Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

In Pieces and other releases...
with something old and/or something new
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here's a mix of "old" and "new" in recent releases. First, old tracks from In Pieces (a musical), issued in 2021, are back with eight new pieces added. Singer/pianist Betty Bryant, at the age of 94, mixes oldies and four new-to-me items she wrote herself. Then there are two spiffy albums putting fresh new spins on old songs; one is by a group called The New Wonders, led by Mike Davis, and the other is led by Ricky Alexander, a member of that band.

Broadway Records

Here's a project that has morphed and grown, exploring the fragile and fraught feelings of young people seeking love as they pair up, take chances, get hurt, and reflect on those experiences. Interpreting the contemporary-sounding fare is a strong cast of theatre-experienced performers taking on the emotional roller coaster rides and the hopes and heartbreaks that come with the risks of romance. Some of the pieces in In Pieces, with music and lyrics by Joey Contreras, have a long history. Some, created as stand-alone songs, were first recorded by him and others on albums he released under his name, the first appearing back in 2010. With material assigned to characters, what became titled In Pieces has been labeled a song cycle, a revue, and then "a new musical"; it has been produced on stage and for streaming in 2021. In that same year, a recording was released featuring a different group of actor-singers tackling some of the Contreras content on a 10-track collection billed as "Highlights." The newly issued "Deluxe Edition" expands the offerings significantly so that we now hear eight additional items. But the expanded collection is still labeled "Highlights" as the full score licensed for productions lists even more numbers.

The series of potential relationships may be somewhat uneven and a bit overwrought here and there amid the tales of having crushes and being crushed when rejected. While often dynamic, just listening to the recording without any background information or exposure to a production can be somewhat confusing. The show focuses on six named characters who may match up as three couples: a heterosexual pair, two men, two women. And the currently licensed version is for eight roles with an optional ensemble. This recording has the repertoire divided among 19 performers, so main roles are shared, and only a few singers have more than one solo or lead vocal.

Some characterizations and incidents are clearer than others, as several selections have plenty of specific details so they work as self-contained sung stories. Here are three examples: "Another New York Love Story," nailed by Leslie Hiatt, recounts an awkward reconnection with someone on a long, long-past-midnight subway ride. Two others gain clarification via back-and-forth exchanges, with dialogue interspersed: "Bloom" is a musical scene taking place on a first date, with Antonio Cipriano and Stephanie Torns engaging as their characters go from self-conscious to self-confident as it builds. Another vignette, featuring Hannah Verdi, Aisha Jackson, and Julian Diaz-Granados, involves employee/customer interaction and attraction at a cafe. It's called "Caffeinated," a word that is apt to describe several high-energy outpourings of frazzled-nerves delivered with volume and verve in the pop/rock-flavored style.

A standout in the crowd is Anson Bagley, with an appealing vocal sound and exuberant personality projected, brimming with anticipation and delight in his solos "Ohio" and one version of "Me and Mr. Popularity." The other treatment of this buoyant boy-crush tale is smoothly sung by Andrew Barth Feldman and is likewise endearing. Other highlights are David Archuleta's vulnerable heart-on-sleeve "Love Me, Love Me Not" and "Fork in the Road," which bookends the proceedings, first heard in striking, brief group a capella form and wrapping things up with the ensemble led vocally by songwriter Contreras (who's also on piano for the recording, with a small band). Over all, In Pieces succeeds in capturing the youthful restlessness, angst, and hindsight that come with the yearning and learning connected to forming relationships.

Bry-Mar Music
CD | Digital

The title of the very entertaining singer/pianist Betty Bryant's latest recording refers to the included carpe diem-themed number from the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie, "A Lot of Livin' to Do." The set begins with a much older song, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," from 1931–but it doesn't predate the birth of this performer. The album's liner notes, publicity, and a radio interview proudly trumpet the fact that she's 94 years old. (And she's still active; her website indicates four upcoming gigs in California.) Singing and swinging with a light but lively touch, she delivers the goods with a sly, wry manner and ease. The laid-back, unfussy jazz stylings evidence a less-is-more approach and a hip joie de vivre attitude is projected by this lady whose apt nickname is "Cool Miss B."

Her original songs have personality and whimsy. Betty Bryant can be sassy and saucy, but with a wink. "Katydid" is not about the insect, but is about someone named Katy who did some unspecified but questionable things. Taking on the persona of one who doesn't suffer fools gladly, the humorous put-down "Put a Lid on It" is a litany of complaints about somebody's inconsiderate, annoying habits. Yes, grousing can swing!

The quirky "Chicken Wings" is a tasty paean to poultry and the various ways to enjoy that menu item, with as many changes in rhythm and musical style. All the tracks except this one run longer than four minutes in length, which offsets the disappointment that there are only nine selections. (Her instrumental composition "Blues to Get Started" and a vocal blues, "Stormy Monday," are the lengthiest ones, at 5:40 and 7:48, respectively.)

Betty Bryant's tender side is revealed via "The Very Thought of You" (Ray Noble) and a languid "Baby, Baby All the Time" (Bobby Troup), but love songs don't slip into sentimentality. There's variety in the instrumentation. Besides B.B.'s own fine keyboarding, the album's producer, Robert Kyle, plays saxophone, flute and harmonica and they and acoustic bass player Richard Simon and drummer Kenny Elliott Drums are joined by different guest musicians from track to track, adding trumpet, guitars, electric bass, and percussion. Lotta Livin' offers a lot to like.

Turtle Bay Music
CD | Digital | Vinyl

How about a journey back to the jaunty Jazz Age of the 1920s, plus a couple of side trips to the prior decade and, as a bonus, a newly minted treat that sounds like it could be a relic of similar vintage? Are you in? Then step into Steppin' Out's set of old-timey treats that fondly revitalize music from days of yore, rather than just copy the blueprints of old records. The devotees of the style and spark are members of the band called The New Wonders and the crew's captain capturing the sound and sensibilities is Mike Davis. He's the arranger, one of the vocalists, and is in the spotlight on cornet. "Cornet Chop Suey," an instrumental written and originally blasted out by Louis Armstrong, is, of course, a natural and nifty showcase, and it gets a personalized stamp. (The group is named for the model of cornet favored by the admired iconic jazz musician of the 1920s, Bix Beiderbecke.)

Selections include the Gershwins' bouncy "Do, Do, Do" from Oh, Kay! and the sweet "Love Will Find a Way" (Shuffle Along). This is a zippy affair, with one happy, fleet frolic after another. It's a party. Steppin' Out mixes instrumentals with vocals. In the tradition of many hits of the era evoked (and the later Big Band Era and 78 rpm records), tracks with singing sometimes give over a bigger part of the time to the band playing on its own.

The dapper Davis shines in his vocal solo spots, adopting the extinct mannered singing styles that now seem endearingly quaint, adhering to tempi and rhythms. No tears, empathetic or otherwise, are suggested for the anything-but-droopy take on "My Melancholy Baby," but there's a nod to fatalistic dependence with "My Fate Is in Your Hands" (Fats Waller/ Andy Razaf). The guys in New Wonders all get opportunities to strut their talents and are a tight team, interacting and complementing each other. They include trombonist John Holcomb, banjo man Jared Engel, and pianist Andy Schumm, who is also a cornet player and the composer of the included zesty "Half-Seas Over." Band members participating in vocals with Mike Davis are drummer/fellow cornetist Colin Hancock (who also wrote the detailed liner notes that give song histories and appreciations), Jay Rattman (he plays bass sax), and Ricky Alexander (sax and clarinet; leader of his own group on another set honoring old-school gems and reviewed here, also on the Turtle Bay Records label, Just Found Joy). Messrs. Davis and Alexander are an especially delightful duo singing together on "Everybody Loves My Baby." All in all, Steppin' Out is a step above your usual nostalgia-fest.

Turtle Bay Music
CD | Digital | Vinyl

Memo to those listeners looking for musical joy: You've just found it, with Just Found Joy, consisting of a dozen dazzlers in predominantly brisk, breezy, happy-go-lucky moods. Leading a band in its parade of pizzazz is Ricky Alexander, playing clarinet and soprano sax, singing on two tracks, doing all the arrangements–and he's the composer of the ingratiating instrumental "Promenade." The other instrumentals include the oldest tune in the bunch, 1901's "High Society," which has as much life in it as anything else on the musical menu. It was composed by Porter Steele. The name Porter shows up two more times in the songstack, for two other things: Jelly Roll Morton's rollicking "King Porter Stomp," named for his pianist friend Porter King; and a version of Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things" which feels (perhaps appropriately) casual.

Featured prominently, partnering with the leader to great effect with vintage flair, is the terrifically energized brass player Jon-Erik Kellso. The other instrumentalists are guitarist Brennen Ernst, bassist Rob Adkins, drummer Kevin Dorn, and the two pianists sharing duties (six numbers each), Dalton Ridenhour and Jon Thomas.

The emphasis is squarely on the sunny side, not the sentimental side, even for romantic ruminations that usually linger in moodiness. The classic ballad "Don't Blame Me" is Ricky Alexander's pleasant but perky vocal solo, which comes off as offhanded in its situation of infatuation. With Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips" absent its passionate and kind of flowery lyric, an instrumental version proves that the melody can be effective in chipper style.

Vocalist Vanisha Gould guests on four selections, her voice getting its best showcases on her duet with Mr. Alexander, "Sweet Lorraine" (the opening line of which includes the album's title), and the number that is slow enough to let her sustain notes and show something besides pep: Rodgers & Hart's doleful "Spring Is Here." Composer Rodgers is represented also by Oklahoma!'s "People Will Say We're in Love," and perhaps not having to include the Hammerstein lyric gave extra liberty to do something inventive and that's what the arrangement achieves. Having what we're used to hearing as a rather formal, strict-tempo showtune that's coy and cautionary in context refashioned as a loose, fleet romp is a fun surprise. And "fun" is the operative word for Just Found Joy, with all its smile-inducing, splashy spunk.