Archive | March, 2010

Leddra Chapman – Review: Telling Tales

31 Mar

Leddra Chapman: flair and assurance

If musical influences were sweets, Leddra Chapman wouldn’t have wasted any time with her nose pressed up against the shop window. She’d have walked in, charmed the owner and been given free rein to create her own special selection. That’s the joyful impression left by her first album, Telling Tales.

At a time when young British female singer/songwriters are enjoying an unprecedented boom, hype is easily mistaken for genuine talent. Not in Chapman’s case. She rallies her musical instincts with flair and assurance. These songs are rounded stories, folk tales of love, fate and friendship for the 21st century, sung with crystal-clear diction and minimal embellishment, worthy of the all-important airplay they’ve been getting.

Those diverse musical influences lap at the edges without dominating or tipping into pretentiousness: a hint of Vaughan Williams here, Joni Mitchell there; the evocation of a brass band that momentarily transports you to a village green in summer (“Story”); a weakness for her toy piano on “Picking Oranges”.

Telling Tales: an auspicious debut

“Edie” is one of the highlights, a searing vignette of a short, tragic life. Another, “Wine Glass” cleverly distils the trivial gesture – toying with a drink – that becomes overwhelmingly significant for the one left behind in a long-distance relationship. And the poignant “Wrap Me Up”, with its melancholy piano intro, is a bittersweet account of two people wanting different things from their love affair.

On stage, Chapman has an engaging charm that belies the depth of her lyrics; her showcase at the BBC Club last November was a shaft of sunshine on a bitterly cold winter’s day. Telling Tales is a pleasing and auspicious debut. 

Sarah Blasko – Review: As Day Follows Night

30 Mar

As Day Follows Night: Blasko set for UK breakthrough

Deceptive simplicity is the hallmark of Sarah Blasko’s new album, the optimistically titled As Day Follows Night (Dramatico). Her mordant lyrics emerge from an intriguing musical mist, delivered in a voice far less fragile and little-girl-lost than it sounds on a superficial first hearing.

Spare string and piano arrangements are based on an acoustic, percussive foundation that takes you on an absorbing journey from the bleakness of wrecked love to the painful but ultimately life-affirming recapturing of emotional equilibrium. The images are stark – “Is My Baby Yours?”, “Bird on a Wire”, “Lost and Defeated” – but the mood is pensive and eventually hopeful rather than relentlessly dark.

Australian Blasko was working on the score for a theatre production of Hamlet while writing the album, and the introspection in many of these songs is tinged with a kind of self-revelation that the Danish prince would recognise. “All I Want”, with its windswept, Morricone-style setting, perfectly defines her predicament.

All I Want: windswept, introspective… and great cheek bones

Swedish producer Björn Yttling has created a sense of space that allows Blasko’s alluring voice the freedom to explore some epic themes without ever tipping into clichéd anguish. “I never knew it would hurt like this, to let someone go against my wishes,” she sings, compassionate for the departing lover even as she nurses her raw wounds.

Bird on a Wire: mordant lyrics and epic themes

At 33, Blasko is already a seasoned recording artist, with a growing following in Europe. This is her third album and it’s a haunting piece of work that should mark her breakthrough moment in the UK, where she has based herself for the rest of 2010. She plays the Islington Academy on 15th April and tours with the Temper Trap from 27th April. 

Happy 80th Birthday Stephen Sondheim – Your Leading Ladies Salute You

21 Mar

This piece draws on several interviews I’ve had during the last few years with Stephen Sondheim and many of the women (and Michael Ball!) who have sung his roles and songs so brilliantly on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s about just one aspect of his work, but I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man who has contributed so much to musical theatre – indeed, music itself – throughout the last half-century, as he celebrates a landmark birthday.

Barbara Cook: one of Sondheim's leading ladies

To say that Stephen Sondheim writes exceptionally well for female singers and actors is to deal in a partial truth. The inference is that his male characters are of secondary importance. And of course nobody playing Sweeney Todd, singing in the all-male ensemble of the much-neglected Pacific Overtures, starring as Company’s distressed Bobby or the equally troubled Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, or revelling in Giorgio’s glorious arias in Passion, has any need – or right – to feel short-changed. But the fact remains that his work has had a profound effect on the careers of many of the women who have been closely associated with his roles during the last 50 years.

Where would people like Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman – who cites him as the reason for her career choice, having been enraptured by the 1980 London production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane – be if their professional paths hadn’t encountered Sondheim’s trajectory at critical moments? Hugely successful, no doubt. Such wide-ranging talent will always out. But certainly missing the depth, the experience and the kudos of an indelible association with his work. Each in her way can testify to the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of his writing for the female performer, whether strictly in character or taking a particular song away from its theatrical context and turning it into a standalone, solitary gem that reveals yet more meaning beneath the lyrics and the intricate melodies.

And there is no getting away from the fact that in so many of his shows, the female characters often command the stage at critical moments. Follies, for all its multiple themes of nostalgia, the uneasy relationship between past and present, and coming to terms with the impact of time on youthful dreams, is also a celebration of the show girl in all her glory. Ben and Buddy have their show-stopping turns but much of the show’s bittersweet joy comes from the brilliant pastiche numbers and anthems that allow the women to relive their moments in the vaudeville spotlight: Sally’s torch-songs (“In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”), Phyllis’s acerbic, teasing burlesque number (“Ah, But Underneath,” which replaced the original and more complex “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” when the show finally reached London in 1987), Hattie’s poignant take on the rather grim realities of the hoofer’s life (“Broadway Baby”) and of course Carlotta’s show-business survival anthem, “I’m Still Here”.

Judi Dench: wracked masterpiece

Desirée Armfeldt is always the real focus of A Little Night Music while the relationship dramas unravel around her in three-time, culminating in the magnificent “Send in the Clowns” – Sondheim’s most popular and most abused hit – which marks her lowest ebb and the tragedy of bad timing. It’s become a calling card for every star who has played the role, from Glynis Johns and Jean Simmonds to Judi Dench. Sondheim told Dench, “It’s yours now,” when her wracked masterpiece of an interpretation was one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s 1995 revival. But Trevor Nunn’s recent production notably returned Desirée to young middle age with marvellous results. Hannah Waddingham gave a magnificently constrained performance in London, tears only falling in the final stanza to indicate the extent of her desolation. But here, too, is evidence of Sondheim’s ability to capture even a minor character in the moment: “The Miller’s Son”, sung by Petra the maid, is a perfect evocation of a young woman who knows exactly what her destiny is, and that however underwhelming the ultimate prospect of drooping bosoms and a matronly figure, that can wait a while. There are plenty of rosebuds to be gathered in the here and now.

In Company, bilious, vodka-hardened Joanne has one of the standout numbers in “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a lascerating attack on herself and her own kind. Others have sung it to great effect but for many people the original, Elaine Stritch, still has copyright on the role. Just check out the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the making of the 1970 cast album, as she wrestles with the song to the point of exhaustion, missing her mark, extemporising to Sondheim’s obvious dismay. Take after take slip by until you can almost taste the acrid, used-up atmosphere of the studio. Then she comes in the next morning and nails it with the first take of the day.

Elaine Stritch: has earned her copyright

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is one of the toughest three-act plays I’ve ever done, you know what I mean?” she told me in a 2008 interview. She calls Sondheim a “romantic realist”. And she’s still singing the song in her one-woman show 40 years later, better than ever.

“In this song he’s sending up a class of dame, of which I am also a member – or have been in my time. I hasten to add, I don’t Martini-lunch any more. So that’s a big kick that I get out of it. When I sing the song, I am part of that whole bunch and I know about them. I am absolutely staggered, dazzled by his ability, his talent. Ability is what I really mean. It’s so believable and so unbelievable at the same time. Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me.”

Bernadette Peters: “Not a Day Goes By” is an emotional peak

For Bernadette Peters (Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George and The Witch in Into the Woods), Maria Friedman (Fosca in Passion and Dot/Marie), Julia McKenzie (The Witch, Sally and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd), the value of gift of a Sondheim role has been proved time and again. Each can, in many ways, define her career by the importance of his work in allowing them to demonstrate not only their talents as singers but as dramatic actors and comedians. And they have also proved adept at developing his songs away from their musical theatre roots. Peters’ signature tune, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) is invariably an emotional peak in her concerts, for example. Like Friedman, Barbara Cook and many others, her repertoire is enriched by the Sondheim canon.

Patti LuPone has taken Bobby’s last-act song of affirmation, “Being Alive” from Company, and turned it into a virtuoso powerhouse performance. Again, this is possible because of the truth in a lyric that finally resolves the character’s anguish at the end of the show. Given the wealth of female songs in the canon, this might smack of poaching. Michael Ball says, “I always have an argument with him [Sondheim]. I tell him he writes the most amazing shows – difficult bloody things, most of them – and then he always gives the eleventh hour number to the women! That’s why I insisted on doing “Broadway Baby”. But take these songs out of the shows and they’re universal.”

Patti LuPone: virtuoso powerhouse performance

Sondheim’s double-whammy skills as a lyricist and composer lie at the heart of this quality in his work. A few years back in an interview for Gramophone magazine, he told me that a song is written to reflect a character’s state of mind at that particular moment in the play. If a singer can find something beyond that, which gives the song an external life outside the play, all well and good – but that will always be incidental to the song’s primary meaning and intention. “But to have the songs interpreted in different ways helps to keep them alive,” he said.

Julia McKenzie: “He’s a dramatist and a poet. And to the performer, the rewards are tremendous because every song is like a one-act play or at least, a soliloquy. “Losing My Mind” is a soliloquy, even though in Sally’s mind it is the epitome of a torch song. You can see precisely how her day progresses.”

Maria Friedman: “For me, everything he writes about comes back to a very basic thing: love – the desperate need of a human being to love and be loved. As an actor and a singer – I can’t distinguish which one leads the other – both co-exist perfectly when you’re doing one of his pieces because the demands on you are always truthful, honest. If you can get to the core of it, you just have to serve it, not do anything, and it will do the rest for you. But that means quite often you’ve got to be thinking two or three things at once. It’s layered, you’ll be saying “I don’t love you” at the same time as thinking “I wish I could love you”, “I did love you,” all together. On the face of it, it could be quite cold but underneath it’s layered with warmth and hope and yearning. Plus he’s the most extraordinary lyricist, the rhymes are dazzling, so you’ll be working on that at the same time, making sure that they ring and you don’t miss the internal rhymes. And he writes as we speak, so you have to understand how that woman would have talked and the music falls into place.”

Patti LuPone: His songs are very dramatic pieces in their own right, so I don’t have to create another story to sing them out of context. You always want the piece to be universal if it’s going to live and his work is really brilliant in that universal way: there’s that whole concept of theatre, emotion, love. That’s what makes something like “Being Alive” [Merrily We Roll Along] or “Loving You” [Passion] so perfect.

Elaine Stritch: “Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fake and what’s real. And like Shakespeare, every time you do good work, something new comes out of it. The quality of the material absolutely matters. I love his humour. It’s real humour – real: they call that wit!”

Barbara Cook: I’d known Stephen socially, through the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t actually do much of his work until Follies. I’d occasionally put a song in my act but I always felt that unless I did a whole Sondheim section, they didn’t really abut against the others. I thought of them as ‘art songs’. But when I did Follies [in concert, 1985], I fell deeply in love with his work, and a lot of that was to do with the quality of his lyrics, which are so universal and moving. They are witty and clever, of course, but most of all very emotional. They almost always say something that I want to say. Take “No More” [Into the Woods], a song I’ve been doing a lot in the last year or so. It seems to have a lot more meaning with the world in this difficult state:

“Can’t we just pursue our lives

With our children and our wives?

Till that happy day arrives,

How do you ignore

All the witches…”

link: Sondheim profile for

link: Sondheim article for Gramophone magazine

The Stephen Sondheim Society

Review – Gabriele Tranchina: A Song of Love’s Color

19 Mar

Gabriele Tranchina: something of an enigma

What a queue-jumper Gabriele Tranchina turns out to be. A pile of CDs sits accusingly on my disk awaiting critical attention. I’d been sampling and tasting here and there, planning an orderly assault. But on Monday, Tranchina’s new album – A Song of Love’s Color (Jazzheads JH1176) – landed fresh from New York, inveigled its way onto my player and has been sitting there ever since, spinning an insistent spell, and demanding listen after listen.

Think Lambert, Hendricks and Ross meet Pink Martini, with a dash of Astrid Gilberto, a streak of Ute Lemper, a hint of Mina and a sense of Anita Baker, and you can begin – just about – to anticipate the startling effect of Tranchina’s voice as she juggles rhythms, styles and languages to create a constantly shifting mood. One minute you’re chilling to late night jazz, the next you’re swept up in a Jobim samba, before being caught in the headlights of a hypnotic, almost Weill-ish lieder.

All of which makes her a bit of a marketer’s nightmare – and precisely the kind of performer that Art of the Torch Singer loves. The cocktail of jazz, world music, vocalese and chant might well be overwhelming if it wasn’t for the relaxed consistency of the band, led by Tranchina’s husband Joe Vincent – who wrote several of the tracks and is responsible for the cool, spare arrangements. Tranchina clearly thrives on the freedom this gives her to swing between techniques and tones.

The album kicks off with a Fugain/Delanoë chanson, “Chante Comme Si Tu Devais Mourir Demain”, which pretty much describes Tranchina’s mission. The title track follows, revealing her dexterity with a melody and some alluring phrasing. Later, a traditional Hindu prayer provides the basis for a swirling, syncopated chant that also includes a brief rap, “Asato Maa (Sat Chit Ananda)”, and a Spanish lullaby – “Duérmete Niño Bonito” – has an authentic, shuffling last-dance-of-the-night atmosphere. “Siehst du Mich” – a poem by Else Lasker-Schüler, set to music by Joe Vincent – concludes the album on a beautifully sombre, brooding note.

A Song of Love’s Color, mixed by Joe Vincent and Randy Klein, and mastered by Gene Paul, was recorded in New York in the summer of 2008. Its release is long overdue. Tranchina herself – German-born and New York-raised – remains something of an enigma, despite the stylish art work on the sleeve. A trawl around Youtube and MySpace yields nothing in the way of clips.

Her people should do something about that fast, because once you’ve heard this you’ll want to know more about an artist who clearly has something different to offer the homogenised world of modern popular music.

Concert Review – Jessie Buckley at Pizza on the Park

15 Mar

It’s practically impossible for any singer to tackle “The Man That Got Away” without the distracting shade of Judy Garland lurking on the edge of the spotlight. But when Jessie Buckley stepped up to the mic at London’s Pizza on the Park on Saturday, nobody was interested in the ghost of an old legend. Why would you be, when such a vibrant living talent  materialises in front of your eyes?

If it wasn’t for the evidence of her slender frame and a pristine voice that has more than a hint of Doris Day at her youthful best, it would be hard to believe that Buckley is only 20. She’s already been runner-up in the BBC’s find-a-Nancy mission, I’d Do Anything (and now we see why Andrew Lloyd Webber could barely contain his exasperation when the public vote imposed a different leading lady on his production). And last year, she achieved the near-impossible feat of making shrill, shallow Anne Egerman a halfway sympathetic and complex character in Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music.

Hushing a busy room in a West End eatery on a Saturday night, and holding the audience’s attention through two sophisticated sets of standards is a tall order for the most experienced, battle-hardened singer. But from the first note, it’s clear that Buckley has the necessary tools – not just the pipes and an appealing, unfussy presentation but crucially in this environment, where the diners tend to know their music, an astonishingly mature flair for jazz.She rips up “Blue Skies”, “Birth of the Blues”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Take the A Train”, telling us what a privilege it is to be able to sing such great lyrics. Her phrasing is instinctive, adventurous and occasionally audacious – she’ll try anything , and usually pull it off. And her joy at unleashing this skill, recently discovered and relatively unexplored, free from the constraints of a musical theatre performance, is palpable.

Buckley’s pianist Joe Thompson tells us that he and double bassist Rob Rickenberg don’t care much for singers as a rule. They’re too troublesome and self-regarding. But Jessie, he says simply, has taught them both so much; this is praise indeed from a musician of Thompson’s calibre. The rapport between the three of them strikes sparks – and even if there is the odd moment when discipline dissolves into banter, it is clear that the performance is rooted in complete, mutual respect for each other’s musicality.

But it’s the ballads that linger longest as the memory of the evening fades. “The Man That Got Away” of course, stripped of all that Garland vibrato but losing nothing in the telling of the story – or the conviction that the singer is reliving it. When Buckley sings an intimately wistful “The Way You Look Tonight”, you feel you’re eavesdropping on her innermost thoughts. And when she gazes into the distance on “More Than You Know” she is, whether she knows it or not, joining the ranks of the finest torch-singers who trace their lineage back to the great Broadway star Helen Morgan.

Jessie Buckley is one of the last performers to grace the stage at Pizza on the Park. The room is to close in the summer, depriving London of a venue steeped in showbusiness history. Never mind the overpriced food and the so-so wine list that have been part of its idiosyncratic charm over the years – just catch a rising star in her element.

However, she will launch a new season of cabaret – Live at the Pheasantry – at The Pheasantry in London’s Kings Road on 13th June. She also plays the Delfont Room on 31st July and appears at The Stables near Milton Keynes on 20th August.