Sound Advice Reviews
Men: Their music and their memories
Here come the guys! Guys and Dolls, a favorite musical of vocalist Kane Kalas, is represented with four numbers on High Hopes, a collection of material connected to memories of his father. Then we have two singer-songwriters. John Allee goes beyond autobiography to include backstories of others (including fictitious characters) for his Past Imperfect. Past experiences are often more personal on Brian Gari's I Grew Up Here. Lastly, pianist Michael Costantino and two other gentlemen of jazz revisit some oldies, including the 90-year-old Broadway-born classic yearning for bygone "Yesterdays" and something going back to 1798!
I'm guessing that Kane Kalas is the only crooner among the many who've released debut albums whose day jobs are working as a hedge fund investor and being a professional poker player who won more than two million bucks in one televised competition. If success breeds success in various fields, I'd bet that this baritone's entertaining recording called High Hopes will be received warmly because of the respectful enlivening of old standards. It's a satisfying trip that is a mix of nostalgia and pep.
Featuring songs they both loved, the collection is a tribute to his late sportscaster father, Harry Kalas (who made a tradition of singing "High Hopes" to bolster the spirits of baseball players and fans). This hit for Frank Sinatra is just one of the selections that evoke the recordings of Ol' Blue Eyes in phrasing, sensibilities, and the arrangements for the large orchestra. The Kalas approach takes more cues from the Sinatra joie de vivre and energy than the swagger.
As a teen, the singer, who is now in his mid-30s, began singing lessons that included operatic training, in preparation for his first musical theatre role. However, the full unleashing of his vocal power shows up not with the showtunes, but only with a grandiose "Bridge Over Troubled Water." His Broadway choices are mostly calm or happy, navigating no troubled waters. In fact, his "If Ever I Would Leave You" arguably leaves something to be desired in its revisionist relaxation approach to the Camelot declaration of devotion, and "This Is the Moment" is exuberant instead of the usual sturm und drang in its Jekyll and Hyde context. Still, either can be appreciated as a refreshing change of pace. And the collection will be attractive to showtune fans as half of its 18 tracks are from stage musicals. These include a stroll through "On the Street Where You Live" (My Fair Lady) and tender, understated pretty-voiced treatments of "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music and The Music Man's "Goodnight, My Someone"–and then there are four picks from the score of Guys and Dolls done with flair and some male bonding with his guest guys (Joe Conklin, keyboardist John Conahan, producer/guitarist Lou Brody) singing, too.
Specific connections and memories are detailed in the liner notes. The sports-centric life of the elder Kalas is represented by the "Eagles' Victory Song" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"; son Kane has made repeated appearances to the stadium of the Philadelphia Phillies to sing the national anthem and more. With his attractive and versatile voice, lightly jazzy touch, and a sumptuous production, K.K. is much more than O.K.; he swings and truly scores.
It's not so much his own past John Allee is singing and writing about in the songs on Past Imperfect–although he's said that there's "a little bit" of himself in the portraits of the imperfect people in what's described in the notes as "a lyrical menagerie of dreamers, schemers, and lovable rogues." It's a compelling and richly textured cast of characters and perspectives. Whether they're more inspired by people he has actually met or sparked fully from the imagination of this Renaissance man who's also a playwright and long-careered actor, it's a marvelously motley crew.
The eclectic mix of musical styles has strong elements of jazz, blues, and folk, with projected attitudes that can be wry, dejected, resilient, vulnerable, or cynical. Character pieces recall the chameleon-like M.O. of Randy Newman in the way he steps into the shoes of people from all walks of life. The more poetic and pensive elements are akin to the works of Joni Mitchell, an acknowledged inspiration.
With 17 tracks presenting new and older/revised songs, there's tremendous variety. Poignant considerations of contrasting parent/child relationships are the focus of "The Outsider," while another number simply revels in the simple appreciation for "This Old Hat." Scenarios and assessments involving romantic potential, or lack thereof, range from being dreamily immersed in "A Typical Paris Affair" to waking up and smelling the coffee to realize that the relationship needs to end ("Where's the Door?") or was just a conquest for the other person ("Feather in Your Panama"). There's a slice of life when a nagging wife implores her husband to "Get a Real Job" and a winking consideration of the afterlife in "Let's All Up and Go There."
A few slower songs that repeat choruses rather than build to new, surprising twists for their endings risk feeling anticlimactic or lugubrious, but the literate lyrics are usually worth the telling and dwelling. The words and distinctive characters presented are the main attraction more than catchy or glamorous melodies. However, there are musical assets with natural-sounding lines, some lovely vocal qualities in laments and robustness in the assertive pieces, as well as spiffy scat-singing here and there.
Cortés Alexander and Jane Lui add their voices in supportive, supple vocal harmonies on some numbers, most prominently on Past Imperfect's title cut. Mr. Allee is his own effective pianist on this song and nine others, while Adam Bravo takes over the keyboard for more athletic romps on the remaining seven. (His dazzling work never makes the instrumental interludes feel like stage waits.) Jeff Kaye's trumpet and flugelhorn are especially atmosphere-enhancing, and the soundscape is completed with sax, bass, and drums.
John Allee's previous release reviewed here, Bardfly, has its own inherent theatricality, with its roots firmly entrenched in Shakespeare's words, and Past Imperfect is decidedly dramatic and dense, too. It's quite the diverse showcase.
While his songs are sometimes breezy, unpretentious confections with a retro 1960s-era pop vibe, singer-songwriter Brian Gari can also dig deeper and touch the heart with more mature material. Sure, there's some of the more youthful kind of musings and moanings about hoped-for or hopeless romantic pairings, but his latest CD, I Grew Up Here, has "grown-up" appeal and viewpoints, too.
Rewardingly, he doesn't always rely on his go-to comfort zone of layered vocals and electronics. Some vocals are more raw, with instrumental sounds on the sparer side; he plays guitar on the tale of the robbery of a "Wedding Ring" and the title song about the passing years and passing by the building he lived in as a child. The latter is filled with well-etched specific memories.
Mr. Gari's earlier years come to the fore on other tracks, as he's included a brief but pithy song (just one minute in length) he recorded back in 1976, about seeking feedback on compositions, called "Send Your Songs to Me," two numbers written for his early musicals, and one from a score co-written by his mother more than half a century ago. The stiff-upper-lip "Try to Be Funny" was planned for his show that reached Broadway, Late Nite Comic, and "Tell Your Sisters" is noted as a "1996 alternate original track for Love Online." And what a sweet double dip into emotion with the bonus track of "Everybody Wants to Be Remembered" that has Mr. Gari, in a voice choked with awareness of the truism of the song title as he borrows this affecting piece from the afore-referenced Janet Gari/ Toby Garson 1969 score about a crocodile named Lyle (based on the children's books).
Additional items in the "backward glances" theme are "No Riding Today," recalling the bus boycotts that were part of the civil rights activism, and "Legend of Town Hall," a ghostly story-song that is haunting in the best of ways. I Grew Up Here evidences a longtime tunesmith whose art keeps growing.
MICHAEL COSTANTINO (piano)
Creative pianist Michael Costantino is joined by veteran bassist Harvey S and drummer Thierry Arpino for confident and thoughtful explorations of music from various decades and genres. Their presumed home turf of classic jazz material gets reupholstering, too, as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's smooth "Satin Doll" gets a tougher skin with a rather staccato workout with strong drum punctuation and then looser flights of fancy. The melodies on The Song Inside the Tune are presented with much muscle, but also plenty of surprising twists and turns. The skilled keyboardist has a pronounced, precise percussive approach, but that does not prevent him from leading his colleagues into sensitive passages for balance on their long tracks. The songs inside these tunes are familiar: old, but not done at all in the same old/same old ways.
There are a couple of Broadway ballads that have stood the test of time: the 100-year-old "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin; and "Yesterdays" by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, which came along ten years later in their Roberta score. There's a sense of theatricality and boldness throughout, so it's interesting to know that Mr. Costantino's credits include working in musical capacities on productions of shows that broke barriers in the late 1960s: Hair and Oh! Calcutta!.
The love theme from the movie The Godfather appears twice, with the bonus of an extended version longer by a minute (growing in length to six minutes). It trades in its film character of being earnest and somber for brighter hues and playfulness. More recent pop music gets jazz coatings and so does the thinking-outside-the-box choice of Beethoven piano sonata known as Pathetique. It starts with the melody introduced elegantly with the bowing of the bass, and then is transformed and gains a new, cool identity.
There are no liner notes to share insights or inside scoops inside The Song Inside the Tune's barebones package. However, the playing speaks for itself. This recording boasts the advantage of adventurousness.