Thursday, 5 July 2012

ONE OF THE SMART ONES LIZA MINNELLI – LIVE AT THE WINTER GARDEN CD Back in the late eighties I would often head into “Cheapo Records” on Rupert Street and rummage through the racks to see what could tempt me. On some occasions I would come across something that I didn’t even know existed, such as when I found Liza Minnelli’s “Live At The Winter Garden” album. Recorded in 1974 well before “Cats” was installed in the theatre “Now And Forever” – or not actually, as Mamma Mia has been there for a good decade, the album is one that seemed fated never to get a CD release. Finally that has been rectified, and it’s only reading the liner notes that I discover the album itself was also a rare gem having been withdrawn from release very quickly due to issues with the rights of her performances from “Cabaret” So almost forty years on a performance from a young Liza at the height of her powers and fame has at been embraced by the digital age. Hot on the heels of both “Cabaret” and “Liza With A Z” it must have been a very hot ticket when Liza set foot on the stage of the Winter Garden and hearing this album now it’s easy to understand why. Firstly what strikes me is the boundless energy that the recording captures, whether it’s on “A Natural Man”, “If You Could Read My Mind” or possibly the best of her several recordings of “I Can See Clearly Now” you just know that she was dancing up a storm and holding the audience in the palm of her hands. The only disappointing original track is over very early in proceedings when she sings “Shine On Harvest Moon” a song that I have never been particularly fond of. However, this is followed by the first of several pieces of special material, a companion piece to “Liza With A Z”, where Liza sings of people who she has met claiming to know someone “Exactly Like You”. It’s the sort of song that Liza excels at and other performers can rarely carry off. She follows this with the rousing “The Circle” a lesser known Piaf tune, followed by the standard “More Than You Know”. Next up is another absolute highlight from the pens of Kander & Ebb, the little known “I’m One Of The Smart Ones.” A change of pace with a couple of Charles Aznavour songs, the introspective “And I In My Chair” which defines the thinking that a song is a three act play in four minutes. As Liza sings of observing people at a party as her relationship breaks down you believe every word. Thankfully after the heartbreak of this number she lets rip with the better known “There Is A Time”, before once again getting introspective with a definitive version of “A Quiet Thing” from her first Broadway show “Flora, The Red menace”. The original ends with the track that lead to the many years of limbo that the album suffered – a medley from “Cabaret”. No surprises in this selection, but many of the preceding make this album an absolutely essential purchase for any fan of Liza. My only real negative criticism is that the album doesn't use the original cover art on the front, relegating it to an inside picture. However I have used that original design for this review.
As an added bonus for this release come three additional tracks from the archives that never made the original cut of the album. It’s fair to say that it’s always nice to have a little extra Liza, but none of these three tracks sparkle in the way that the highlights of the original album do. For another taste of Liza from this period seek out “Liza With A Z” on either CD or even better DVD.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

How Glad I Am that I discovered Aretha's jazz past

It has been sometime since I wrote regularly for my blog, so it’s high time I at least attempt to write the occasional paragraph. I seem to accumulate CDs and DVDs at such a ridiculous rate that I thought I would begin by writing the occasional review of the latest additions to my collection. For my first selection I am taking a look at a recent compilation by the greatest of soul divas – Aretha Franklin ARETHA FRANKLIN – THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK When most of us think of Ms Franklin we tend to think of the classic soul tracks she recorded for the Atlantic label in the late sixties and early seventies, such as “A Natural Woman”, “Think” and “Respect”. The definitive recordings she recorded during this period have possibly over shadowed everything that she did in later years, and this is certainly the case when it comes to the recordings she did for Columbia in the early sixties at the beginning of her career. Apparently it became common place for people to say that these early albums were produced by a label that neither understood or supported Franklin as a performer and are inferior to everything that followed. However, Aretha is on the record as saying that what she really wanted to be was a jazz singer, and that she holds these recordings in high regard herself as the arrangements and production, were exactly as she wanted at the time, and she held the musicians in higher regard than those on her more successful songs. Putting all that aside I can only judge the recordings as I find them myself., and as a lover of the great American songbook, I can judge them alongside the great artists of the last eighty years or so who have made a success of singing the music of Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins and more. I can possibly divide the songs into two categories. Firstly, tracks such as “What A Difference a Day Made” and “How Deep Is The Ocean” where she plays it straight with arrangements close to the originals. I almost expected the vocal histrionics that typify a lot of Aretha’s work (for better or worse) but what Franklin does is showcase the music and lyrics in a similar way to Ella Fitzgerald did on her acclaimed songbook series for the Verve label, and she is no less effective than Ella herself which is high praise indeed. Secondly, there are the recordings where Aretha let’s loose and swings. She throws herself into these songs with what seems like abandon, but on closer listening it’s clear that these are meticulously considered renderings on a par with the greatest of jazz performers. What sets many of these tracks apart are the inventive arrangements where Aretha deconstructs a songs and re-invents it so it sounds like something you are hearing for the first time. This is typified by her take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, but the absolute highlights are possibly “How Glad I Am” and Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” which give her full rein to really let loose and show what she can do, but without the over indulgence that some of her later work exhibited. It’s fair to say that I was totally blown away by this compilation and can’t recommend it highly enough. Aretha Franklin has now gone from a singer I used to quite like and appreciate to one that I regard in the highest terms and want to discover more about. FURTHER RECOMMENDATIONS If like me you listen to and enjoy this album then do as I have done and seek out some of the individual albums from this period where she was, as oft described, “the Queen in waiting” Many of these discs are available in budget priced box sets. So far I have added “Unforgettable – A Tribute To Dinah Washington”, “The Electrifying…”, “Soul Sister”, “The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging”, and “Running Out Of Fools” to my collection and none of them have disappointed – they all highlight the great Jazz singer that Aretha Franklin was in her early twenties whilst showing a tantalizing glimpse of the consummate soul diva she would become.