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Sound Advice Reviews

"T" Time:
Tee, Tina, Tierney, and Tomboulian
Reviews by Rob Lester

Theatre singer Hayden Tee, the cast recording of the stage piece looking at Tina Turner's life, and two additional female singers with albums offering other musical styles are what we have on our plate this time around.


Broadway Records

If you love big songs from big musicals sung by a big voice with a big orchestra, Hayden Tee's Face to Face will bring you big pleasure. On this third solo outing, each of the New Zealand-born singer-actor's bravura in-character performances cuts a fine figure and cuts no corners vocally. He's got the chops and he's got the needed attitudes down. His appropriately quite dramatic renditions of (mostly) earnest declarations make for a robust recital. A 63-piece instrumental ensemble (arranged and orchestrated by Nigel Ubrihien) recorded in Budapest swoops in to accompany vocals done in studios in the U.K. and Australia. With Hayden Tee sounding invested in each role, the flourishes and climaxes feel true to the people portrayed and their frequent anguish or thrusts of assuredness rather than showboating the singer's pipes or milking emotions. While much is fearless and grand, there are shadings and some calibrations to prevent overkill.

Having logged much time in major roles in Les Misérables in different countries, including a stint on Broadway, Mr. Tee devotes two of the nine tracks to choices from this musical and they evidence command and understanding, mindful of each mindset. His "Stars" is filled with gravitas and brooding, and his moving "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is burnished with rue and lamenting. His various assignments with the mega-musical found him sharing the stage with John Owen-Jones, whom he has invited as duet partner for a sturdy "In Lily's Eyes" from The Secret Garden.

The basic musical landscape, shaping, and tempi generally keep things in the spirit and attitude of how we came to know (and often loved) this material. Others' goals of deeply personalized pop or jazz adaptations are foreign to the agenda which is squarely musical theatre-centric, on the conservative side (as in "honoring the intentions"). There's no surprise-generating deconstruction or reworking the architecture. Within these borders, there is much vitality and committed, communicative work. Selections sample musicals from the 1960s (a Cabaret medley) and beyond, into the new century.

Lest you think that Tee takes on only heavy duty love and longing (there's some of that to be sure) and gloom and doom (1776's "Molasses to Rum" from his resume, for one), we get one big, fat delicious slice of comic relief. And what a hoot it is! The actor proves his range and versatility with another souvenir of a role he played, the wild nemesis of the title character in Matilda, with the sadistic tour de force "The Smell of Rebellion," masterfully nailed. It's full of gleefully intoned, strutting, character-rich detail—the tics that make a villain tick.

Face to Face is what leading man repertoire done with panache is all about.


Stage Entertainment/ Ghostlight Records

Tina Turner turned 80 years old last week and, via the jukebox stage bio-musical about her, the lady's star burns newly bright and "keeps on burning," to quote a phrase from one of her signature songs, "Proud Mary." That ultimate blood-pumping number, heard near the end of the first act and reprised to end the night in the theatre, is done to an impressively fierce fare-thee-well. And there's plenty more in the way of intense energy in the hit parade of raucous rock and R&B (and more) that makes up the recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Officially opening on Broadway a few weeks ago, the production came to London first and this release features the cast from that city, with only one performer in both companies—but it's the dynamo in the all-important title role, Adrienne Warren, heard on all but two of the 24 tracks. An exciting-voiced powerhouse is what the doctor ordered, and that is what we've got. Big time. She is well supported by the seemingly indefatigable back-up singers and band, with impactful contributions by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as husband/stage partner Ike Turner and Lorna Gayle as the grandmother, among others. There's nothing tepid or tired with this Tina.

No newly written pieces are employed to chronicle the "behind the music" saga of the girl who came from humble beginnings in rural Tennessee and suffered other personal and professional hard times and challenges between triumphs. However, a few of the catalogue items are repurposed as plot songs ("Let's Stay Together"). As far as included spoken material, there are occasional bits such as an announcer's voice introducing performers and there is one potent instance of lines of fraught dialogue between sections of a song ("Higher") to demonstrate relationship tensions and pressures. A rather long and detailed synopsis of the story (and, thereby, noting career milestones) is included in the booklet that comes with the physical CD. Such context makes for a fuller appreciation of the content for those eager to be more than just entertained by this dazzling channeling of the persona, sound and styles. And while there is no shortage of drama in the actual tale, with parental apathy, harrowing spousal abuse, jealousy, divorce and death, much of the recording plays sort of like a "greatest hits"/tribute album by a "fill-in" who is fabulously on fire in her own right.

Those who enjoyed Turner's renditions will find them respectfully treated, true to their assertive and passionate personalities. The material and its structures have not been genre-twisted to sound musical theatre-esque. Thus, this cast recording is not likely to convert those resistant to the originals or the tornado-esque, tough Turner stance. And there will be some true-blue Tinaphiles unwilling to part with some skepticism or dollars for downloads or discs who will be perfectly satisfied just having their icon's own versions. But this audio-only experience led by the formidable Adrienne Warren has its own pull as an intense rock-and-rollercoaster ride, despite not having the accompanying visuals of shaking and shimmying, athletic choreography, flashing lights, etc. Brace yourself.


BFM Jazz

Music and movies have been good to each other for many years. Film plots inspire lyrics; melodies and instrumentation set moods; and, as years pass, the songs trigger memories of the motion pictures. The Tierney Sutton Band's tasteful ScreenPlay collection benefits from the symbiosis, but the material doesn't merely depend on nostalgic recreations. Each piece stands on its own as a vignette or commentary and some arrangements are quite different from the way they were first/famously heard. Pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker, bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry, and vocalist Tierney Sutton provide another classy and creative exploration in their body of work that has previously considered the oeuvres of Sinatra, Sting, and Joni Mitchell, among other themed and unthemed projects. A decision to move into movie songs, a vast repertoire, led them to release a series of EPs in 2019 (each with a different focus) and ScreenPlay gathers up the bulk of these tracks recalling soundtracks. Guitarist Serge Merlaud sits in on three selections, adding a welcome flavor.

The first installment had brought together five numbers with the sensitive lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, all included here. These are decidedly gentle renditions, the piano often tip-toeing, the singing hushed and intimate to the point of feeling confessional. Mr. Bergman himself, now 93, comes quietly aboard for a poignant vocal duet on "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" from the film Best Friends, music by Michel Legrand, from 1982. On a far lighter note, the fluff that is Grease is sampled not once but twice with things added to the stage musical's score for the motion picture version. They hardly challenge the skill sets of these accomplished musicians with so much meaty movie music out there; while "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is sweetly diverting, what can you do with that other ditty whose chorus sounds even sillier when a mature vocal artist is gamely spouting its consecutive lines, "You're the one that I want/ ooh-ooh-ooh/ you're the one that I want/ ooh-ooh-ooh/ you're the one that I want/ ooh-ooh-ooh."

Eleven of ScreenPlay's selections favor the 1960s, '70s, and '80s rather than going for a concerted effort to equally represent the decades of movie history. The oldest numbers, from 1939 and 1940, are from beloved family-friendly film fare and are the most radically (and rewardingly) reimagined: The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Brain" surprisingly becomes sly and funky with these jazz musicians, and Pinocchio's "I've Got No Strings," originally the famous wooden marionette's jubilant declaration, is slowed way down to morph into a meditation of its declaration as a metaphor. The most recent cinema attraction is the 2016 Clint Eastwood project Sully, on which the band was musically involved (represented by "Arrow"). Purist's note: Not all the numbers were born of the silver screen, with two things here heard in movies adapted from Broadway musicals several years earlier: "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and the title song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, both getting agreeably breezy settings. And then there's "The Sound of Silence," a stand-alone pop hit first issued in 1964 and added to the soundtrack of 1967's The Graduate. With in-the-moment phrasing and muscular percussive elements, with sudden shifts in dynamics and tempo, it's haunting in its own very different way.

If vocal and jazz interpretations of movie musical souvenirs had a ratings system to guide potential audiences the way the movies themselves do, ScreenPlay would be rated "A" for "Adventurous Audiences." And, as for upcoming releases by the eight-time-Grammy-nominated Tierney Sutton Band, I've always been curious about its coming attractions.


Quantum StarSongs

While she admirably delves into many musical styles, Elizabeth Tomboulian's way is to do so without throwing caution to the wind. There's some reserve that keeps despair and the blues at bay, keeps resentment in check, and keeps something like "If I Love Again" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)" from giving into the idea that getting detached from some romantic attachments can seem impossible. Thus, the latter two are quite lovely, wistful, and sound thoughtful, but don't deliver despair like a killer punch in the gut. When she decides to sing us a song of social significance, it isn't heavy-handed and preachy, delivered from a soapbox (a medley of "For What It's Worth" and, with her additional lyrics, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" as well as the Stevie Wonder title song on Love's in Need of Love Today). But the consciousness-raising messages get through without instilling lots of guilt or fear. In many cases, a cooler jazz sensibility tempers the proceedings, but does not become offhand and self-defeatingly casual.

The vocal sound is clear and supple, with a no-nonsense sense of confidence as she and the band journey through genres, mixing jazz piano giant Bill Evans' "Re: Person I Knew" with the slow, moody groove of Cyndi Lauper's pop hit "Time After Time," some foreign land-visiting ("Tristeza de amar"), and toying with a sassy Bessie Smith specialty that was published back in 1895 ("You've Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down").

The musicians get some spotlight time of their own, including the featured Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn. While husband Lee Tomboulian is the keyboardist on most tracks (singing along on three), the singer takes to the keyboard herself on three pieces on which her bassist Cliff Schmitt and drummer Alvester Garnett sit out. And did I mention that our versatile songstress also plays guitar on two numbers and wrote a cute original called "Cheesy"? The project is produced by singer Rosanna Vitro, who adds her vocals to the title song.

It isn't mentioned in the liner notes, but in researching online I found that Elizabeth Tomboulian works as a spiritual healer and subscribes to ideas about energy in the universe and music as a healing force, consulting with clients one on one. That's not the typical "day job" for a singer, but this lady, who's been involved as a singer and pianist for decades, is not the typical singer with the typical recording that comes our way. I'm glad it did.

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