Suave Vocals and the Ghost of Billy May
222 Records 222RO1
I'm a great fan of TV's Glee and have admired Matthew Morrison and his character, Will Schuester, from the first episode. Musically, the show has sometimes gone off the rails, but then it miraculously gets back to center with Morrison and the cast doing what they do best -- show tunes. Remember that tribute to "Make 'Em Laugh," from Singin' in the Rain? One of the most entertaining bits on television in a while.
Glee has made Morrison an internationally known star, but he got his start on Broadway, and that's what the title of his second album refers to: Broadway is where it all began. Morrison sang as Lt. Joseph Cable in a revival South Pacific. To honor that, he's included "Younger Than Springtime," Cable's big hit. The other songs on the album are as familiar as "Younger Than Springtime," but many are given new interpretations. They sound different from the original show versions, but they don't really sound all that new. Thanks to the late Phil Ramone being the producer, Morrison recorded the album at Capitol Records, in the same studio that Frank Sinatra used. He even used the same microphone. And the ghosts of Nelson Riddle and Billy May, two of Sinatra's main arrangers, seem to have been present when Where It All Began was recorded.
Morrison's connection with Ramone shows up in a clever new lyric for "The Lady Is a Tramp" from Babes in Arms. "She refuses to believe / that Phil Ramone's a friend of mine / That's why the lady is a tramp!" And not only has Ramone gotten the best singing so far out of Morrison; he's also produced an album that has a rich, signature sound. But except for a few numbers with strings ("As Long As She Needs Me" from Oliver! and "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music), the big band sounds right in the sassy, brassy Billy May tradition. I love it, but you might not, and some critics will find it old hat. That's not necessarily a bad thing if you can pull it off. And Morrison, Ramone, and a host of great musicians certainly do that!
The upbeat version of "On the Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady is my favorite cut, and it got an even more upbeat version on The Talk. Those Broadway roots go very deep, since Morrison seems to turn on more to a live audience than a studio situation. The excitement found in that live performance is what is often missing from the CD. Morrison exhibits gorgeous tone, perfect intonation, and admirable enunciation throughout, but sometimes it needs just a bit more heart. Morrison plays it safe most of the time. But he's only in his mid-30s, so he has plenty of time to mature and figure out how to transport his live-audience charisma to a studio recording. Maybe his third disc should be a live effort to hasten that transition.
Still, there's a lot to like in this set of familiar tunes. It's an appealing and well-recorded disc, sort of like the perfect summer hamburger that just needs a little mustard to make it great instead of very good.
Be sure to listen to: The smoking hot alto sax solo by Dave Koz in the middle of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing."
. . . Rad Bennett