Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Seasons of love songs
Reviews by Rob Lester

Love songs are never out of season, and those with titles mentioning the seasons spring to mind–because I keep noticing their inclusions on new recordings. Here are some. Loveless springtimes are among the subjects covered by Champian Fulton and Danielle Wertz. Spring and the season after it are agenda items on Once Upon a Summertime from Sharon Sable, while Margo Brown's musical calendar has "Summer Me, Winter Me." Addressing the remaining season will fall to Bill Evans with "Autumn Leaves" on a posthumous retrospective.

Champian Records
CD | Digital

In her recently released recording, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" is the rare sorrowful moment for Champian Fulton. Spring becomes the warm season chilled by the loss of love. This and another break-up oldie, "Just Friends," break up the otherwise steady stream of stylish cheer and high energy bursting forth in both vocal and instrumental tracks presented by the stylish jazz singer/pianist. Otherwise, she's more in the mode and mood of a "Happy Camper," to invoke the title of the one piece here that she composed herself. It's one of the non-vocal romps showcasing the teamwork with her skillful bandmates, bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, with whom she's worked frequently for years. Meet Me at Birdland was culled from performances during a run last year at the Manhattan venue. The dozen selections include several revisits to material from the Fulton discography of more than a dozen albums.

Confidence and comfort level come through. Analogous to her typically assertively piano style, Champian Fulton's "female vocalist" personality projected is far from demure or dainty, seeming more sly than shy. Playful lyrics suit her, such as those in "I Didn't Mean a Word I Said." There's a wink in her sassiness. A directness in owning feelings of love prevents "I've Got a Crush on You" from becoming coy, and "I Only Have Eyes for You" is not dripping with dewy-eyed devotion. Smilingly robust jazz and swing sensibilities keep things moving, so there's no risk of sinking in sentimentality. Stylized singing brings out attitudes, manifested in distinctive pronunciation and note-stretching, evoking a few jazz and blues stars of yore–a blended homage.

Instrumentals are on the long side, and the trio dazzles with muscularity–going for fierce fleetness, not pastel pretty sweetness. So, as things build, the reaction is more a gasped "wow!" than an emotion-triggered sigh.

You can meet the Meet Me at Birdland trio back at Birdland on May 28 for a live show celebrating this release.

Outside In Music
CD | Digital | Vinyl

"Spring is here/ Why doesn't my heart go dancing?/ Spring is here/ Why isn't the waltz entrancing?" A 1938 Broadway musical called I Married an Angel is the source of the disconsolate, lonely song "Spring Is Here," but it found new bleakness when spring was on the horizon and settling in three years ago, as the frightening reality of the pandemic was also settling in. Dealing with that harrowing period prompted Danielle Wertz to create Other Side, her second album. She wrote or co-wrote much of the material, arranged and produced the set, does the vocals, and plays synthesizers. When she sings Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Spring Is Here," deconstructing it with artistic license, she deepens the despair. It is preceded by a dour mood-setting piece with a title referencing the specific spring in question, "April 2020."

Another Rodgers melody (with Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics) comes later; it is a plush "I Have Dreamed," which segues satisfyingly into "Dreamsville" (Henry Mancini/ Jay Livingston and Ray Evans). Indeed, a great deal of this captivating collection has a dreamy, ethereal ambiance, becoming hypnotic, especially the wordless original compositions with Miss Wertz using her voice like an instrument, weaving through the evocative soundscapes in the company of other atmosphere-enhancing musicians playing guitars (Keith Ganz), sax (Samuel Priven), bass (Owen Clapp), percussion (Evan Hyde), and keyboards (Javier Santiago, who is her co-composer/co-producer on "April 2020").

This ambitious endeavor can feel elusive, but in an intriguing way rather than causing frustration with its mysterious milieu (although it takes concentration to catch some of the hushed words). Through waves of melancholia, hurt, pensive observations, and "Cloud Shaped Thoughts," Danielle Wertz's compellingly pretty voice floats, flutters and soars.

Amid the unleashed uncertainty, darkness and struggle, the old pop song wishing for "A Sunday Kind of Love" might seem like misfit fluff, but another respite is welcome, like the aforementioned pair about dreaming. (Its lyric has a passing reference to dreaming, too.) A kind of kind-hearted catharsis, with those dreams amid concerns fueled by the nightmare of the pandemic and its resulting isolation, Other Side is like no other release I've heard–and it's well worth hearing.

SHARON SABLE (vocals) & JOE HOLT (piano)
CD | Digital

In the lyric of "They Say It's Spring" there's a mention of "this feeling light as a feather"–words that could also describe the gossamer essence of the late singer/pianist Blossom Dearie. The song is a sweet bit of bliss in a satisfying salute to her by vocalist Sharon Sable and pianist Joe Holt (one of several releases which have taken this particular tribute trek). Once Upon a Summertime is sublime. It's startling how fully the Dearie demeanor and sound are captured without appearing to be self-conscious or effortful. It's fond, not forced. Miss Sable is able to deliver the requisite air of eternally girlish guilelessness, tapping into the timbre of her admired model, the voice bringing wistfulness without getting wispy. It's creamy, soothing and supple. This is not "against-type" casting or unfamiliar ground. Her prior two releases each had one of the numbers done here. Bassist Amy Shook joins the pair on several tracks.

The representative repertoire acknowledges key elements in the Dearie career: charming cheer that becomes cozy ("Tea for Two"); French fare (L'étang); smile-inducing nods to jazz (the Gershwins' cute "Little Jazz Bird"); and things she co-wrote (like "I Like You, You're Nice" and "Inside a Silent Tear," both collaborations with Mahriah Blackwolf). Joe Holt's fingers dance deftly across the keyboard throughout the collection, but to acknowledge Blossom's engaging work on the instrument, the singer sits out "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." A category noticeably missing in action is humor by jazz and cabaret writer-performers. (That's an observation more than a complaint for what is a smartly curated and performed set. One quibble is that the care didn't extend to the credits on the CD's set list where the names of two iconic songwriters are spelled wrong.)

Once Upon a Summertime's bittersweet title song is a standout as the memories of one season's love come to vivid life, even though "another wintertime has come and gone." This endearing Dearie tribute brings forth its own memories and there will be many happy returns to it in future summertimes, wintertimes, autumns and springs.

CD | Digital

As approached by vocalist Margo Brown, the dozen tracks on Forever Me with Love are 12 examples of relishing romantic relationships. We sense her sensitivity. It's complemented and expanded by tender musical accompaniment performed and arranged by Phil Hinton. There's no rush or mush. It all feels thoughtful, never offhand or casual. If vocal placement is not always the most assured, the involved singer's heart is always in the right place–usually on her sleeve.

The collection takes its title from a phrase in "Summer Me, Winter Me," which uses the word "forever" and the names of those seasons as verbs. In another song, the idyll of happily-ever-after relationships gets a trepidatious reality check via the admission "The more I love, the more that I'm afraid that in your eyes I may not see forever, forever" (in "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"). And the seasons come around again in "The Summer Knows," which ends its summer bliss by acknowledging that "It's time to dress for fall." These three ballads have Michel Legrand melodies and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, who are further represented by "Where Do You Start?" (music by Johnny Mandel) and "If We Were in Love" (music by John Williams).

A serious approach is the case whether the matter at hand is love that might come in the future ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), relished in the present ("The Nearness of You"), or fondly recalled from the past ("My Favorite Year"), all warmly embraced. (That last number was written by Michele Brourman and Karen Gottlieb, but some early versions of the CD packaging wrongly credited it to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who indeed also wrote a song with that title, for their same-named musical.) Mature perspective pervades the renditions, suggesting someone who has lived, loved, and lost–but not lost hope.

From the musical Do Re Mi, the advice urging the listener to "Make Someone Happy" ("...and you will be happy, too") serves as a thesis for those listening to the tracks in order, but it could also be a summation if played last. In any case, it comes off as a life lesson she genuinely wants to pass on, rather than a preachy platitude about priorities. When Margo Brown repeats a lyric line imploringly, it's convincing that her feelings are surging, not just that the words reappear on the sheet music. Words sink in.

The singer's lovely timbre and the delicately dreamy instrumentals surrounding the rhapsodizing and reminiscing throughout Forever Me with Love make for effective, effusive renditions.

Elemental Music
CD | Digital | Limited edition Vinyl

On six different dates, all falling in autumn, in three different years (1965, 1966 and 1969), jazz pianist Bill Evans performed in Denmark, but recordings of these sets were never released until now. Appropriate to the season, "Autumn Leaves" was one of the selections, taken at a faster speed than others usually choose, getting away from the feel of a lament that would come with the territory of its lyric in French or English. Treasures: Solo, Trio & Orchestra Recordings from Denmark (1965-1969) is full of excellent renditions of songs that were staples of the repertoire of the musician who passed away back in 1980.

Folks who are not die-hard jazz fans can appreciate the quite accessible treatments of numerous standard songs. An appealing version of "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" turns up in the 1965 set. (It's from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, which was ending its Broadway run the week the trio treated the Denmark audience to it.) The other included classics that originated on the Great White Way are "My Funny Valentine" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." The latter is heard in both trio format and as a piano solo. Other numbers reappear, too, with a few incarnations each for the graceful Evans compositions "Time Remembered" and "Waltz for Debby," written for his young niece and known, too, from vocal versions by singers such as Tony Bennett, who recorded two memorable albums with the pianist.

Variety abounds in this bounty of elegant ballads (portraits of the ladies "Emily" and "Stella by Starlight" are rich), swingers, introspective explorations of melodies, and specialty pieces. It's interesting, too, to have one package that contrasts the solos (six numbers), the interaction, and energy when the star is joined by or various bassists and drummers, and then there's the sumptuous orchestral suite. The compact disc format comes as two discs with a booklet of 50+ pages that includes photos and essays about the musicians, including first-hand tales by super-talented bandmates heard in these recordings: drummer Alex Riel and bassist Eddie Gomez, both of whom are great to hear–and read.

What a great belated find are these live recordings from concerts and radio broadcasts. No longer buried Treasures, they shine.