A CD Review - 10 years late.

28.7.05


Colour and Light - Jazz Sketches on Sondheim

Various Artists
Copyright 1995 Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.
Produced by Miles Goodman and Oscar Castro-Neves



Here’s the deal. I am a devote of Stephen Sondheim’s writing and a jazz fan. At the core, I’m just a big ol’ obsessive, opinion holding, convert-making NERD when it comes to these two things. So, as you can imagine, ten years ago when Colour and Light – Jazz Sketches on Sondheim was released I headed straight for the Sam the Record Man on Yonge to get me a copy of what I hoped would be a strange and wonderful melding of the two things I obsessed over (almost) more than any others.

While I enjoyed the CD at the time, I wasn’t transformed by it or compelled to listen to it over and over again, exploring every little nuance. What I had been hoping for was love at first listen, like that magic spark that came when I heard Oscar Peterson’s West Side Story record. No Dice.

The thing is, like a wise man once said “Art isn’t Easy”. The thing I love most about Sondheim’s music is that I have to work to enjoy it. A new Sondheim recording requires time and patience. You have to live with it for days, weeks, months, sometimes years before it strikes a chord with you. Some of the best jazz music is the same way. You can’t always appreciate it until you immerse yourself in it. I certainly feel that way about Monk and Mingus and especially Coltrane. There are few rewards greater than finally “getting” that piece of music that has been eluding you.

Last night I revisited Colour and Light - Jazz Sketches on Sondheim and while I certainly don’t feel that “magic” throughout the entire recording there are moments that speak to me more clearly now than they did 10 years ago.

The first track is Pretty Women from Sweeney Todd, sung by Peabo Bryson. Yes, that Peabo Bryson. The “If ever you’re in my arms again” guy. Be not afraid, Dear Listener. Peabo does a lovely job with the song, even if his default stylistically tends to be a little on the fromage side. The thing is, there’s something about that cheese factor, especially at the end of the song when he warbles “pretty pretty wome-e-e-en” that makes me think “I bet you do, Pea-BO!”. Why? I’m not sure. Am I questioning his sexuality? Um, no. I buy it. I buy that Peabo Bryson likes pretty women, there’s just something about him that requires my private, personal mocking. Maybe cause his name is Peabo. Say it with me. Pea-bo. Mr. Bryson is helped on this track by an all-star line up of jazz players - Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass, Brian Blade on drums and Joshua Redman on tenor. Redman’s solo is yummy. The truth is, Peabo does such a nice job with the song, I wish it had been accepted into the standards repertoire years ago so I could have heard Joe Williams sing it. That would have been something.

Grover Washington, Jr. covers Everyday a Little Death from A Little Night Music. He’s on tenor with Geoff Keezer on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Troy Davis on drums. The sound is so organic it seems as if it’s a song that has been done in the jazz idiom for decades. Keezer’s piano work stands out for me with its driving, forceful quality. It’s a great version of the song.

Next up is Poems from Pacific Overtures performed by one of my all-time favourite trumpet players and composers, Terence Blanchard. This is, without question, far more interesting to me now than it was 10 years ago simply because I wasn’t familiar with Pacific Overtures back then. The score for Pacific Overtures is very complex and as such, it’s really no surprise that Blanchard would choose this piece to interpret out of the Sondheim library. He does a wonderful job on it. I can’t really offer more than this, criticism wise. For me, it’s one of those rare occasions where two of my favourite storytellers are in effect, telling the same story. Poems delivers that “magic” that I was hoping for.

Terence appears on the next track, with Nancy Wilson (vocals) covering the title song from Anyone Can Whistle. She has a very easy way with a lyric and Terence’s playing is so up front that it feels like a duet, much in the way Johnny Hartman’s recordings with Coltrane did. If the purpose of making this record was, in part, to convince other jazz players that Sondheim’s music is worth interpreting, this version of Anyone Can Whistle sells that idea 100%. I’m surprised when I think about it, that there hasn’t been a glut of female vocalists doing this tune in the last ten years. I’ve never seen Nancy Wilson perform live, but I’d bet that she has since added this tune to her concert sets.

Nancy Wilson is back on the next track, with Peabo Bryson for a soulful, duet version of Loving You from Passion, which in 1995 was a new show. It’s really beautiful, despite the fact that it veers dangerously close at moments to sounding like it should be played over the closing credits of a major motion picture.

The transition from Loving You into Colour and Light from Sunday in the Park with George, performed on solo piano by Herbie Hancock is seamless. This is a genius interpretation of Sondheim’s work. I’m sure Hancock used the lyrics and the context of the song within the show for inspiration. The music, like George Seurat’s painting, comes in sharp, precise points - sound replacing colour. Hancock plucks at the strings inside the piano, dapples in the upper and lower register, creating, struggling. We come close to hearing the main phrase resolved a few times, but it never really does until the very end and even then, it’s uncertain somehow. This is mesmerizing work.

Jim Hall (on guitar) does a gentle, swinging version of One More Kiss from Follies, in a trio setting. Even though there is no piano, I’m reminded of Vince Guaraldi. Hancock’s work on the earlier track is compelling to me because it obviously takes the source material very seriously. Hall’s work here is exciting for the complete opposite reason. This version of One More Kiss is pretty and easy to listen to, wistful, happy almost. However, this is one of the more overtly sad songs from the Follies score. It’s exciting to hear the possibilities that exist for Sondheim’s music when artists are free to work without the lyrics. People pay so much attention to Sondheim’s clever lyrics, his ability to rhyme internally, that the music gets overlooked. This is a fine remedy to that. Next time some fool tells me all of Sondheim’s music sounds the same I’m going to play them this recording of One More Kiss and school their asses.

Holly Cole appears on the next two tracks. First is her version of Losing my Mind from Follies. Holly Cole was an acquired taste for me. It took me a long time to enjoy her, at all. At first I found her abrasive or something...I can’t even really put my finger on it. Anyway, I learned to like Holly quite a lot, but I prefer her interpretations of Mary Margaret O’Hara and Tom Waits stuff to her take on standards. I find there’s something lacking in her reading of the lyric here. It just doesn’t get the depth of the sadness that is, in my opinion, intrinsic to the material. I mean, it’s fine, but there’s something missing. Even Wayne Shorter’s work on soprano feels kind of empty. Is it anal of me to object to the fact that she gets a word here and there wrong? Yes, yes it is. Colour me anal.

Next, Holly tackles Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George with her trio and Oscar Castro-Neves (co-producer) on guitar. This was a brave choice for her to make considering that out of context this song really makes no sense. The arrangement is nice, it has that “Holly Cole sound” (which I guess is really that David Piltch sound, but whatever) and Castro-Neves sounds good. I can’t imagine what I would make of this song if I didn’t know the show. As it is, I do know the show, and I like this recording very much. The sentiment of the lyric, the importance of Children and Art, is something that runs through Sondheim’s later work (especially Sunday and Into the Woods).

Jim Hall is back with What Can You Lose? from Dick Tracy providing us with another gentle, melodic, swinging tune. Jim Hall could make a Sondheim record, sell a million copies and nobody would ever know it. For a lot of reasons. But you see my point. He makes Sondheim sound not so much like Sondheim, which is cool somehow.

The last track on the CD is a duet between Stephen Sondheim himself and Herbie Hancock on a lovely little thing called They Asked Me Why I Believe in You which was written for a television special in the 1950’s and never recorded. How fun it is to hear one from “out of the trunk”! Sondheim is apparently not a fan of his own playing, but I have a particular fondness for hearing composers play their own music. Except when they let Burt Bacharach sing. Someone really needs to put a stop to that. Sondheim plays the tune straight once through and then Hancock comes in and messes with it, to great effect. There it is – Sondheim and Jazz, together again for the first time.

I’m glad I rediscovered this album. While I know it’s not going to be in the “top 10” rotation for me, I plan to revisit it every so often to see what changes for me over the years. I also hope that more jazz musicians think to start interpreting Sondheim’s writing and that less of them think to cover Send in the Clowns. Yes, there ought to be clowns...we KNOW!

Art isn’t easy.

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