Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome....
(Singers' In-Person Recordings)
Reviews by Rob Lester

During these months of padlocked music venues, when live performances feel like an endangered species, let's take a little time and comfort in considering audio recordings that capture performers interacting with their audiences and musicians. With these evenings being otherwise ephemeral, such documentation provides souvenirs all the more valued when the artist has passed on. And that's the case with a couple of the folks heard below: one very recently and one (thanks to a reissued offering) from years ago.


Broadway Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

The posthumously released recording of Nick Cordero's April 2019 debut nightclub act remains a party frozen in time and rhyme, with no sense of an impending wake. No one would have imagined that its site, Feinstein's/54 Below in midtown Manhattan, would have to shut its doors 11 months later because of the dangers of a pandemic or that the ebullient 40-year-old singing actor would be struck down by the disease. You don't need a super-strong streak of theatricality to be struck by the unintended extra poignancy that comes now with the title and message of "Live Your Life," the appealing self-penned choice that served as the parting thought (aka cabaret encore). It's been adopted as the name of the attention-grabbing recording of pop material plus four songs representing Cordero's credits.

Frolicksome fun feels high on the priority list and chatty, down-to-earth patter centers on his parents' romance and an upbeat chronicling of the ups and downs of his road to recognition in theatre. With an act that opens with a series of celebrational, strutting, highly rhythmic numbers, much is decidedly energy-infused, with an audience enthused in its cheers and applause. Live Your Life adds even more glee and glibness with guest singers, including former Cordero co-stars reuniting/reigniting theatre glories from his resume, such as Sara Chase burning up "Hot Toxic Love" (The Toxic Avenger) and the welcoming of Drew Gehling plus Zach Braff, the male trio seemingly goofing on the originally earnest seriousness of the Waitress ballad "You Matter to Me."

After the feel-good, good-to-dance-to ambiance is absorbed, what lingers and will last is the evidence of gratitude felt by the gregarious guy, all effectively radiating sincerity. After recounting the tale of how he came to be cast in the musical version of A Bronx Tale, he revisits a fully invested, lovely and loving "One of the Great Ones," bringing nuance to the Alan Menken/ Glenn Slater gem. Also imbued with unabashed tenderness are three other compelling Cordero renditions: "The Mother" (Brandi Carlile), to mark the then-imminent birth of his first child; the humble nod to the humanity and work ethic of "The Men Who Drive Me Places" (Benjamin Rector); and warm appreciation for the vivid visual evidence of "What a Wonderful World."

The physical CD includes show photos and remembrances from wife Amanda Kloots, Chazz Palminteri, and Michael J. Moritz Jr., who directed, musical directed, played keyboard in the band with four others, and sings harmonies, as do three others.

As with other careers cut tragically short, we can't help but wonder what might have been—but that makes us grateful to be able to focus on the permanence of recordings of aural snapshots of moments.


CD | mp3 | iTunes

As I sit back and drink in the recording of singer Tania Grubbs and her four accompanying musicians performing Live at Maureen's Jazz Cellar and imagine myself among that Nyack, New York nightclub's patrons sipping their drinks, it occurs to me that the voice is a particularly liquid one. Smooth, elegant, and with long-lined legato phrases, it seems to effortlessly flow. This allows a hypnotic haze, heightened by a set that favors sensitive songs with poetic lyrics that present delicate images of birds, flowers, weather, and the sky. We hear no spoken comments that would break the spell (thanks and acknowledging the players by name is here just at the end). The straightforward parade of a dozen songs, all explored at length (often stretching well beyond clocking five minutes, including generous-length instrumental breaks), is only diverted from once, via a tiny tangent—noting a two-note sequence that brings to mind something from The Wizard of Oz and that leads to a quick burst of cute quotes. Some fans of live recordings may miss the opportunity to get a real sense of an otherwise unfamiliar performer's personality, mood du jour, and her reasons for choosing material that in-person appearances can reveal. However, the emotion and conviction with which some lyrics are spooled out lets us believe Tania Grubbs believes them.

Many in-person engagements prioritize an agenda of the artist as graciously greeting host, determined to lift spirits, reaching out to bring attendees in, even in an in-your-face way. No "welcome wagon" rolls in here to sell cheer. Rather, we may feel like emotional voyeurs glimpsing glimmers of someone's private, deeply held philosophies and observations. We have to choose to enter her world and accept her vision. Come in—it's a nice place to visit. That is, things are sublimely gossamer when, with bliss and humanitarian goals, "Peace" and "Love" reign in songs by those titles, written respectively by Horace Silver and Joni Mitchell (whose lyric springs forth from Corinthians in the Bible). We also linger in utopian majesty with "The Peacocks," alternately called "A Timeless Place." Oh, to have a never-expiring visa to such gentle, beauty-soaked worlds!

While ethereal ambiance with honeyed vocals may be the prized tickets on this journey of jazz, the ride is not all lined in satin. There is some despair present (albeit restrained) in a few numbers which rue broken or troubled romances. "Autumn," a lonely lament for all seasons introduced in Maltby & Shire's early-career musicalization of Cyrano de Bergerac, engenders sympathy. There's brave struggle nicely delineated in Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," and the wistful Stephen Sondheim's sea of similes, "I Remember," the thoughts of someone stuck indoors and missing the natural world's wonders in carefree times, here caught in a pre-pandemic live performance, feels chillingly relevant. But sorrow more often feels held in check and at arm's length, and Emily Dickinson's poem, "Hope Is a Thing with Feathers," allows for a soft landing in the battle of optimism and pesky pessimism, especially as set to graceful music composed by the singer herself.

Jazz chops are most on display in an outlier out-and-out romp on "Ornithology," the flashy, fleet ode to legendary musician Charlie Parker, employing his own melody. It bobs and weaves with punched panache shown by all parties. Throughout the 12 tracks, accompaniment and instrumental interludes can be assertively muscular, especially in contrast to—or balancing—the delicacy of most of the singing and subject matter. It's adept and often engaging on its own terms. Arguably, a lighter and less dense touch might have further enhanced some selections' more gossamer potential.

The fine foursome making up the band at Maureen's are the at-home pianist David Budway (the venue is named for his late sister), guitarist Ron Affif, drummer James Johnson III, and bassist (and husband) Jeff Grubbs. This Mr. and Mrs. are a couple based in Pittsburgh who've posted online single-song videos and hour-long concerts from their porch while regular music sites are closed. They've been drawing attention to other local businesses and charities there. Their bass-and-vocal duets there are impressive in terms of less-is-moreness and control, and it seems the shutdown can't shut down their talent or enthusiasm for sharing it.


Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project
CD | mp3 | iTunes | Vinyl LP

Time, that old devil so correctly accused of flying (swiftly), can also fly in the face of reason when it comes to long-ago recorded concerts and their then already-long-lived songs feeling astonishingly timeless when reissued and reconsidered. It feels like regeneration for a new generation to discover or a belated catch-up for those who were potential but untapped audiences back in the day. Step into the captivating Streetsongs' time machine and the past feels vibrantly present—and the show is crackling with energy exchanged between artist and responsive audience. The calendars that mark history insist on persuading us to acknowledge that indeed the celebrated actress Geraldine Fitzgerald passed away 15 years ago, and that it's been just about four decades since the original release of her informative and entertaining strutting through Streetsongs. As years unstoppingly pass, what could pass for nostalgia morphs into something akin to a guided tour through the museum of ancient history. Not that there's anything wrong with that! In fact, it can be more illuminating and emotional a flashback, perspective providing poignancy.

Now that we're ready to settle into a second paragraph, post-preliminary praise, I suppose we should get around to the disclaimer about the Fitzgerald singing voice as heard on the live recording of this theatre piece. She wasn't gifted with a natural or mellifluous sound, ease of production, or assuredness; pitch placement for melodic leaps and sustained notes could sometimes prove elusive, but not always predictably so). Those who care less about polished, pretty, round tones and more about a performer "getting" a lyric and getting inside its story know that there can be much communicated despite limited chops or what used to charitably be called "personality vocals," hoping the fame and image of movie celebrities or TV stars and their characters would lead to record sales. Geraldine Fitzgerald, although starting well into adulthood, worked hard, got expert vocal training, doggedly determined to her best, despite her shortcomings. Considerable compensations make for a rewarding listening experience, forgiving faults and flaws of this live performance before a large Ohio audience: the acting skills, effusive personality, palpable enthusiasm and affection for the material (some of which aligns with the Irish roots she shares), and quite a lot of charm.

The included spoken backstories putting songs in fond historical perspective put the spotlight on the material, not the singing of it. And that's an easier focus to keep if it's a lesser-known quaint curiosity like the traditional "Carrick Fergus," a funny treat called "The Pig Song," or the delightfully playful "Phil the Fluter's Ball" (the one number not included on the original release). Familiar evergreens like "Swanee," "When You're Smiling (the Whole World Smiles with You)," "Smile," and "Danny Boy" come pre-cast with bigger and more numerous shadows (for starters, Judy Garland memorably sang 'em all), but the intrepid entertainer finds her way to make them all resonate. For example, her take on "Danny Boy" is validated and illuminated by the spoken set-up, and the added bonus track, an interview with the lady and album co-producer Bill Rudman wherein she talks, among other things, about the specific motivations she outlined for herself for her character's situation and relationship—an actor's mini-masterclass. The numbers about smiling are parts of a five-song set piece in which she portrays a bossy sing-along leader for those gathered for shelter during a World War II bombing raid. The audience, harangued into chiming in, eventually does; and some supportive vocalizing also pipes up, and in other spots, presumably by the three-piece band.

Distinctive and endearing, Geraldine Fitzgerald fit the bill to serve as guide for this survey of ditties and dramas.

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