Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Female focus
Reviews by Rob Lester

Women are in the spotlight in different ways this time. There's a retrospective on America's belated granting of voting rights to that gender. We have a fine female cabaret singer whose first recording includes material originally written to show us such musical theatre heroines as Annie Oakley, Mabel Normand, and Anyone Can Whistle's Nurse Apple. And when it comes to leading ladies, the word "ingenue" invokes a certain young and innocent type. It also serves to name a musical about a movie star of yore.



Wow! Who would ever imagine that dusting off actual antique protest songs, rallying cries, and speeches (pro and con) about the struggle for women's voting rights in America could let them be reincarnated as a compelling contemporary jazz project? Here's something that must be heard to be believed and believed in. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States Constitution's Nineteenth Amendment, the one that finally extended to adult females the right to participate in the electoral process. Like many social movements, it came with mantras and slogans and arguments that were set to music, either original or pre-existing.

With the dynamic jazz singer Karrin Allyson at the helm, the Shoulder to Shoulder collection is a time machine's trip presided over by an ambitious and inspired casting agenda of 20/20 hindsight for 2020's acknowledgment of the past by infusing it with kinetic latter-day stylings. Two of her own strong compositions add potency and summation as the work draws to a cathartic close. She's joined by a true army of guest artists, including a large choir—singing, speaking, and playing the music—with a sextet all of the female sex as the core band. Billed as the Karrin Allyson Sextet, with her as the main vocalist, the five instrumentalists are pianist Helen Sung, prominently wailing trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, sax player Mindi Abair, bassist Endea Owens, and drummer Allison Miller.

Don't look for a bunch of obvious, oh-so-even and strict 4/4-time tunes or repetitive angry shouts or call-and-response cries on a loop. (Did I mention the material has become real jazz?) These demands for liberty at the ballot box are revitalized with many liberties taken. Musical shaping and accompaniment is often wondrously unpredictable and multi-layered. Exposure to this rare material is eye-opening and ear-opening, even without familiar context and reference points to how it might have sounded back in the day. Spread throughout the proceedings are (fairly short) parts of vintage speeches from movement leaders and opinion-shapers that give even more historical context. They have some underscoring to add ambience and drama. They are effectively done by all, although fans of certain well-known performers may be disappointed or frustrated that some folks known as talented singers only participate in spoken passages (like Harry Belafonte, Roseanne Cash, Peter Eldridge). But all add impact.

"I'll Be No Submissive Wife" with its pipingly repeated "No, not I!" assertion makes for an instantly agreeable and accessible showcase for our fearless leader, and she and Kurt Elling partner splashingly as they cutely sail through a really fun duet about "Winning the Vote." Singers Pauline Jean, Antonia Bennett, Emily Estefan, and Kate Reid join Ms. Allyson for a glorious and democratically shared vocal summit on "The Promised Land." The sensational rising jazz star Veronica Swift shines with her commanding bright sound and scatting that catapult the "Anti-Suffragette Rose" to co-exist in two vastly different eras.

Letting history and jazz rub shoulders in Shoulder to Shoulder, we get a time capsule that's illuminating and invigorating, and anything but dull. Karrin Allyson's distinctive voice, without calling attention to itself, stands out among high voltage company, also redolent with a recognizable determined attitude that is an engine for this unique undertaking. A nod to rap done by the female performer known as Rapsody adds another modern spin to the wrap-up of the Allyson original "Big Discount" that slyly references the gender wage gap. This centennial consciousness-raiser gets my enthusiastic "yes" vote.

Also much appreciated and well worth the read: the detail and context provided by the text in the booklet included with the physical CD

Ever adventurous, the artist is in New York City January 21-25 at Birdland, with another worthy project: a salute to a jazz and bluesmaster/songwriter who shared her surname, at least in pronunciation: Mose Allison.


Harbinger Records

The especially pleasing, soothing timbre of Wendy Scherl's voice is just one reason to recommend her debut recording, but this is about much more than just competent comfort food for hungry ears. There's a deep well of human emotion tapped. Her nuanced interpretations of quality songs project much sensitivity, reflection, and a notably kind spirit. You'll See brings mature consideration to lyrics about life and relationships, although the cozy vocal sound is fresh and youthful. However, that quality doesn't upstage the intelligent phrasing and arrangements to present the "identity crisis" risk of coming off as naive. It's more suggestive of an open heart.

The repertoire includes dips into musical theatre repertoire, with different energy levels ranging from the tenderness lavished on Robert Waldman and Alfred Uhry's "Sleepy Man" from The Robber Bridegroom to the simmering frustration and determination of going "Wherever He Ain't" from the late Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel. Wendy Scherl's considered approach to communicating intent and meaning is best illustrated perhaps in William Finn's weighty "Anytime," in which the frequently repeated words "I'll be there" are delivered with varied shades and emphases that avoid potential redundancy. Wistfulness is another mood she carries off well, with the spareness of Stephen Sondheim's title song from Anyone Can Whistle.

There are some sunny, energetic breaks from the more serious material, and there's an overall life-affirming ambience. Things don't get bogged down with either melodrama or bombast. It's a tasteful affair, but takes some fortuitous chances baring and sharing feelings. Arrangements by the recording's co-producers, pianist/musical director Christopher Denny and the director of Scherl cabaret shows, Barry Kleinbort, serve the songs extremely well and reinforce the in-the-moment acting choices of the vocalist. (Kleinbort's own "The Kindest Man" is treated with special care.) And quite effective are Tom Kochan's orchestrations for the band, which includes the sounds of cello, brass and woodwinds. But in this swirl, the presence of Scherl remains firmly in the spotlight, with instrumental interludes not so much on the to-do list. (Her impact is so indelible, however, that it could have worked with some stretching out by the eight musicians.)

Communication is what you'll find in You'll See, from the persuasive piece by Carroll Coates that gives the set its name to a couple of medleys that have storytelling arcs to a graceful rendition of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," which achieves its title's stated purpose. This is the kind of collection that invites frequent plays to capture that warm blanket effect.


While this past year's 50th anniversary of Judy Garland's passing, coinciding with the new movie about her, has brought renewed attention to the legend's legacy, what about Deanna Durbin? When their movie careers began as young teens, they were paired in a short and soon both became big box office draws, friends, and painted as "rivals" by the press. The more classical-leaning Durbin, a soprano, began a string of films as an ever-plucky gal and before too many years of her successful career mounted up, retired young, moved to Europe, and resisted all offers to work, with no regrets. Melanie Gall, a devoted fan and singer, has put together a stage show about her idol, basically a one-woman piece with herself in the role, with a string of songs from the repertoire and two Garland trademarks: "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" and the immortal "Over the Rainbow," free of frills and eschewing drama. Of course, we'll never know how Durbin might have sung this as Dorothy had she instead been given the plum Wizard of Oz role for which she was considered.

The cast recording of Ingénue consists of a dozen of the numbers sung by the likable, clear-voiced Miss Gall, with the accompaniment of piano (Bennett Paster, also the arranger) and bass (Jim Whitney). Several of the tracks are quite short, even clocking in at less than or just over two minutes. Only a few lines of voice-over dialogue in the "Say a Pray'r for the Boys Over There" sequence would give you any sense that anything here is part of a play's material and there are no liner notes. I happily caught the production in downtown Manhattan recently as part of its tour after garnering attention in festivals.

The set-up is that a reporter (unseen) has tracked down the reclusive Durbin in 1969 after Judy Garland's death to see if she'll share some memories and dispel some lingering rumors. This soon leads to the then-middle-aged former performer recounting her Hollywood years, illustrating career highlights via the songs. This is important to understand so it's clear that one shouldn't be expecting an effort to sing the numbers quite in the voice of a bubbly teenager per se. But there's definitely a joie de vivre and spunky energy in the early career selections like "It's Foolish, But It's Fun" and the perky "I Love to Whistle" (complete with a generous amount of whistling).

Renditions are rather straightforward and unadorned, with a sense of formality on more serious pieces. "The Turntable Song" by Johnny Green and Leo Robin is a playful, chipper item about popular records that contrasts with the more flowery "There's Something in the Wind" by the same pair. More famous inclusions are standards like Irving Berlin's "Always" and Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," both given earnest performances. While the ballads may be shy of the shades of emotion and detail we often get, there's something refreshing in focusing on the basics of music and lyrics when handled by a direct wave of a trained voice.

As next year will be Deanna Durbin's centennial, I'm hoping that Ingénue will be part of a rediscovery for the songs and films of the girl who held a special place in America's hearts once upon a time. Melanie Gall has an expanded version of the biographical show in the works and continues her research and connections with Durbin's still-loyal fan base and those who have more direct connections. Meanwhile, this souvenir is charming and a pleasant reminder.

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