Roger Crane the Song Scout: Great Ballads

July 2, 2015

Roger Crane the Song Scout

By Roger Crane

 

Fellow Music Fans….

I’m an adagio-kind of guy. I love ballads – jazz ballads, country ballads, Latin ballads, any ballads. In particular I seek the great recordings, meaning the 3-way combination of…

1 – Fine Song 2 – Fine Singer 3 – Fine Arrangement/Accompaniment

For example, you can find many such “triple threats” on the various Sinatra recordings from his Capitol years. Here is a beautiful song from those recordings which I often return to.

THE SONG – “Lonely Town”- By Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, from the 1944 Broadway show, On the Town

THE SINGER – Frank Sinatra

THE ARRANGER/CONDUCTOR – Gordon Jenkins

COMMENTS

I am not alone in my affection for this recording. Sinatra, in a 1984 interview chose it as “the best record I ever made.” One of the key components of Jenkins’ chart is his use of a haunting French horn introduction by Vince DeRosa (link below). I enjoy much of Bernstein’s music but not a particular fan of some songs (e.g., finding “Somewhere” boring with its pretentious Puccini high notes).

But “Lonely Town” (along with “Lucky to Be Me” and “Some Other Time” from the same show) is a superior song. It is a favorite of jazz groups, probably due to its subtle, constant modulation from minor to major and its unusual chords. Vocally, it is demanding, requiring a lot of voice and exact intonation. Maybe that is why the mediocre singers leave it alone. Sinatra is up to it and sings with vulnerability and is at ease with the slow tempo.

“Lonely Town” is on Sinatra’s 1957 Capitol recording titled Where Are You, which was his first recording in stereo. It is perfection or, if that is too reverent, let’s say “perfectly wonderful.”

And here’s another version of the song in a lovely piano rendition by Bill Charlap and his trio
(bassist, Peter Washington, drummer Kenny Washington).

Best to you all.  Comments welcomed.

Roger, the Benevolent Guardian of Song  (and an eager vendor of opinions)


Record Rack: Halie Loren and The Monks of Norcia

June 30, 2015

Brian Arsenault

by Brian Arsenault

Soul Music
Secular and Sacred or
Sacred and Sublime

Halie Loren: Butterfly Blue (Justin Time Records)

Halie Loren glides in flight on her new album Butterfly Blue from newly composed musical poetry to the songbook of American music on the wings of a deepening and darkening musical sense, an extraordinary accompanying group of musicians and a voice to wring out all the passion, pain and promise of living. We are captives of the cages of our lives but the spirit still soars.

The new:

“Blue” by sterling guitarist Daniel Gallo, “blue like the deep sea . . . blue like a moonbeam.”     Delicate without sentimentality, painful but not maudlin. Gallo’s guitar masterfully weaves under Loren’s voice.

“Butterfly” by Loren herself, wherein I think Otis Redding held her hand. I thought he might harmonize on the chorus and perhaps he does somewhere else.

“After the Fall” again by Gallo. Paper Moons hang, funny Valentines bring a tear. Songs of life remembered, a soundtrack of a life.

The classic:
Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”, sung mostly in French and the more romantic for that. Loren’s voice haunts, evokes all the lyrical romance of the tune. Matt Treder’s piano and David Larsen’s clarinet so perfect in creating the cafe sensibility in play. Mark Schneider’s bass simply perfect.
“Stormy Weather” touches the very center of that blues piece, slowed down achingly beyond any version you’ve heard before.

Billie Holiday would approve. Ellington could have arranged.
And a bit later, back to back to back, my favorite moments on the album.
A playful yet deeply felt “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with Irving Berlin’s wonderful, hopeful lyrics. Again Larsen, this time on baritone sax, would be worth the trip just on his own. And Halie’s phrasing, I think she knew Berlin in an earlier life.

She has also somehow magically visited Cole Porter. “Under My Skin” is launched by a fine instrumental intro with Treder and Schneider leading the way before Loren’s breathy vocal comes in with just a touch of Peggy Lee. All that Porter longing, the pain/pleasure of being caught with no release and maybe none wanted.

On the Loren penned “Danger in Loving You,” heard in a performance version on an earlier recording, she writes to the level of Gershwin and Porter. There’s no release here either. There is of course danger to the heart.

Halie Loren is generally termed a jazz singer and that’s true if you acknowledge that blues underlies jazz, which of course it does. Then there is soul, she has that too. Ask me to walk into a club and conjure up my singer of choice and it would be Halie Loren.

To bend a lyric in “Blue” just a bit, I love her like Sunday.

* * * * * * * *

The Monks of Norcia Benedicta: Marian chant from Norcia (De Montfort Music)

I’ve never been interested in meditation. That’s why I didn’t care that much for “Peace,” the last cut on Halie’s album. I’m generally annoyed with all that find your center, peace out stuff. I’m entitled to my tension and my anger. Wars aren’t won and great art isn’t created by navel gazing.

Monks of Norcea Benedictus CDYet if I was going to meditate it would be to the immortal Gregorian chants of these monks in Umbria (Italy). In fact, while I had it on I began to feel more peaceful, more in tune, as they say. That annoyed me so much that I almost turned it off, but the beauty of the prayerfulness held me. Many I know who still attend Mass say that changing from Latin to English diminished its spiritual power. I can now say I think they are right.

I’m made to understand that the monks are killing (forgive the word) on the classical charts, even outselling some pop stars, and I can see why. Benedicta, largely in tribute to Mary (I don’t need to say which Mary do I), seems to echo down the ages from a time of believing, we’re talking 10th century here. Perhaps that is part of the attraction in this age of unbelieving, at least in the modern West.

Wherever you fall on or off the spiritual scale, beauty so rich and full is not to be discounted. Ever. The Monks of Norcia are also renowned for their craft brews, a spirit also not to be discounted.


CD Review: Van Morrison’s “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue”

March 28, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

I started getting happy listening to Van Morrison’s Duets:Re-Working the Catalog” (RCA) about the time George Benson was singing as smooth as he always is on “Higher Than The World” and I was downright grinning through Van and Georgie Fame’s “Get On With The Show.” Pure 50s jukebox. Drifters, Coasters, gratuitous but funny “cha cha cha” at the end. Just shoulda kept it to two minute twenty second hit single radio time of the era.

You can while away a weekend morning with the album and feel better about things. Be advised, though, you will take a chunk out of that morning. There are 16 tracks. None are bad but some work better than others.

On “Streets of Arklow,” Mick Hucknall (Simply Red anyone) and Van are a perfect matched set of singers on one of the album’s moodiest songs. “Souls are clear. . .”   Mark Knopfler’s voice was made for “Irish Heartbeat” nearly as much as Van’s own. As with Hucknall, their voices flow over each other seamlessly.  Perhaps a bit more Knopfler guitar.

And Van’s good not just with the boys but with the girls too.

Raspy Mavis Staples is the perfect offset to Morrison’s own sharp edges on “If I Ever Needed Someone.”

Daughter Shana Morrison achieves with Dad a hymn of the Church of Music, the only church left to so many, on “Rough God Goes Riding.”

The musicianship throughout is never just background. Of special note are the Whites, Chris on tenor sax and Alistair on trombone. As far as I know, they are not related except by excellence. One example, on “The Eternal Kansas City,” the Whites are at the center of a neat little Kansas City bebop instrumental break.

You can almost hear Neal Cassady yelling, “that’s it, that’s it” on a stop On The Road.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

When I was disappointed it was only a matter of personal taste, not artistry by Morrison and the incredible talent he assembled.

On “Carrying A Torch”, Clare Teal’s voice is literally like the tealing of the purest bell ever cast. I don’t want Van joining in because I don’t want anything to dilute Clare’s singing. But, hey, it’s his album.

More often, though, you may be struck by the fact that you like the original version of songs better. As Kath said, she likes Van so much she wasn’t sure she always likes him sharing favorite songs. But, hey, it’s his album.

I also found that the album slogged along a bit with ballad after ballad before “Get On With The Show” and the late injection of faster pace with Van and Michael Buble on “Real Real Gone.” I may not quite get Buble but the man can sing and who doesn’t love a song with references to Sam Cooke, Wicked Wilson Pickett and James Brown.

Which brings me to Taj, closing the album with Van on “How Can A Poor Boy?” Taj Mahal is so true to the purity of the blues that he seems to step out from an earlier time. I wondered if Van in closing the album with such a blues rendition of one of his signature songs was telling us that under it all, there is always the blues.

Rings true.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


Brian Arsenault Takes On GLADSHOT’s CD, “Maxwell’s Cool Demon”

March 7, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

So Kath and I had to go all the way to St. Martin and back in time to find a New York band of distinction, GLADSHOT. We were walking into the hotel and Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill, the band’s two principals, were walking out of their room. In that friendlier way people are on vacation, we all said hello. That eventually led to us becoming vacation pals and their mailing us Maxwell’s Cool Demon, released least summer.

I missed the album then. I miss a lot early on because there’s so much new stuff and I’m too lazy to listen to it all but that’s no reason for you to go on missing this magically melodic album if you have so far.

There are terrific harmonies, hints of the Beatles, and rhythms, a bit of Stones, throughout. Yet it’s the melodic patterns, sometimes CSN and sometimes early Zombies but always their own, that take you deep into the album. That is never more apparent than on my favorite “Dog On A Skylight.”

Debbie leads off vocally and Mike harmonizes and then leads and more harmony and the warm melody swirls around you like the Caribbean Sea even as the lyrics bite on the nature of perception and despair mingled with hope.

Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill

Despair mingles with hope more directly and sardonically on “We Live in America.” “Build me a dream with no trace of fear” sings Mike. How appropriate to our times when I’m not sure what to be afraid of: North Korean missiles, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, ISIS insanity spreading everywhere, or pop charts topped by Beyonce and boy bands.

Pop music phobia gets treatment in “Corp Safe” where the music industry “manage(s) the filter.” In fact the corporate pop world as a whole provides a “delicate balance of distraction and fear.” Watched any “Housewives” of anywhere lately? Be afraid, be very afraid.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when it seemed the artists had managed to grab control of music and records and we wouldn’t have to suffer through industry created Bobby Vee “Rubber Ball” pop anymore. That was another ’60s-’70s dream of course. The empire struck back early and often to have us “Call Me Maybe.”

Still the rise of digital decried by many, including myself, created a world in which recordings can be made without the big labels. And sometimes still we get a GLADSHOT; although great bands can toil in relative obscurity without the “Good Morning America/People Magazine” hype machine where today we revel in Kim K becoming a blond.

Maxwell isn’t all anger, though, as the album is too poetic to lock into a single emotion. I like so much Mike and Debbie singing together on “Steady Light” as they each “wait for your steady light . . . (that) doesn’t ever fade away.”

And the blue and yellow “Star Tatoo” has a kind of “Strawberry Fields” imagery and Lennonesque irony. I am pretty sure this would have been Lennon’s favorite song on the album.

By the way, I notice they’ve been kicking The Walrus pretty hard lately. Can Lennon really have been great if he had human flaws, some of them pretty damn big, can he? Guess there have never been great artists who were something less than perfect people. Damn.

Anyway, GLADSHOT is a fine band and Maxwell’s Cool Demon will bring you in, sit you down, separate hot from cold and weave its spell. Who hasn’t wanted to have “Fun With Hydrangeas.”

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


CD Review: Vanilla Fudge “Spirit of ’67”

February 18, 2015

by Brian Arsenault

(Done as a letter to my college roommate.)

Dear Flashman,
You remember in 1967 when we were living in that basement room and the two lunatics in the room above us had those three foot high speakers so hip at the time and they played only two songs? The one they played the most of course was “In A Gadda Da Vida” but that’s another story. The other one was Vanilla Fudge’s overpowered remake of the Supreme’s hit “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Who woulda thunk it but somehow it worked, works.

So a half century goes flashing by (nice way I worked “flash” in, huh) and here’s Vanilla Fudge, or three quarters of the original anyway, back with Spirit of ’67 (Cleopatra), a whole bunch of songs from that year . Do I remember it wrong or did we spend most of our time listening to music then? It was time well spent.

I remember for sure that we weren’t sure about Vanilla Fudge, who kinda symbolized when the beer crowd took over loud rock from the acid eaters. It was bound to happen in the Land of Budweiser but unsettling nonetheless.

Started the inevitable march toward great songs by The Who becoming theme music for shitty detective shows and such.

On this album, though, brave is the word I keep coming around to. Brave to take signature songs of the era and make music of your own with them. I mean there’s millions of us boomer minds that can still hear the deep Hollywood jungle drumbeat of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and have “miles and miles and miles” echoing somewhere in the recesses. How could you improve on that Townshend song?

Well, you can’t and for me it might be one of the least successful songs on the album. Still it’s very good with a Fudge pounding drums (Carmine Appice is a seminal American rock drummer, n’est pas?) quality that’s all over the album. You’re not surprised, I know.
And it gets better.

Vanilla Fudge: Carmine Appice, Vince Martell and Mark Stein with Pete Bremy on bass/vocals.

Early on in the album the Fudge are showing that after all these years they are a very solid, tight band. They’ve heard Cocker’s version of “The Letter” which turned a bland pop record into a screaming aching for love ode. Fudge’s version shifts from a piano rich bluesy tone to a Mad Dogs and Englishmen frantic pace.

And it gets better.

The guitar based soul of the Smokey Robinson classic “Tracks of My Tears” is for me the surprise success of the album. The yearning, broken-hearted mood of the song comes through and they pull off the harmonies and everything. Just terrific.

The Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” starts as a lounge song, a good lounge song, like when everybody stops talking over drinks all at once to listen, as if on cue. But soon they need to pound those drums and lean heavy on the organ and guitar riffs. Heck, it’s who they are. But after each chorus they sneakily take you back to the lounge.

Really, you probably don’t buy CD’s any more and listen to Pandora (I thought that was jewelry) or get individual tracks from one of those services. Whatever and however, get “Ruby Tuesday.” It’s special.

The track on the album that sounds most like their long ago megahit “Hangin’ On” is their version of “I’m a Believer.” Big orchestral intro, big, big sound throughout which makes you almost forget it was a Monkees hit. Almost. The Monkees were the only band I wanted to kill in that era, remember? Three Dog Night came later.

“Gimme Some Lovin'” Great when done by Spencer Davis. Great here and a little more r&b.
Can’t say much about “Break On Through.” I never could fully appreciate Morrison’s ‘Ain’t I sexy’ angst. “Whiter Shade of Pale” probably comes closest to being a true cover of the Procol Harum original.

“For What It’s Worth” pays tribute to Buffalo Springfield’s original with a neat military drum-beat opening. It’s more atmospheric, more threatening in a darker way, I think. But the times they may be a little darker.

The album closes with the only original song written by lead singer/organist/pianist Mark Stein — “Let’s Pray for Peace.” Peace was hard to find in 1967 but we believed in it.

Remember? Peace is still hard to find but I’m not sure many believe any more. Maybe we’re just tired.

Hope to see you again in this life.

Your friend,

Brian


Brian Arsenault Takes On, or rather, Treasures: Peggy Lee

October 12, 2014

 By Brian Arsenault

Elton John had Marilyn Monroe but I had Peggy Lee. Miss Peggy Lee, pardon. No, I didn’t write a song for her but she did a song for me. Not really for me but maybe . . .

Peggy Lee at mic gesturesI was 11 or 12 when I first heard “Fever” in 1959 and it gave me a whole new, shall I say, feeling about girls. I was beginning to notice they were different in more things than hair and giggles but “Fever” was a revelation, even if I wasn’t quite sure yet what was being revealed.

As Don Heckman has written, she had so many strengths as a singer: deep sensuality, phrasing at a level only achieved by a handful of greats like Francis Albert and Mr. Bennett, and also like them, the ability to find the emotional center of the song.

An example of another artist finding the emotional center of a song: I was only recently reminded that Sinatra didn’t sing “Luck Be a Lady” in the film version of Guys and Dolls even though he was in it. (So was Brando, sheesh) Yet the song became a signature for Frank who showed it wasn’t really about shooting craps but seeking love. He found the center.

Peggy made “Fever” her own even though a guy named Little Willie John had an r&b hit with it that even crossed over to the pop charts. Still it’s like it was written for her. The song’s been recorded by who knows how many since Peggy, by performers as varied as Madonna and Beyonce, even Elvis. But does anyone doubt its Peg’s song.

Backed by just drum and bass, she just kills it with that deep voice you might have wished your girlfried had, with her funny fake Shakesperean take on the Romeo and Juliet verse, with a restrained eroticism that is almost palpable.

Miss Peggy Lee was singing professionally as an early teen. She fled a wicked stepmother and started by singing on a radio station literally for food. By 17 she was established as a radio singer. By 20 she was fronting the Benny Goodman band. At 21, she wrote “What More Can a Woman Do?” recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

If I put exclamation points at the end of each sentence in the previous paragraph it would not have been misplaced punctuation. And I almost never use exclamation points. She was just getting started, one of the few survivors of the big band era whose career flourished into the 1950s and 60s and beyond.
Her early 60s appearance at the Basin Street East, mercifully preserved on a great album, just dazzles with its array of songs: “Day In -Day Out,” “The Second Time Around,” “Moments Like This,” “Them There Eyes,” and of course “Fever.” Hear her versions on the album and you don’t need any others. Consider also the limitations of live recordings, any recordings, in 1961 compared to today’s digital, if rather frozen, age.

If you can get a vinyl copy you will know why. On the cover, Peggy smiles to the side, the dress low on her shoulders, an earring dangles. Simply dazzling. And then you listen and dazzling isn’t enough to say.
As an aside, I also love the message on the back of the album below the liner notes:
“This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on Monophonic and Stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. (Italics mine).” Damn right.

Her gifts were enormous. She was a songwriter for the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp, a cartoon feature done with a loveliness unknown today. She also did four of the voices, from the lovely Lady to those nasty Siamese cats. I have never been able to warm up to a Siamese since and I kinda like cats.

Peggy also wrote songs with luminaries like Duke Ellington. She wrote TV scripts. She hosted variety shows. She acted in movies. She wrote poetry.

Her last big hit was in 1970 with “Is That All There Is?” Could there possibly be another hit song ever with lyrics taken from a Thomas Mann story? The band on the song was conducted by Randy Newman. Anyone else’s singing career span from Goodman to Newman?

She was in great demand right into the 1980s when failing health finally took its toll. She’d had a near fatal fall in Vegas some years before and came near death again with heart disease and surgery.
Yet she carried on into the 90s when she even performed a few times in a wheelchair. Now that could break your heart, eh?

Miss Peggy Lee died in 2002 having risen above enormous life challenges and changes in popular music tastes over so many decades. But if she’d only ever done “Fever” she’d be great to me.


CD Review of the Day: Teka’s “So Many Stars”

April 16, 2014

Teka

So Many Stars (Blue in Green Productions)

By Brian Arsenault

I think my biggest miss of 2013 may have been not hearing Teka’s marvelous bossa nova infused album So Many Stars. If you missed it too, here’s another chance. Especially for those of us in northern climes in this cold, cold endless winter.

Teka

Teka

Bossa nova almost always warms with its calls to romance and dance. In a harsh world it shows that the finer tender emotions are still possible. So there really is some place other than LA it’s warm this March. Really. And it may be the heart.

Good example, Teka and her teen daughter Luana Psaros provide two slightly different shades of sunlight on water in Aguas de Marco (Waters of March). Luana sounds like a younger skylark, not a lesser one, on this achingly alluring duet.

The album’s title song is also its message. So many stars, so many dreams. Taken as a whole, the album is rather dreamlike and it is a sweet dream.

For one reason, a different band member is featured in combination with Teka’s voice on nearly every song:
Randy Tico’s bass on “So Many Stars,” Doug Webb’s sax on “You Stepped Out of Dream” and “April Child”, Ruben Martinez bass flute on “April Child,” Ian Bernard’s piano on “Skylark.” More. All first rate.

Teka is a fine guitarist in her own right as amply demonstrated on “Bluesette.”

Teka

Teka

“Skylark” is one of the highlights of the album and one of the few non-bossa nova styled songs. Rather it is a wonderful slow jazz arrangement of the great Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael tune.

The Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” closes the album with Teka teaming again with Luana for a light hearted take. Smiles all around. Chuckles at the end.   For most of the time, though, we are in the world of Mendes and Jobim and, as noted, it is a warm world of dancing in the dark and counting stars.

Teka has a summer evening breeze quality to her voice always. She is as smoooooooooooth as bossa nova can be and that is very smooth indeed.

Surprises on the album? Maybe one. Her choice to include Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” lyrics by Ogden Nash. The central lyric of the song, though, fits the mold: “Speak low when you speak of love” for fear it might disappear.

There is a longing in bossa nova as well as a sweetness.  Teka sings in both English and Portuguese on the album but it is the Portuguese that best brings us the poetry of the music. Even if you don’t speak the language.

The pacing is where American audiences have their biggest problem. Bossa nova after a burst of popularity in the States in the 60s has been largely relegated to secondary status except among aficionados and Brazilian and other Latin communities.

Part of its charm is a pace that is never fast, never hurried and Norteamericanos sometimes need things hot and fast, not warm and romantic.

Still, we are open to “so many dreams,” aren’t we?

Teka and her New Bossa Trio perform at The Gardenia in Hollywood on Wednesday Ap[ril 30.  The Gardenia is at 7066 Santa Monica Blvd.  The phone number is (323) 467-7444.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 250 other followers