Coming soon: Michael Bruce’s Unwritten Songs

Speckulation Entertainment seem to be on a real roll at the moment. As well as Helena Blackman’s wonderful collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, in a couple of weeks’ time they will release a CD of songs written by composer Michael Bruce.

Michael first came to my attention when he entered a competition they ran (under the banner of their Notes from New York brand) in conjunction with The Stage to find a new Christmas song in a musical theatre style. Michael’s song, Children, is a just beautiful, plaintive ballad that became one of my personal highlights of both the Christmas in New York shows and the subsequent cast recording. Since then, as well as orchestrating some of Speckulation’s other works (including some of Helena’s album, and the musical ads for Confused.com) he’s been working on various projects, the biggest and most recent of which is composing music for the forthcoming version of Much Ado About Nothing which is to star David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

Back in November 2009, a one-off show at the Apollo Theatre highlighting some of his work drew some of the cream of the West End’s young performing talent. I’m pleased to see that on the just-announced track list for the new CD, Unwritten Songs, many of them will be making an appearance on the CD.

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Helena Blackman, Delfont Room/The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Last night, Chad and I went to see Helena Blackman perform a short cabaret at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales theatre. The event was to promote and celebrate the launch of her new solo album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so the evening was dominated by some R&H classics – as well as one or two of their lesser known numbers, and a few songs from elsewhere. I particularly liked the inclusion of a number from Saturday Night, the Sondheim musical Helena performed in at the Jermyn Street theatre (and which later transferred to the Arts), as it was in interviewing her about that show that I first met Helena. We have since met often, and last year we were both judges on The Stage’s Musical Voice competition to find a new singing talent.

Most cabaret performances are lucky if they get a guitarist or drummer alongside their piano accompaniment. Helena definitely scored here, with an impressive ten-piece band, led by musical director George Dyer. They were definitely needed, for the orchestrations on the album are one of its key selling points — Helena’s voice being, of course, one of the others.

The new arrangements and orchestrations are, for the main part, as beautiful and lyrical as the source material demands. One or two, though, go that little bit further into the realm of greatness. I love the offbeat start to I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, which grows into a vampish, brassy number. Love Look Away, from the (generally unloved) Flower Drum Song, becomes a smooth ballad that may be one of the least known songs on the album, but becomes one of the standout numbers. I Enjoy Being a Girl, originally from the same musical, is its polar opposite, a light and frothy number that is pitched just right here.

Of the two duets on the album, I much preferred People Will Say We’re In Love (performed with Daniel Boys) to The King and I’s I Have Dreamed (sung with Jonathan Ansell on the album and, due to Jonathan’s absence due to illness, with Daniel at last night’s concert).

The album has been eighteen months in the making, from conception to today’s release. That’s some wait in the scheme of things, but after having listened to the album several times now, it was well worth it.

The widget below includes short extracts from each track, but they really don’t do the songs justice. The album currently costs just £6.99 from Amazon.co.uk’s MP3 downloads site, so I really recommend you try it for yourself.

Jonathan Eiø: New Beginnings

A couple of weeks ago, just a few days after seeing Lucy May Barker at the Landor Theatre, I went back to the same venue to see another cabaret in the A Spotlight On… series, this time hosted by Jonathan Eiø.

Since first reviewing a cabaret Jonathan performed with Lucy Thatcher at the now defunct Theatre Museum, I’ve also reviewed him in Rickmansworth’s panto, seen him in the role of Jack in Into the Woods, also at the Landor – and more importantly, come to know him as a friend. I genuinely loved his first album, The Space In Between, largely because it avoided the usual trap many musical theatre performers fall into of cramming their first release with well known standards. Instead, we got some finely crafted, well produced pop songs that showcased genuine songwriting ability as well as a fine voice.

Jonathan has just released the follow up album, New Beginnings. And while the first half of his cabaret evening was in the mould of many a show, with performances of his favourite songs by other writers, the second half acted as a showcase for the new CD.

In both, while Jonathan’s name was the one in big type on the posters, he was frequently happy to take a back seat while his guests, who have all contributed performances to the new album, took the spotlight.

At the time, I’m afraid I took Jon to task a little for that: this was his turn in the spotlight, and he gave it up a little too easily, I told him.

I was wrong.

Not least because his generosity of spirit is one of the reasons I’m happy to be a friend of his, and it’s a quality that others deserve to see – but also because what never left the spotlight was his songwriting ability. For as good as Jonathan is as a vocalist, it’s his developing talents as a songwriter that New Beginnings really highlights.

From the light and breezy, Mika-like Need Some Time to the haunting richness of Kimmy Bryceland’s vocals on Sandbox, there’s an astonishing range of styles present on the album. An acoustic version of a track from Jonathan’s first album, Around, is performed with such deftness by Jack Shalloo that it shows that, however good a singer-songwriter is at the skill each side of the hyphen, sometimes ceding control of one element to another person can elevate the material immeasurably.

That’s not to say Jonathan isn’t a great vocalist, for he is. But New Beginnings shows that his authorship skills (along with those of his fiancée Louise, who cowrote some of the lyrics on the album) are developing immensely.

  • New Beginnings is available for £10 from Jonathan’s website, jonathaneiomusic.com
  • Update: The album is now available via CDBaby.com
  • Update 2: It’s now also available on iTunes.

Joy to the World, Pink Martini

Oregon-based jazz group Pink Martini have over the years become one of my favourite groups. Every CD release of theirs brings fresh surprises, as the musical magpies fuse influences from Europe, the mid-East, America and the far East.

They have just released their first album of Christmas songs and, as you’d expect, it’s an eclectic mix. Along traditional songs – White Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, We Three Kings, Santa Baby – are some songs from around the globe. The Ukrainian ‘Carol of the Bells’, Shchedryk, is perhaps the best known. It is joined by a Chinese New Year song, Congratulations and Hebrew prayer song Elohai N’tzor.

Even the more well-known songs are given a twist. Silent Night being sung in both German in English is nothing new, perhaps, but it is given a verse in Arabic. We Three Kings is given an Africa-inspired makeover, and the whole album concludes with Auld Lang Syne performed to a Samba tempo and with lyrics in English, French and Arabic.

It’s a little demented in places, but also extremely beautiful in others – and a cut above the usual Christmas albums which churn out bland covers of the usual standards.

You can use the little Flash-based widget below to hear samples of each track, or on the Amazon MP3 download page. It’s also available as an audio CD and on iTunes.

Hollie Steel at the Roundhouse

Last night, I went with Paul to the Roundhouse, for the launch of the debut album by 11-year-old Hollie Steel.

Hollie was, you may remember, a finalist in the 2009 series of Britain’s Got Talent. As Paul says, she has a tremendous vocal range, but at her young age she doesn’t really have the emotional connection to her material in a way that would get the best use of her voice. She also overdoes her vibrato, which is a pet hate of mine: I’m definitely in the ‘less is more’ camp in that regard. She seems a nice enough girl, and hopefully will continue to train, and learn how to best use her vocal abilities.

At risk of being overshadowed by his little sister, Josh Steel apparently stepped in at the last minute to MC the album launch, and given the short amount of preparation time he coped well. Talking to him afterwards, he told us he’s about to move down South to start a three-year course at Italia Conti, so good luck to him with that.

* Pre-order “Hollie” on CD
* Preorder “Hollie” as an MP3 download

Speaking of Scott Alan…

…as I was in my review of Sunday’s concert, I ought to point out his two CDs are available to buy.

If you haven’t heard his works before, the glories of Amazon.co.uk’s MP3 service means that you can hear preview tracks below (edit: doesn’t seem to work on Google Chrome for Mac – see below for some links):

If you want to buy full albums, you find the above widget a little confusing to navigate (I don’t blame you) or it doesn’t show up at all, try these links:

The dark side of Eurovision bloc voting

After years of the concept being stoked by commentator Terry Wogan, pretty much everyone in the UK believes that the contest has been hijacked by ‘bloc voting’, with all the East European states voting for their neighbours, effectively ensuring that the UK entry will always place near the bottom of the finals.

There’s an element of truth in there, although it does ignore that for the last several years few of the UK’s Eurovision entries have been worth voting for in the first place. A revised voting system, in which each country’s final votes were tallied from a mixture of phone voting and a jury made up of music industry professionals, helped the UK this year, even if the song itself wasn’t great.

But while we mock bloc voting, for some people voting for your neighbouring country’s songs actually has negative consequences:

Rovshan Nasirli, a young Eurovision fan living in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, says he was summoned this week to the country’s National Security Ministry – to explain why he had voted for Armenia during this year’s competition in May.

“They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.”

Hopefully that explanation will have included, “I couldn’t vote for Azerbaijan anyway, due to Eurovision rules – and what was I going to do, vote for that awful Lloyd Webber/Diane Warren number?”

The apparent sensitivity seems to be rooted in long-standing disputes over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Still, perhaps this can spur on the UK to keep improving its entries, so that people in high tension countries can choose us as a safer option?

Found via The Daily Dish

Guys, gals and gender-swapping Gershwin

Last night, I went with Steve to see The Great American Songbook at the New End Theatre, a concert performance by three singers of classic songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and more.

My review is online on The Stage website now. But on this blog, I want to concentrate on how a line in one of the earliest numbers reawakened a long-dormant irritation with concert performances of such songs: switching the gender of the singer, and adjusting the lyrics to suit, even if it ruins the rhyme of the carefully crafted lyrics. Or, in some cases, changes the sweetest romantic line into a non sequitur.

In this case, the trigger for my thoughts was a minor change which Sinatra also made when performing I Get a Kick Out of You. Both Ol’ Blue Eyes and last night’s performer, Paul Roberts, sang:

> Flying so high
> With some gal in the sky
> Is my idea of nothing to do…

While changing the original “guy” into “gal” preserves the rhyme at the end of each line, it ignores the internal rhyme fly/high/guy/sky that gives the couplet such power, and which matches the natural crescendo at that point in the music.

As I say, it’s a minor point, but it was enough to act as a trigger to this post.

A much more grave gender swap occurs on the otherwise excellent 1998 album The Glory Of Gershwin, which saw legendary harmonica player Larry Adler perform with numerous pop and rock icons in covers of George Gershwin numbers. The result is variable: Kate Bush singing The Man I Love, for example, is sublime. Elton John sings a medley of two Gershwin numbers on the album – Love is Here to Stay and Someone to Watch Over Me – and it’s in the latter that the most grievous lyric changes occur. Ironically perhaps for one of music’s most out gay performers, the lyrics have been changed from talking about a man to talking about a woman, and that’s where the problems start.

In many cases, a simple change of he to she, or his to her, doesn’t matter too much. But what does this line mean, once the gender has been changed?

> I’d like to add her initial to my monogram

In the original version, its meaning is clear — the woman singing desires marriage, so that the initial of her husband’s surname becomes her own. But the other way around makes no sense.

That’s minor, though, compared with the abuse this couplet receives. The original:

> He may not be the man some
> Girls think of as handsome
> But to my heart he carries the key

With a change of gender, this becomes

> She may not be the girl some
> Men think of as handsome…

On what planet does “girl some” rhyme with “handsome”? Far more egregious than the disruption to the fly/high/guy/sky rhyming sequence, here the gender change actively disrupts the main rhyme. Not only that, but it presupposes that being called “handsome” is something that women would aspire to — when in fact it’s more likely to be a put-down at best.

Eleven years on, it’s hard to imagine that Elton John would indulge in such gender-swapping nonsense. And there are other out gay performers who have taken songs originally sung by women and produced fine works. For example, John Barrowman’s recent album Music Music Music includes the Chess duet I Know Him So Well, with Barrowman performing with Daniel Boys. No change of lyrics, just a beautiful rendition of the song.

With so many great songs out there, from the Gershwin catalogue to the whole Great American Songbook and beyond, there are many songs that can be sung by men or by women with no lyrical changes necessary. There are some where switching the occasional pronoun will have no consequence. But there are some songs which we should just accept need to be sung about a man, or about a woman, and we should not attempt to change that.

Ella sings Rodgers and Hart

At the end of my last post about Cadogan Hall’s Rodgers and Hart tribute concert, I said:

> searching Amazon or iTunes for some Rodgers and Hart numbers would make for a fruitful weekend.

Let me help you in that task. The best album of Rodgers and Hart songs is by the peerless Ella Fitzgerald:

You can use the widget above to listen to excerpts from each track and to buy the album (or individual songs) for download in MP3 format.

Alternatively, you can go to the Amazon.co.uk website for MP3 download or as a physical CD.

Sing For Your Supper, Cadogan Hall

Sing For Your Supper

On Wednesday night, Paul and I went to Cadogan Hall to see Sing For Your Supper, a concert celebrating the music of Rodgers and Hart.

It was my first visit to Cadogan Hall, and to be honest I’m surprised at its use as a venue for this sort of event. The former church’s acoustics just don’t work for a small number of voices, even when amplified. I can see how choirs could really make use of the space acoustically, but individual voices or duets felt lost in the cavernous space.

That said, the selection of songs was superb: from the more well-known numbers including Blue Moon, Isn’t It Romantic, My Funny Valentine, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and The Lady Is A Tramp to Thou Swell, What Can You Do With a Man? and There’s a Small Hotel, it was a great showcase for a songwriting partnership that helped define the modern musical.

Of the performers, Maria Friedman was, as one would expect, far and away the most effective, always able to get to the emotional heart of a song and bringing out every nuance. From the emotional complexity of  Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered to the amusing tale of a murderous, many times married vamp in To Keep My Love Alive, the show itself came alive whenever she was given a central role. For my tastes, though, that didn’t happen often enough, and her fellow performers struggled to match. In particular, Simon Green, who helped devise the show and also acts as narrator, struggled at times to hold a tune, while fellow performer Graham Bickley dried on two separate occasions at the start of the second act and never quite recovered.

Those criticisms aside, the musical selections more than compensated for the rough edges. The last concert in this run is on Sunday, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rushing to buy a ticket, searching Amazon or iTunes for some Rodgers and Hart numbers would make for a fruitful weekend.