” Etta James's signature song but more recently BeyoncĂ© Knowles’ “big song” demonstrated the power of Callaway’s voice.  Rarely does a singer have the gift of the subtle and power as well.  It was breathtaking.

Callaway is not only a performer, but a composer as well, and those skills were put on full display in a playful impromptu performance she composed and sung on the spot taking silly suggestions from the audience; a blind man, a pizza maker, meets a woman who makes burrata, they make love on the beach in Del Ray in a one night stand, where they lose their clothes while swimming, the details not being important other than her ability to compose in real time.  She also jokingly “tuned” her voice to the piano, easily singing a half step below or above a note to display her voice control and musical sensibilities.

At one point, she gave a “diva blessing” to the audience.  In sum, it was an exhilarating night.  There is nothing in the world like the joy from hearing the Great American Songbook, performed by a woman completely in command of her musical gifts.  In fact, her warm personality, eager to be with her audience in every way, happy to greet them on the way out, made it a perfect evening of “being with family.”  Thanks to our friends, Karen and Bob, for bringing us to see Ann and to all those who continue to perpetuate The Great American Songbook, performers and audiences alike. We are all truly blessed!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Under the Radar

When we think of the great body of work which constitutes the Great American Songbook, there is a tendency to forget the great composers who never wrote a Broadway show but whose songs are as much part of our musical heritage.  I’m reminded of this while reading William Zinsser’s Easy to Remember; The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say on the book when I’m finished.  Yet, I will say that the book, for me at least, is fascinating, as Zinsser’s passion for the music is evident on every page, it’s encyclopedic, and finally, he frequently discusses the songs’ construction, both musically and lyrically.  This is my kind of tribute to the music I love.

And, yet, there are omissions.  A composer such as Henry Mancini gets but a passing mention, only because of working with the “vernacular poet” of lyricism, Johnny Mercer, on the song “Moon River.”  But a glaring total omission is the work of Johnny Mandel, perhaps not a household name, unless you hear one of his songs which you would swear was written by someone else.  His oeuvre is not extensive, but he’s written a wide range of idiosyncratic songs and teamed up with some interesting lyricists.  He has, most notably, worked extensively as an arranger for well known singers of his time as well as playing with some of the big bands of the 40s such as Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie.

He too worked with Johnny Mercer the lyricist on perhaps one of his best known songs, written for a movie, “Emily.” Tony Bennett, Sinatra, and a host of others have recorded it.  The jazz community has adopted this work as their own, particularly the superb interpretation by Bill Evans, a version of which can be heard and seen here, Bill Evans in an intimate setting, Helsinki, 1969.

My mother’s favorite song was “The Shadow of Your Smile,” another film song he composed.  Whenever I visited her at my boyhood home from which I had long moved she’d ask me to sit at our old piano, by then partly out of tune, and play what I didn’t realize was a Mandel piece.

And talk about unusual, he composed the “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”, which is also now played in jazz venues.

His work with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman produced two classic pieces, the mystically evocative “A Waltz from Somewhere” which reaches back to another era and one of my other favorites, “Where Do You Start?” about how does one disentangle one’s life from another’s?….”So many habits that we’ll have to break and yesterdays we’ll have to take apart.”

Yet the song which landed me in the sea of Johnny Mandel songs, never tying them altogether until I bought the composer’s Songbook, was “You Are There” as sung by today’s first lady of song, Stacey Kent.

Her rendition of “You Are There" really elevates the composer’s intention: “To be done in a rubato feeling throughout”

Dave Frishberg, a musician who is sometimes best known for his satirical lyrics, wrote the words to this moving ballad and his collaboration with Mandel produced a classic, the story of a lover who is not just absent but is dead.  The ethereal quality of Mandel’s music works with the lyrics:

In the evening
When the kettle's on for tea
An old familiar feeling's settles over me
And it's your face I see
And I believe that you are there
In a garden
When I topped to touch a rose
And feel the petal soft and sweet against my nose
I smile and I suppose
That somehow maybe you are there
When I'm dreaming
And I find myself awake without a warning
Then I rub my eyes and fantasize
And all at once I realize
It's morning
And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn
My dearest dream is gone
I often think there's just one thing to do
Pretend that dream is true
And tell myself that you are there

I offer my own piano rendition of this wonderful work.  Thank you Johnny Mandel for all your contributions to the Great American Songbook!