Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Sound Advice column of CD reviews ~ LIZA'S AT THE PALACE

The Sound Advice column of CD reviews returns from a hiatus with high-energy recordings featuring the folks who recently raised the roof at the Palace Theatre on Broadway following a tour crisscrossing the globe: welcome back to our readers and to Liza Minnelli with the songs from that recent show, six of them featuring her four male singer-dancers. Two of them have recordings of their own. There's energy to burn all around.0D

"Look who's here—the same dame you've always known" goes a line in the tailor-made new song about Liza Minnelli's latest grand return. And for the most part, that sums up her new double-disc release: it's very Liza, with her trademark zing and joyful theatricality. The song quoted is called "I Would Never Leave You" and captures the entertainer's longtime love affair—with her audiences. Smoothly and adeptly acknowledging her love for her work and its importance, it is unabashedly affectionate and self-knowing (written by the talented, "they-know-whereof-they-speak" Billy Stritch, Johnny Rodgers—more on them below—and Brian Lane Green). This is a masterful Minnelli, knowing herself, her career and her image, all with their, to quote the title of one of her first shows, best foot forward.
The singing has always been more about bold choices, biting into songs ferociously with dramatic flourishes and a whirlwind of energy more so than having musical purity or "pretty sounds." The vibrato can be wide, with more blare than care, but that ain't new. Reinvigorated here (the word "ragged" some cynics might hope to hear is not remotely appropriate). Yes indeed, this performer has had her own well-documented vocal challenges and uneven performances as a result of various woes and struggles. How does she sound here? Healthy and focused, youthful without that very giddy, giggly, girlishness or frantic, frazzled feel that she could have been accused of in past recordings and shows. She's involved and savvy, warm and in fine fettle. If you've liked Liza's work in the past, you'll be a satisfied customer again: she delivers punch and things feel kinetic and dynamic.
Featuring the songs in her act that has been touring the world from Uruguay to Broadway, this is a studio recording, not recorded-live-in-concert with adulatory applause and screams. That's fine; she's released numerous live albums and a studio session allows for choices focused on vocal and musical elements that need not make compensations for movement, a performer pacing herself, and the vagaries of audience and sound systems. The album, produced by legendary record producer Phil Ramone, sounds bright and crisp, almost feeling "live" pretty often. (A few brief lines of patter are retained from the live shows.)
About half the songs have been recorded before, some more than a couple of times. "Maybe This Time" has followed Liza from her first solo album in 1964 and maybe this time we didn't need another rendition, but neither this nor the other warhorses sound beaten down or walked through. Not that there are any grand reinventions and rethinkings of them in approach or arrangement (ori ginal arrangers are credited and their work is respected), but they still sparkle and are fused with adrenalin galore. There are a few nice revisits with some more variations, like "My Own Best Friend," a souvenir of the time Liza stepped in for Gwen Verdon on short notice for a few weeks in the original run of Chicago (the first version had been released originally on one side of a 45 rpm single record). They all come across as old friends, as does the singer.
But the real treasure here for those who have most of the recordings of the staples on the shelf or burned in their memories is the stuff not previously visited by Liza. On the first disc, it's historic and pretty darn thrilling to hear Liza sail through the medley of songs associated with vaudeville stars that was a piece de resistance when performed by her mother, Judy Garland, when she played New York's Palace Theatre. Liza sticks close to the well-established maternal footprints saluting Sophie Tucker and others, so this is showbiz history times two. Special lyrics have been written by John Kander, David Zippel and Billy Stritch, in his frequent role as musical supervisor/pianist—and he did some of the arrangements. As usual, he's right on the money and he and new drummer/conductor Mike Berkowitz run a tight ship. Seventeen musicians are credited in all, with five sax players including veteran Gerry Niewood who tragically died in the Buffalo plane crash two weeks ago.
A20big chunk of the album and recent stage act, and its raison d'être and main event for many, is the section saluting entertainer and brilliant vocal arranger Kay Thompson, who contributed work to MGM musicals in the golden age, appearing herself in Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Not at all incidentally, she was Liza's godmother and anchor and friend, so this centerpiece is a tribute. And it is a terrific one: exciting, fast-paced, snazzy and with oomph galore. These songs all appear on the second disc, recreating Kay Thompson's night club act with the harmonizing, dancing Williams Brothers. The guys here are splendid and spunky, bursting with joy and jive with their close and interesting harmonies. They are Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina, Cortés Alexander and Johnny Rodgers (who in recent years has often been her pianist). Yes, folks, this is good old fashioned showbiz fizz: brisk, bouncy, bubbling-over-with-happiness and celebrating the fun side of life and music. The Thompson originals "I Love a Violin," "Jubilee Time" and the uber-chipper opener "Hello, Hello" are dare-you-not-to-smile peppy pleasers, not for the eye-rolling curmudgeons or those looking for depth and drama. This is caffeine triple dose, perhaps more antic and frantic than some might want (and, sure, it was more thrilling on stage with the dance steps and interaction). The talented men sound marvelously buoyant on their own, singing "Liza," the old song by the Gershwins and Gus Kahn that Liza has used as her entrance music for years (Ira Gershwin was her godfather.) But this is far more than infectious fun: it's musical dynamite with very pleasing, often complex vocal harmonies from the men. Understandably, superstar Liza may have received most of the attention, but these guys are super and super-entertaining, doing excellent, careful work and blending wonderfully. All in all, it's a ball.

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