Showing posts with label Stacey Kent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stacey Kent. Show all posts

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!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Stacey and Nicole

Kudos to Rob Russell and his vision for the Colony Hotel’s Royal Room. What used to be a storage room at the famous Palm Beach boutique hotel has been transformed into what the Oak Room is at the Algonquin, or Feinstein’s at the Regency, or call it the Great American Songbook South. Last week we were fortunate enough to see Stacey Kent there. She may well be regarded as the new first lady of the genre. Very talented musicians back her up, in particular her husband, Jim Tomlinson, a superb saxophonist who produces her albums and is her business manager. He and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote several new pieces for Stacey’s recent album, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, four of which she performed.

What catapults an artist like Stacey Kent to the top of her field? First, she is completely dedicated to the genre, living the music. When she says that her very favorite lyric is from People Will Say We're In Love, “Don't keep your hand in mine; Your hand feels so grand in mine” you feel it deeply when she sings those words as she did the other night.

Then, she articulates the lyrics while singing them, and when listening to the Great American Songbook selections, the words are as important as the music itself.
Every nuance intended by the songwriter surfaces in her performance.

Stacey came to her art somewhat by accident, studying for a Masters degree in comparative literature in Europe where she met her husband who also arrived on the music scene via an academic labyrinth. Her perfect phrasing is reminiscent of Sinatra’s who was the master. But she is a one-of-a-kind; just listen to her rendition of The Boy Next Door: .

After her performance at the Royal Room we chatted with her and Ann gave her a big hug, which was reciprocated. It’s as if we’ve known her forever.

She reminds us of another great jazz singer, Nicole Pasternak, whom we’ve befriended and regularly see perform when we’re in Connecticut, as the Northeast is her home base. In some ways Nicole is a more versatile performer, belting out a Patsy Cline song as readily as an Irving Berlin classic. Stacey by contrast has honed a distinctive style, restricting her performances to the very songs and style she can make immortal.

It is hard for a regional performer such as Nicole to bring her talents to the national scene. I’ve been trying to find the right gig for her in South Florida without success. I’m more disheartened by this than Nicole who mostly sings just for her love of this unique musical treasure we call the Great American Songbook. Thanks to her dedication and to artists such as Stacey Kent this distinctively American cultural experience lives on for future generations.