Sound Advice Reviews
Something old, something new,
Here are four new releases informed by days of old. We start with something old: vintage songs from the pen and/or voice of theatre legend George M. Cohan. Then, new issues from two male singers on the same record label, sharing the same producer and a few musicians: Mark Winkler (with lyrics reflections on getting older) and Gary Brumburgh (revisiting his musical theatre days of old). And then there's Blue Train with Susie Blue and The Lonesome Fellas, but much of it feels more joyful than blue or lonesome.
GEORGE M. COHAN & VARIOUS ARTISTS
The epitome of a theatrical multi-tasker, legendary George M. Cohan (1878-1942) was a composer, lyricist, bookwriter, director, producer, actor, dancer, and singer who began as an entertainer with his family in vaudeville. George M. Cohan - Rare Performances is a collection of some of the supremely hummable songs he wrote (some sung by him, some by others), plus spoken material, including a scene from one of his plays, Dear Old Darling. The three words in that title can be borrowed as adjectives to describe the material on this historically important 26-track set that will set your toes a-tapping or a-marching and bring smiles.
Serving as anchors, the inescapable trademark numbers are here, with more than one version of each: the rousing wartime anthem "Over There" (various renditions sung by Cohan, Nora Bayes, and Enrico Caruso, whose version is in English and French!); "You're a Grand Old Flag" (including an early rendition unfurling its original lyric and title, "You're a Grand Old Rag"); "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy" (both introduced in the 1903 Broadway musical Little Johnny Jones). These inherent pep rallies still invigorate, and there's much more cheer to hear. A major star of yore is present with the likable Al Jolson recording of "That Haunting Melody." The dusted-off lesser-known things are well worth belatedly discovering and worth coming back to, such as the sturdy "When You Come Back" from John McCormack (the operatically inclined tenor, not the 1960s Speaker of the United States House of Representatives!) and the plucky "I Was Born in Virginia" by Ethel Levey, Cohan's first wife.
Cohan is heard in a spoken comment downplaying his abilities as a singer - but, semi-barking out the numbers, there is no shortage of vim, irrepressible personality, and charm to compensate for the vocal limits he navigates around. He could really "sell" things like his show biz adviso "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got a Band" and the concise thesis of philosophy and gratitude called "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living and That's All." His distinctive star presence is also evident in spoken material: his assertive remarks on a radio broadcast to set up a play excerpt; brief banter with Gertrude Lawrence; and a quip-filled longish speech at a function where he was the honoree. Elsewhere, he's appreciatively introduced as a man who writes songs "that are not only clever, but clean."
The title Rare Recordings is apt. Evidence of most of Cohan's own singing and many of his songs was heretofore scarce, since GMC eschewed recording (his vocal tracks are culled from radio appearances and his one recording session of 1911 that had been reissued only on now long out-of-print vinyl), and his many musicals came along before cast albums were a thing. Over the years, some audiences were introduced to Cohan, the man and the catalog, through biographical presentations, in order of appearance on film (Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney), TV (a program and subsequent record album with Mickey Rooney), and bio-musicals (Broadway's George M!) and several projects mounted by the man who curated this release, Cohan collector/expert Chip Deffaa. There's a treat from his go-to Cohanesque casting choice, Jon Peterson, with a perfectly spiffy "Yankee Doodle Boy." It's one of just two tracks in the rewarding proceedings that are latter-day recordings. The other finds the dapper Deffaa himself strutting his stuff, investing tender loving care and showbiz panache with Cohan's final composition, his suitable epitaph: "Life Is Like a Musical Comedy." I suppose an old school vaudeville like George would remind us that every audience-pleasing effort deserves an encore and, happily, the liner notes promise a follow-up with the tunesmith's works newly interpreted by artists of today, giving their regards to Broadway and showbiz bliss.
Youth may be wasted on the young, but the graying and groovy Mark WInkler, who's been recording since the 1980s, is tasting time but wasting no time or excess fuss in turning thoughtful attention to getting older. The singer/lyricist has said in interviews that he didn't realize for a while that a lot of the material he was culling for his 20th release had that theme. Its dozen tracks feature his collaborations with several different composers, two old Broadway classics, and "Don't Be Blue" by Michael Franks and John Guerin, a prescription for cheering up. A warmly empathetic thumbs-up to a getting-long-in-the-tooth musician comes via the title song of Late Bloomin' Jazzman. With atmospherically spot-on music and arrangement by Eli Brueggemann, it was inspired by attending a gig where musicians of contrasting ages were playing in the same band. In a more bittersweet page from personal experience, the wistful Winkler reflects on perspective gained since the death of his husband, Richard, in "In Another Way" (music and arrangement by Michele Brourman).
One of the originals is not a newcomer. It is the smoky, nostalgic piece called "When All the Lights in the Sign Worked" that was on a Winkler release in the 1990s and was interpolated in the score of the splendid musical Play It Cool (melody by Joe Pasquale). Speaking of show tunes, the album's unintentional "old" theme has some oldies, one that (unintentionally?) has the word "Old" in the title and another that happens to mention Methuselah. Finian's Rainbow's "Old Devil Moon," written many moons ago, is splashy and brisk here and it's got a lot of kick for a tune that's 75 years old (actually, a bit older since the melody was recycled from a number intended for a movie that was never made). Even more aged, but proving evergreen in sly appeal, is the Bible rebuttal Porgy and Bess "It Ain't Necessarily So." It percolates, but doesn't take the lyric as "gospel," changing the original's grammar-challenged "Don't have no faults" to "Forget your faults" and adding some extra words in the track's fade-out. This classic's composer, who died at age 38, is the subject for Winkler and David Lucky's artful piece that ponders "What If Gershwin Had Lived."
Older but wiser Winkler is an appealing persona for this easygoing, easy-to-like, unpretentious guy. With some self-reflection and self-deprecation, he realizes that he's now "Old Enough" to understand what he didn't "get" in his early career, like the meaning and emotion in a deeper standard song he'd been singing. "Marlena's Memories" is a poignant portrait of his true-life relationship with a friend dealing with Alzheimer's. Both of these feature melody, arrangement, and piano accompaniment by Jamieson Trotter, just one of the numerous strong musicians aboard (they vary from track to track, with the great guitarist Grant Geissman on all but one).
Once again guided by producer Barbara Brighton, Mark Winkler comes off as a hip guy with something thought-provoking to say. Late Bloomin' Jazzman never seems overly dour, cheeky or too bloomin' effortful.
A full plate of musical theatre offerings is in store for you on Full Circle as singer Gary Brumburgh comes back around to shows he was cast in around the country during the decades pre-dating his pivot to jazz. The numbers aren't necessarily the ones his character got to perform in the musicals, although one treasure trails back to getting to play Lieutenant Cable in a production of South Pacific with the great John Raitt starring. So he gets to dig into the ever-relevant lesson of the Cable solo "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" as well as the song sung to that character, "Happy Talk." And it's definitely a happy experience hearing these and others reconceived in creative, adventurous jazz arrangements that refresh but respect them.
Wisely, to ease into the style, the set opens with something that was written in the jazz genre: the jangly "Ev'rybody's Got to Be Somewhere" from Cy Coleman and David Zippel's score for City of Angels. On other numbers, Full Circle is often relaxed in tempo and attitude, but that does not lead to a zoning out and taking things less seriously. Instead, the taking-my-time M.O. suggests the stance that the material is worthy of exploration. Things do sometimes languish in Laidback Land when the decision on how to end a number opts to extend and embellish in a slow fade-out, rather than the more typical musical theatre dramatic climax, blackout, or "button" that invites applause. Sometimes the choice leads to a ruminating-like riffing on the melody or lyric with embellishments and variations. It's not so much self-indulgent as it might be a reluctance to exit stage right–that is, to have to let go of being immersed in the deliciousness of a beloved melody or lyric.
The most successful example of bringing increased affection and appreciation to something famous is the well-traveled "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma!. I've heard others make it more of a joyride by speeding it up, but Gary Brumburgh's path is to release the reins on the rig, allowing him freer phrasing to relish the images and make us take in each one. It makes the imagined glory of the vehicle and that American idyll even more romantic. Also sweet and dreamy is "Soon It's Gonna Rain" from The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. Dipping into the same writing team's score for Celebration, its carpe diem title song gets two treatments, and the collection also makes room for that musical's "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want" in a nicely nuanced dalliance in its emotions.
Stephen Sondheim's work is represented by two picks. Toning down the daffier aspect of "Love, I Hear" appropriate in context for a naif, it settles into a more matured and settled sensibility. Company's "Sorry - Grateful" comes off as sage, lived-in experience, with a kind of caution mixed with more serenity. Words of wisdom are always worth heeding, especially when they're the thoughtfully wrought words of Sondheim interpreted thoughtfully. The musical theatre scrapbook is completed with two more welcome items: Fiddler on the Roof's ballad "Far From the Home I Love" (sincere and pensive, lyric slightly adjusted for references to a man) and a lovely float through Cabaret's "Why Should I Wake Up?"
The eight ace musicians get much prominence and time, setting moods and creating tension and emotional counterpoints. The players include gentlemen who worked on Brumburgh's prior release, Moonlight, and Mark Winkler's new album (both being produced by Barbara Brighton): bassist Gabe Davis, drummer Christian Euman, and pianist/arranger Jamieson Trotter. It surprised me to hear the talented Trotter say, in a promotional video for Full Circle, that he wasn't previously familiar with any of the songs, not being a theatre guy. But I thought he would know at least some, if only because the Sondheim songs and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" were wonderfully recorded by another jazz pianist/arranger who released albums covering their scores–his father, Terry Trotter. Did the apple fall that far from the tree? Well, you could have fooled me; the younger Trotter's trips through these melodies sound like he knew them inside and out. I hope he was grateful (not sorry) to belatedly discover them as much as he and Gary Brumburgh and company let those of us who've known them inside out enjoy these characters again–in attractively designed new clothing.
SUSIE BLUE AND THE LONESOME FELLAS
All aboard the Blue Train's musical time machine with fun, flavorful stops in the lands of rock, rockabilly, country, rhythm, and blues. The band calling itself Susie Blue and The Lonesome Fellas has a sweet 16-song set that provides a vacation from more emotionally demanding material. The lead singer is not really named Susie or Blue; she is the rather chameleon-like Solitaire Miles whose first albums were under that name and featured standards from the Great American Songbook, including a few show tunes. But nowadays she's digging convincingly into sounds that are decidedly more honkytonk and hootenanny. Done with panache, the endeavor projects a comfort level with all genres and a mission to entertain. Backing vocalists and the vigorous nine instrumentalists make this very much a team effort. Howard Levy on harmonica, Eric Schneider on sax, and Neal Alger on guitar make particularly strong contributions to the party and punch.
While repertoire references cads and casualties of romance, not too many selections on Blue Train are deeply blue or lonesome. A few, such as the driving title song, do at least flirt with giving in to sorrow, albeit with stoicism usually persistently present. In the train trip to leave town and lover behind, "One Way Ticket to the Blues," the stiff upper lip trembles a bit in facing the itinerary ("Gonna take a trip to Lonesome Town/ Gonna stay at Heartbreak Hotel").
But, more often, Miss Miles takes on the perspective of strength and resilience, and shows plenty of sass, as someone with frequent-flyer miles in romantic journeys. Meet a gal who has taken enough guff and ain't quick to cry. Laying down the law, on the subjects of "Love and Kisses," she brashly tells her erstwhile paramour, "I don't want 'em... 'til you show me you'll be true." Her "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight," which others have presented dripping with melancholy and longing, has an air of patience as she concludes "Each moment, though we're apart, you're never out of my heart/ But I'd rather be lonely, and wait for you only." But a few things show more vulnerability, like "Hummin' to Myself" (a Sammy Fain/ Herb Magidson/ Monty Siegel item from 1932). Agreeably, when straying into languid territory, the singer reveals a vocal quality that suggests what Billie Holiday would have sounded like if she had made a real country & western album.
Other highlights are a duet with guest vocalist Dominic Halpin on a lovey-dovey "Forever Yours" and a searing go-to-hell farewell with a hopping mad Miles on Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme (lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans).
Blue Train's tracks make for a colorful trajectory.