Sound Advice Reviews
... and all that jazz
With the 122nd anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth this week, I thought I'd gather up some recordings that have at least one of his compositions. As a reminder of his theatrical side, we note that quite a few of his songs found first or later homes on stage in the musical theatre, from the scores he worked on (on Broadway, Pousse-Café, Beggar's Holiday, and Blue Holiday; Jump for Joy in California; the little-known Saturday Night score; and the not-quite-finished Queenie Pie). In the years after his 1974 death, his music was the core of Broadway's Sophisticated Ladies (opened in 1981), and 1997 saw his oeuvre repurposed to fit a plot inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for Play On!. Other big New York productions included some of his big hits, too (Black and Blue, Blues in the Night, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Swing!). Let's toast the man born as Edward Kennedy Ellington with releases incorporating his melodies and other fare, jazzy or not so much.
OK, let's deal with the "age" thing right away. Anaïs Reno, who convincingly and capably sings worldly and weary jazz songs like she's long owned them, was 16 when she recorded Lovesome Thing this past August. And the girl with the elegant voice had already been gigging and digging into the repertoire for some time, winning awards along the way. Although skeptical newcomers to her talent might be tempted to ask for proof of age, I can assure youfrom having attended/reviewed her performances and meeting her circa 2018 and 2019that she looks her age but, when singing, sounds like someone with considerable adult life mileage and battle scars from having loved and lost. (By the way, she's a drama major at her Manhattan arts high school.) When it comes to enjoying audio-only performances, such as this debut release, age is much more irrelevant except as a point of interest. Anyway, the main point is thatwith her grace, gravitas, serenity, and prodigious skillsone can proclaim that the work of Anaïs is impressive without any added qualifier/caveat like "...for someone her age."
Comfort level is immediately and consistently apparent. The connection she feels to the music of Duke Ellington and his close associate Billy Strayhorn shows as she ably takes on many of their most famous and frequently recorded pieces (aka "the usual suspects"). But check out "It's Kind of Lonesome Out Tonight" for a great, worthy under-the-radar pick, suggested by the writer of the liner notes, music historian Will Friedwald. While there are such cheery things as "I'm Just a Lucky So and So" and the almost de rigueur choice of the Duke's band theme "Take the 'A' Train," much else here has an atmosphere of languid melancholy. It suggests a mindset accepting lingering blues as a given. She settles into that, trusting the material's plainly stated words of woe and haunting music, wisely choosing to not further embellish the sorrow with histrionics. Strayhorn's most famous ballad of unrelenting lamenting, "Lush Life" (written at age 18!), is dispatched with aplomb, concluding with that harrowing image of someone convinced she is fated to "rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too." (But misery has good company in the form of talent and pretty sounds, making each pity party worth attending.)
Don't look for mega-energy, euphoric barn-burners that are certainly part of the legacy from the big band/dance era. Lovesome Thing stays in a calmer climate. Restraint rules the day for Anaïs Reno. Gliding on her never-straining shimmering voice, legato passages flow and floating high phrases contrast dramatically with her rich deep tones. One striking showcase is her navigating Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" just on open vowel sounds to bookend the referenced delicate title song, his "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing." Doing the first chorus of "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" a capella shows solid musicianship.
Anaïs contributed to the classy, timeless-sounding arrangements fashioned by the gifted pianist Emmet Cohen who is joined by Russell Hall on bass, Kyle Poole on drums, Tivon Pennicott on saxand then there's some sublimely enriching violin work by Juliet Kurtzman (whose history happens to include giving birth to and raising the singer).
Lovesome Thing: Anaïs Reno Sings Ellington & Strayhorn is a tasteful and classy recording debut. Stay tuned.
Duke Ellington composed "In a Sentimental Mood" in 1935 in North Carolina; in the same year, with its story set in South Carolina, Broadway's Porgy and Bess debuted, with its score including the declaration "I Loves You, Porgy." Also in 1935 Fats Waller made the pop charts with one of his recordings of "Honeysuckle Rose" which had debuted in a revue back in 1929, the same year Cole Porter first presented the musical question "What Is This Thing Called Love?" on the Great White Way. Soprano Janinah Burnett sings them allgloriouslyalong with a spiritual, arias from operas, and plenty more on her debut solo recording called Love the Color of Your Butterfly. It begs the question "Is there anything this capable chameleon can't handle with panache, while staying true to herself and the very varied genres?"
Initially immersed in jazz, she's worked extensively in opera, concerts, and musical theatre. You may have seen her on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera as Carlotta and the Innkeeper's Wife (past/most recent companies) or the version of La Bohème that arrived in 2002. Those projects aren't in the mix here, but other resumé items and influences are discussed in the liner notes which also grant gratitude and credit to creative collaborators such as Terreon Gully (arranger, producer, percussionist, singer) and pianists Christian Sands and Sullivan Fortner.
The use of companion pieces lets us see individual selections in a new light and enjoy the "style marriages" and how the Burnett voice can accommodate the needs of any tradition. Her full-throated "Habanera" from the opera Carmen weaves in and out of the scaled-back, brooding "What Is This Thing Called Love?" seductively. A low-pitched, fairly conversational reading of the chilling indictment of lynching made famous by Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," gets added mournfulness when set against the high and pure hypnotic and ethereal "Lament." We can feast on Ellington's range with a triple-decker as a creamily crooned "In a Sentimental Mood" (words by Manny Kurtz) is preceded and followed by samplings of the composer's works for sacred concerts: "My Love" presenting his own simple lyric, mainly rapturously using the word "love," and "TGTT" which has no verbiage at all, but the Burnett voice scaling the heights of its adventurous melodic line and sustaining notes, with just Keith Brown's piano, is thrilling.
I love Love the Color of Your Butterfly. This is a triumph of eclecticism for the gear-switching soprano and her company of musicians and arrangers who add to her own instincts for settings as they sweep through everything from a full-out Puccini aria written for the male voice to the sultry pop slow-burn "Kiss of Life" with vocoder and backing vocals. What an embarrassment of riches!
"In a Sentimental Mood" is strikingly vulnerable and intimate as Jeannine Otis sings it, with notable vibrato and deep tones, accompanied solely and sensitively by guitarist Saul Rubin. Without breaking the fragile feel, his midpoint solo graces the Duke Ellington composition, "a melody so strange and sweet" (to borrow a few words from the Manny Kurtz lyric). The pair pour similar emotion into Into My Heart's other heartfelt standard for a suitably lonely but lovely "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)." With this yearning ballad introduced by Billie Holiday, the neediness and unrest seem so entrenched that the hope in the lines "Someday we'll meet and you'll dry all my tears/ Then whisper sweet little things in my ears" barely registers. Although other tracks bring in more musicians, the fortuitous Otis/Rubin match-up was again quite obviously the right choice when there's a candidate with the self-explanatory title of "Sweet Sad Guitar." Multi-tracked vocals for that one makes it appealingly dreamier, as melody and mood float in a feathery fashion. These three are by far the home runs of the collection; to extend the metaphor, the other six in the mix of this mixed bag aren't really in the ballpark as I hear it.
What we have here seems to be a little bit of everything, which would also describe what Staten Island-based Jeannine Otis has been doing for decades. Among other activities, this Renaissance woman has been the music director of a Manhattan church for a quarter of a century, toured in Porgy and Bess, is an educator/workshop leader with various populations (including at-risk youth), develops and performs in musical theatre pieces, and recorded beat-filled singles in the genre of dance music/house music billed with her first name onlyspelled Jahneen. Into My Heart arrives as a re-release of the grouping under the same name from a couple of years ago; likewise, her only other full-length project, a collection of musicalized Finnish poems called Magic Song from back in 1980, has been reissued twice.
For me, some selections go on too long and/or suffer from distractingly breathy vocals that are an element of pushing wannabe-sexy stylized ambiance over substance in songs written or co-written by the singer. In the tale of a bird, "Cokika," the songbird shows some likably lighthearted charm. Into My Heart's title song and "Joy of Life" were written, arranged and produced by Onaje Allan Gumbs (who passed away last year). They aim at unabashedly presenting romantic devotion as, respectively, a vow or wish. Curmudgeons may find their idealized sentiments to be rather pat, but the projected sincerity of Jeannine Otis undeniably breaks through.
Duke Ellington and John Latouche's "Take Love Easy" might seem to expand into a mantra for the general "easy does it" approach for handling several things on the amiable new recording by singer Lauren White and The Quinn Johnson Trio (named for the pianist/arranger who is joined by bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker). The number comes from the score of Beggar's Holiday (bowing on Broadway in the final week of 1946, a modern take on A Beggar's Opera from the 1700s, the piece which also bred The Threepenny Opera). Singer White and pianist/arranger Johnson also had nods to Ellington on their last two recordings, with the Charles Mingus-written tribute "Ellington's Song of Love" on one and the Ellington/Peggy Lee collaboration "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" on the other. Songs written by other notable departed jazz writers appear here, too: "Del Sasser" ("If You Never Fall in Love with Me") by Sam Jones; the title selection of Ever Since the World Ended, by Mose Allison, which offers solo vocal turns alternated with guest Dolores Scozzesi; and "Remembering the Rain" by Bill Evans, bringing in additional guest instrumentalists to join the trio.
While there's quite a bit of feel-good "cool" jazz to bring easy smiles, and a couple of selections that refer to troubles and efforts to keep one's chin up, the serious fare is strong. The sober, somewhat formal Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz standard "Alone Together," from the 1932 Broadway entry Flying Colors, starts off a bit tentatively, but becomes more passionate after the instrumental break. Quinn Johnson's keyboarding here and elsewhere shows versatility, with a crisp and truly anchoring, rollicking presence. He and Lauren White make Jimmy Webb's rewardingly raw "Shattered" ultra-sensitive and affecting, smartly ditching the more defined drive or laidback manner informing much of the collection.
Ever Since the World Ended ended too soon for me, disappointingly only having eight songswithout the compensation of most of them being super-lengthy. But there is some enjoyable stuff here, all professionally done, so, if you'll forgive the pun on the recording's title, I guess it's not the end of the world that there isn't more to hear this time.
"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with its catchy Duke Ellington melody and Bob Russell's words has been around for around eighty yearsgive or take a year. (The words were added after its 1940 creation as an instrumental titled "Never No Lament.") Although it's about being a self-protecting, depressed stay-at-home in the aftermath of a romantic break-up, these downer shutdown days it may have an unintended new meaning. And that must have echoed with extra nagging irony for singer Deborah Silver when, after she recorded it for her Glitter & Grits collection, she came down with COVID-19, only recovering after weeks of symptoms and complete isolation.
Side Note: I'm reminded of all the above by the appearance a few days ago of the second version of a separate song project of hers (not on Glitter & Grits). It is a number called "Covid-19 Blues," which she co-wrote and recorded with Dennis Lambert; with more celebrity voices, a new incarnation of this hope-infused resilient reaction to the reality we share is now available. Proceeds from purchases of downloads are donated to The Actors Fund and The Jazz Alliance. You can buy the new remix here..
Now let's get back to the full-length release which I'd put in the "welcome surprise" category, coming from someone I thought had hitchhiked her way onto the chanteuse bandwagon but veered towards Vegas, more glitz than this titular Grits or guts. I'd procrastinated listening, then finally proceeded with caution with this set of mostly show tunes and standards, having a heads-up as to what I was headed for hearing. Publicity told me that the classics had been re-branded by Mississippi-raised nightclub performer Deborah Silver in collaboration with members of Asleep at the Wheel, the longtime Texas Swing group, the whole shebang produced by its leader, Ray Benson. I feared an eye-rolling reaction that would be kinda OMG in meeting up with G & G. I need not have worried. The gal has reclaimed her twang, jumps in gleefully and sure-footedly, and the mood is playful and full-on party as, crucially, the songs not only survive, they thrive. With flavorful fiddle and harmonica for old-timey country capering, the jamboree is cheeky and charming.
Dating from 1930 are two gems from the Gershwin brothers' score to Girl Crazy, "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You," as well as the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler adviso to "Get Happy." Also from the Arlen catalogue are a pair with Johnny Mercer's lyrics: "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and "That Old Black Magic." With all this darn joy, wouldn't y'all expect "Almost Like Being in Love," the Brigadoon burst of bliss, to be even more exultant than it usually is? Instead, it's a cool-down moment, relaxed and reflective rather than robust, and is thus very affecting. And the examination of feelings arguably extends to permitting "I guess my mind's more at ease" to be the line that is the silver lining in the potential party-pooper blue mood of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," more shrugged-off than wallowed in.
Seeking depth and drama? Better move along. But, along with above-mentioned Glitter & Grits grin-inducers, there are a few more rousers and there's certainly a pervasive slyness that includes Ray Benson joining in vocally for the 108-year-old step-by-step dance instruction of "Ballin' the Jack." All told, the 13 elements of the cute hootenanny can be infectious and make us give in to an all-grin/no-grouse house rule. I surrender.