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With the music industry so niche-driven, it’s become difficult to obtain backing and distribution for recordings that aren’t narrowly targeted to audiences of a specific age, class, race, and/or gender. When such projects do manage to get made, CD stores don’t know where to shelve them, music journalists are disinclined to cover them, and radio stations can’t figure out whether or when to air them.
Reviewers have been thumbing their thesauri in attempts to categorize Dave’s True Story, a voice-guitar duo formed in 1989 by songwriter-instrumentalist David Cantor and waitress-backup singer Kelly Flint. Some of their less embarrassing coinages include “beat-lounge,” “Cole Porter-meets-Seinfeld,” “the Eurythmics of the Cocktail Nation,” and “‘Non-Sucky’ Jazz.”
What Cantor and Flint are really about isn’t faddish esoterica but the resuscitation of two nearly extinct musical traditionsGolden Age songwriting (Rodgers and Hart, Arlen and Mercer) and non-self-indulgent jazz-oriented singing (Annie Ross, Peggy Lee, June Christy). If you can imagine Julie London and guitarist Barney Kessel (in their “Cry Me a River” mode) performing edgy tunes by a contemporary version of Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman (“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”), you have some idea of what they are up to.
As a composer-lyricist, Canton rivals, and sometimes surpasses, the hipster creations of Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg. (The CD’s only nonoriginal is “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s thumbnail gallery of Warhol superstars.) Cantor’s Berklee College of Music schooling is evident in his sophisticated melodies and harmonies; his keenly crafted swingers and ballads soar above the neoprimitivism of contempo pop songwriting. And his pointed, racy lyrics are consistently surprising. “Spasm,” the brazenly anti-romantic opening track, unfashionably celebrates sex for sex’s sake (“It all boils down to the raw protoplasm/’Cause this ain’t the real thing/It’s just a spasm”). In response, “Sex Without Bodies” ponders erotic alternativesvideo porn and phone sexin an age of STDs (“I may never go back to the real thing again”).
In a related gesture of renunciation, “I’ll Never Read Trollope Again” deals with how romance can affect one’s reading habits. (Kant, Cervantes, Kafka, Bukowski, and Jackie Collins also make cameo appearances.) “Once Had a Woman,” a dark ballad about a man who takes his partner for granted, ends with a satisfying “Guess Who I Saw Today?” twist. The Joni Mitchell-ish “Ned’s Big Dutch Wife” portrays a homemaker who secretly runs a brothel. Flint collaborated on the lyrics for “Daddy-O,” which chronicles the beat generation’s decline (“Neal hauls ashes/Bill’s off in Tangiers/Jack’s gone Fascist/While Bird’s been gone for years”). And “Stormy,” unless I’m mistaken, is an ardent monologue sung by a lesbian serial killer.
The idiosyncratic freshness of Cantor’s songs unjustly tends to obscure Flint’s contributions. Technically, she is perhaps the finest singer to emerge since k.d. lang, with pinpoint intonation, a crisp yet tawny sound, and a rock-solid sense of time that frees her to push or lay way behind the beat. She interprets Canton’s challenging lyrics with intelligence and assurance. It’s difficult to name any of Flint’s peers who could approach her mastery of this material.
Sex Without Bodies was recorded last October, without overdubs, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Although its content is more profane than sacred, listening to it is a heavenly experience.
It’s remarkable enough that Lena Horne, who turned 81 in June, is still capable of making a CD, let alone one of her most satisfying efforts. “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues,” the opening track of Being Myself, is cunningly designed to make listeners wonder whether she can still cut it. Lena talk-sings the first 16 bars, leading one to suspect that she’s now reduced to late-period Mabel Mercer recitative.
Fear not. After tricking us, Horne unleashes her tigress pipes, which reveal very little wear and no diminution of vitality. Her familiar repertoire consists of American songbook classics by, among others, Porter, Arlen, Ellington, and the Gershwins. Backing is supplied by a small ensemble with guest appearances by guitarist George Benson, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Houston Person, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Combining the sophistication of her ’50s supper-club performances with the funkiness of her triumphant ’80s one-woman Broadway show, Horne ranges from tender lyricism (“Imagination,” “After You”) to bluesy swing (“It’s Alright With Me,” “As Long As I Live”). Apart from the deceptive first track and a sluggish “Autumn in New York” burdened by Jeremy Lubbock’s lugubrious string arrangement, Being Myself lives up to its title, with Horne sounding more relaxed and less affected than at any point in her career. At 81, what does she have to lose?
In 1996, Billy Strayhorn, Horne’s mentor and dearest friend, was rescued from unwarranted obscurity by David Hajdu’s celebrated biography, Lush Life. Overshadowed in life by his magnetic collaborator-employer Duke Ellington, composer-lyricist-arranger-pianist Strayhorn has attracted considerable posthumous attention. Most of his formerly hard-to-find recordings have been reissued on CD, and the Dutch Jazz Orchestra has made an album of his previously unperformed compositions. There’s even talk of a Hollywood biopic.
In March 1997, singer-disc jockey Ron Gill presented an evening of Strayhorn songs at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with Hajdu and Strayhorn family members in attendance. That concert was the genesis of The Songs of Billy Strayhorn, recorded and produced by WGBH Radio in Boston. (The only previous vocal collection of Strayhorn material, by cabaret singer-pianist Larry O’Leno, has long been out of print.)
Clearly, this project is a labor of love for Gill and his backing quintet of Boston jazz musicians, but they seldom rise to the challenges the material imposes. Strayhorn’s unconventional melodies and uneven lyrics (an amalgam of poetry and doggerel) demand a higher level of interpretation than they receive here. Gill’s singing is marred by pitch problems and choppy phrasing, and his sidemen, though competent, are uninspired and uninspiring. It hardly helps that many of these songs have been definitively recorded by other artists”Lush Life” (Johnny Hartman), “Grievin’” (Rosemary Clooney), “Satin Doll” (Carmen McRae), “You’re the One” and “Maybe” (Horne)or that Manny Williams’ piano solo “Lotus Blossom,” one of the CD’s two instrumental tracks, is a pale echo of Ellington’s heartbreakingly elegiac version in his 1968 Strayhorn tribute album, …And His Mother Called Him Bill.
Verve has resurrected an obscure but far more successful tribute from its vaultstrombonist-singer Jack Teagarden’s Think Well of Me, a collection of songs by composer-lyricist Willard Robison. Like other releases in Verve’s Elite Edition series, Think Well of Me is something of a rip-off: premium-priced at $17.98, without bonus tracks (even though the label has several additional Teagarden/Robison items in its catalogue), and housed in a cardboard fold-out jacket that makes removal and replacement of the disc a risky proposition. Only 7,000 copies of this little-known album have been pressed. As with other titles in the series, after these are sold, Think Well of Me will again be unobtainable.
Barely noted when released in 1962 but long treasured by musicians, Think Well of Me turned out to be Teagarden’s penultimate recording. As seminal in the evolution of his instrument as his one-time boss Louis Armstrong was to that of the jazz trumpet, Teagarden, like Armstrong, also liked to sing. His laid-back, slightly nasal style is ideally suited to the songs of Robison, with whose Deep River Orchestra he briefly performed in 1924, and with whom he cut his first recordings in 1928.
Robison is a forgotten figure today, but from the ’20s well into the ’40s, the Missouri-born songwriter-bandleader broadcast his music nationwide on his thrice-weekly radio programs. His homespun, heartland compositions historically and thematically link Stephen Foster to Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Mose Allison. His work was performed by the finest singers and instrumentalists of his era, including Mildred Bailey (“‘Round My Old Deserted Farm”), Peggy Lee (“Don’t Smoke in Bed”), Billy Eckstine (“Cottage for Sale”), and Charlie Parker (“Old Folks”).
The Buster Keaton-ish restraint of Teagarden’s relaxed, grainy baritone barely masks his intense feeling, an expression of the repressed emotionalism of Middle Americana. Like Armstrong’s and Chet Baker’s, his singing mirrors his phrasing on his instrument: subtle, laconic, introspective. The plainness of his vocal approach counterbalances the richness of the album’s string-orchestra settings, arranged by Bob Brookmeyer and Russ Case. Teagarden’s concise trombone solos are exquisite. Only in the hands of a master could a metal device, an unwieldy one at that, produce such burnished beauty.
The greatest moments of Think Well of Methe lilting “In a Little Waterfront Cafe,” the benevolent “Old Folks,” the forlorn “‘Round My Old Deserted Farm”redeem all the shortcomings of this reissue: the mysterious inclusion of one non-Robison song (“Where Are You?”), trumpeter Don Goldie’s excessively brassy solos, the inflated price for less than 40 minutes of music, the cumbersome packaging. This is a classic recording that has unexpectedly resurfaced after 36 years and, if Verve is serious about this limited-edition stuff, is bound to disappear again within a few weeks. Don’t let it get away. CP