Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

CDs by Solo Singers:
Stacy's Stranger ... , Sylvia's Subject ... , and Sari
Reviews by Rob Lester

This column, scheduled to be published on Friday the 13th, finds us anything but unlucky with three CDs by female vocalists that are quite pleasing to the ear and all-around successful in creating moods. Stacy Sullivan and Sylvia McNair have new work on the Harbinger Records label, while Sari Kessler's is a self-released debut.

STACY SULLIVAN
STRANGER IN A DREAM

WITH JON WEBER (PIANO)
Harbinger Records

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow ... " intones Stacy Sullivan with a surprisingly bittersweet air, suggesting more complex emotions than the Nature-admiring cowpoke extolling the view in that first line heard in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!. Whether it's this particular moment of settling into an unsettling take on that proclamation "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" or the vaguely recalled "Stranger in a Dream," in her new album's title song, there's a kind of lingering haze hanging over much of the proceedings. It's not necessarily bright or golden, nut more muted and amorphous. The first several tracks maintain a mesmerizing mist of languid singing, Jon Weber's piano (with several purely instrumental tracks that are jewels) and arrangements encouraging a time-stands-still simplicity. Ornamentation or a quickened pulse would seem anathema to the moody mystique in a set that begins with the raw, resigned fatalism of Stephen Sondheim's Passion confessional, "Loving You."

Artfully working in tandem to sustain the slowly floating cloud of suspended animation, songstress and keyboardist are co-hypnotists melting together "In the Days of Our Love" as listeners surrender to the spell. This sustaining of a low-flame simmering brew—whether sorrowful or sultry—is a setting they can claim as a coup. Others trying the approach might risk dulling our senses with their hushed pillows of sound, where little silences and gauzy connective tissue are not taboo traps, but assets.

If the singer sounds weighed down or slowed down, the actress in her convinces the listener that it's the overpowering weight of emotion as expressed in the lyric: "How my love song gently cries for the tenderness within your eyes," all serving, with much elegant anticipation, as a "Prelude to a Kiss." The graceful lines of this Duke Ellington melody rise and fall and rise to the task of the matching lyric's analogy of "a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch." A far more lively medley of Ellington classic swingers shows the rhythmic dexterity of Sullivan and Weber. If you know the past work or reputation of these artists, you already knew they had more colors waiting to be shown. Welcome briskness arrives with a zippy take on the classic "Lullaby of Birdland" as a pick-me-up.

The album is in loving tribute to the late jazz pianist/composer Marian McPartland and her long-running radio program. The wizard-like Weber, fluent and vastly knowledgeable when it comes to many musical languages, got to know the gracious lady and her work, and quite ably substituted for her as on-air host of "Piano Jazz." As delineated in the informative and illuminating liner notes by David Hajdu, the selections have connections to specific moments or milestones of Miss McPartland's musical chapters and radio shows.

Included are generous samplings of the honoree's gifts as a composer. Her array of lyricist partners whose work is represented here include Johnny Mercer ("Twilight World," a delicate item handled with great care), Peggy Lee (the singer/writer around whom Miss Sullivan built her award-winning tribute show, the sample being that liquid-like "In the Days of Our Love" mentioned above), Irving Caesar (the near-ethereal title song, a far cry from his zingier, brasher No, No, Nanette), and the attractively done "Castles in the Sand" with Walter Marks.

Like the lady herself, and her playing, the instrumentals are not easily categorized, but show pensive engagement and warm sentiment rather than corniness or anything pat. Weber carries the mantle and lovingly, deftly makes a convincing case for her place in the pantheon. Indeed, he is a kindred spirit, too, for the McPartland who didn't play to the spotlight, but diligently went about the business of the work, knew and relished repertoire and history, glowed as soloist or accompanist, and after an accomplished on-air collaboration would typically enthuse "Oh, that was fun!"

Wisely included, too, is a sample of a trademark of the radio show, McPartland improvising a musical impression of a guest: our man of the hour re-does "Portrait of Marcia Ball." But the CD also has a cache of standards, like the jazz musicians' frequent choice "All the Things You Are." Here the elegant Kern/Hammerstein 1939 classic born on Broadway gets classical underpinnings as the Sullivan singing and the song get an assist from Chopin, the Weber acknowledgment of McPartland's training. And her willingness to welcome newer music stars along with looks to the past is crystallized with a comfortable co-existence, vocally and instrumentally, of Norah Jones' breakthrough hit "Come Away with Me," with "September in the Rain" from many decades earlier.

The album also boasts the sidemen Steve Doyle on bass and Nick Russo on guitar and mandolin, adding their atmospheric and grounding ways. The instrumental sounds are always in service to the moods and material. Those with little or no prior knowledge of Marian McPartland need not worry about finding this accessible, especially after a couple of spins; but some familiarity and/or exposure to the Sullivan/Weber live show of this material, with its additional spoken information, deepens the appreciation for what's done on disc.

Stacy Sullivan and Jon Weber next appear with this show on Saturday, May 21, 2016, as part of the annual four-day Artists in Partnership Cabaret Festival where all events are free, taking place in the library in the town of Long Beach (Long Island, New York) where Jon also does a solo show and both are among the afternoon's talking and singing participants on a cabaret panel. And, before that, they revisit the Peggy Lee tribute at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room on May 19.

SYLVIA McNAIR
SUBJECT TO CHANGE

Harbinger Records

In an album consisting largely of material drawn from a 2013 concert, Sylvia McNair tells her audience how she decided to give up her successful opera career at the turn of the century to concentrate on singing from the Great American Songbook. Crisply introducing the musical theatre selections, praising the shows and those who wrote them, she seems determined to make sure we know how much she likes the genre, and this is reinforced and restated in the liner notes which sometimes quote her. Her clear and lovely voice and manner, crisp diction (something she teaches other singers at the university level) efficiently and fondly demonstrate the chosen numbers with aplomb. Subject to Change doesn't find the performer and her trio of musicians taking many creative liberties with tempo, arrangements, or interpretations, staying mostly in a safe zone of traditional approaches and mainly well-established songs from hit shows and some standards, with a couple of outside-the-box choices.

A fairly cute segment that sounds over-rehearsed and a bit coy, but has some entertainment value, lets her narrate her saga of wanting to give up opera. She claims that when singing a famous aria, her mind was on a standard she'd rather be singing. And, in brief bits, she sings sections of both styles, comparing the mood/subject matter of one with a matching equivalent. I can't help but be more impressed and entertained with her aria's silvery notes than a glib skimming of "Don't Fence Me In." I'm kind of reminded of a moment in Merrily We Roll Along where it's opined that talented Frank does one thing well, but so do plenty of others, but there's a gift he has for something else, and he does that better than anyone. McNair has a flair for theatre material, but a gift for more operatic heights.

The opera-training roots still show with some of the approaches and sensibilities. Lyrics are phrased quite evenly and smoothly, in an almost business-like way at times, with things more pretty and pure than personalized. Nuance or employing techniques such as back phrasing—to sound more conversational than legato or swirling in melody's spin—aren't priorities. For some, the assets of a rich, robust voice than can soar and resonate are well worth the trade-off. Some traditionalists who think other singers take too many liberties with songs as written may find cause for celebration. Miss McNair is game to take on everything from goofy character comedy to country (she brings her fiddle to the party), but I find her to be most satisfying and convincing with a serious, gorgeous ballad that plays to her strengths of range and a legit sound.

The event recorded sounds more like a recital, with many of the theatre songs demonstrated in context. This distances singer from the emotion of the song when the introduction explains who the musical's character is, and being presentational in approach, discouraging vulnerability or full immersion in the material as if living it. This is in contrast to a more cabaret approach, where a singer can seem to be singing her own thoughts and feelings. The McNair approach, however, is to tell us in "Intro to Musical Theatre" mini-lecture style that Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote a show called Wonderful Town and a character named Ruth wrote a book about "100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man" and here's what the book says. Despite her quotes in the notes about feeling strongly that in singing Great American Songbook material the lyrics come first, when she introduces "Summertime" and "With a Song in My Heart," she mentions, with loving praise, only the name of the composer. Oops.

Other patter doesn't tell us much about the performer besides the drummed-in subject of her classical career being Subject to Change and the talk can be banal ("Ever notice how many songs there are about love?"). But there are grandly executed choices. The underappreciated Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia Sweet Smell of Success gets a spotlight for an elegant turn on its "I Cannot Hear the City" that takes a true singer to do it justice. There's quite a bit of Sondheim, including a charmingly done "Love Is in the Air" which McNair opts to pair with Passion's "Loving You." While the latter emphasizes a serene understanding with a character more at peace than the more bitter and devotional take in other renditions, such as the one opening Stacy Sullivan's album, it glimmers with intelligence and integrity. This album opens with its own Sondheim mantra, "Everybody Says Don't," which the singer uses to explain her musical career turning point.

The veering toward recording non-opera material was seen years ago with a few studio albums, including one very fine CD with Harold Arlen melodies, including a lovely ballad reprised here: "This Time the Dream's on Me," with a sublime Johnny Mercer lyric, one of this new album's best tracks. A West Side Story medley suffers from an overly busy arrangement relieved by an exquisite a capella passage. There are some awkward transitions in this mash=up, and transitions between tracks show evidence of jumpy editing of sound and applause.

Undoubtedly the vital voice of Sylvia McNair will continue to please her fans and find new melodic lines to bring shine and soprano strength to.

SARI KESSLER
DO RIGHT

With her first release, Do Right jazzy swinger Sari Kessler sure knows how to make things feel all right—right off the bat with the CD's first cut. She's an interpreter whose thinking shows and pays dividends. And, with the pianist often chosen by the more lyrics-engaged jazz vocalists, John di Martino, she has someone whose focused signature style adds subtext and tension. Without ever becoming at all heavy, they broaden the portrait of the rejected lover's plea for her ex to "Walk on By" should they run into each other "walking down the street." This hit from the 1960s is more dramatic and deepened. Producer James Shipp is also the arranger on this item and it's one of four selections on which he plays percussion. Making adjustments to the usual tempo (it's slower), the emphasized phrases in the Hal David lyric (she shades unexpected but logical words) and the insistent melody give it a less constricting structure. It's looser, liberated from the trademark Burt Bacharach beat—more fluid, more flexible. This makes for a compelling and impactful first impression.

I can't help but wonder if the emotional and cerebral explorations of the human conditions of lyrics are influenced by the career Miss Kessler gave up to be a full-time singer: she is a recently retired psychologist! While she soon enough shows a leaning for more cozy, rosy fare and reveals a caring but carefree sunny demeanor (including, in fact, "Sunny," another '60s pop hit), we're aware that she can switch from blithe back to blues when she chooses to do so. "My Empty Bed Blues" fills that expectation and it's the one number she wrote herself. Veteran sax man Houston Person aids in setting the mood before the vocal begins. Its complaint is concise, encapsulated in the rhyming sum-up "I've been bereft/ Since you left." With a moaning melody true to tradition of old blues songs, she laments about the lover who rises before the sun does and is still gone when it sets.

Lingering over the various instances of the word "wonderful" rather than tossing it off in the oldie "It's a Wonderful World," the number becomes a true statement of an actively appreciative state of mind and state of romance. What could be merely a corny trifle sparkles with matured serenity. This serene side of Sari is evident in "Feeling Good" from The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd. She eschews the fervent intensity many bring to this recently renewed-in-popularity choice for singers of all stripes, and keeps it lighter without being lightweight. She is perhaps acknowledging the joy felt by the elements of nature invoked in the lyric rather than making it more about self. Less cathartic it is, some might say a missed opportunity, but the other path has been well trod. The Kessler/Shipp/di Martino path seems to be always valid and convincing. Notably, the singer is credited as co-arranger on many of the tracks. Another show tune, "Too Close for Comfort," from Mr. Wonderful, keeping its original female pronouns, keeps them in their comfort zone and the sexual heat doesn't allow this female to let us see her sweat. She's content with the closeness, it seems.

While the singer hasn't released a CD before, she has been playing gigs and plying her trade. Studying with a mentoring singer like Kate McGarry, who provides commending liner notes, Sari Kessler is a sample of osmosis and dedication. (The notes talk about reworking and rethinking and re-recording all the tracks over a couple of years.) Should you find yourself in (very) upper Manhattan one Friday, you might consider her monthly gig at the New Leaf, a historic venue refurbished by Bette Midler's salvation campaign, in Fort Tryon Park. In fact, as "luck" would have it, she's there this very Friday the 13th. I consider myself lucky to have come across this engaging, clear-voiced singer at the dawn of her recording career.


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