NANCY STEARNS' CD: WEATHER OR NOT
In her latest CD, a generous-length collection of 17 tracks, Nancy Stearns has a theme: all numbers deal with the weather or the seasons and how they affect people—and, in one case, ducks ... and, in another, "Wendell's Cat" (a charmer by singer Daryl Sherman). As in all her past CDs, New Yorker Nancy, a retired attorney who follows (and expresses) her heart through music, is accompanied by the same two outstanding and classy musicians: bassist David Finck and pianist/arranger Gregory Toroian. It's very much a team effort, with the instrumentalists shaping, illuminating, and fleshing out the musical landscapes. Although they are prodigiously gifted players who can be commanding and dynamic in a cabaret-style set or as jazzmen, they never upstage the very low-key lady whose folksy, conversational approach favors no big notes or big finishes or flourishes, but conveys the gist of lyrics in a down-to- earth manner.
She'll sometimes speak a phrase rather than sing it and an extended mellow or murky mood may risk lags in energy, but there's amply evident sincerity in her manner. And these two musicians often buoy her and feather her nest with beautifully layered sounds or simply keep a flow ensured. Respect for and deference to each other is ever-present, as is the ultimate commitment to the very fine material chosen. While her phrasing on two Irving Berlin numbers, "Blue Skies" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)," meanders in places, the sincerity shines through. The Fantasticks's sweet "Soon It's Gonna Rain" is sprinkled with an apt sense of wonder.
With songs whose lyrics go beyond just cute references to mundane meteorological matters, the album never risks feeling like the soundtrack to television's The Weather Channel. Depth and laments and catharsis come into play with Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" about a flood in that year and place and Loonis McGlohon/Alec Wilder's emotionally hefty, haunting and mature exploration of the uneasiness of "Blackberry Winter" (with its pained realization "I'll never get over losing you/ But I've learned that life goes on"). And Nancy, while she's nobody's weepy drama queen, rises to the occasion with a mix of the restrained and pained choking back of very present (or past) tears. For me, although she wins points for grace and smiling good spirits (Francesca Blumenthal's endearing "Christmas in New York" and the sprightly splash of fun in Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman's "It's Nice Weather for Ducks"), where she really impresses is when she takes on something invoking a philosophical bent or reflective element. A good example here is her dignified and pensive reading of Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise," carrying real weight in the way she expresses the mix of serenity and hope. In Noël Coward's "Come the Wild, Wild Weather," with its quiet but firm assurance that "we will always be friends," is persuasive and warm. The use of elements of Nature as powerful metaphors in both pieces is something that suits the Stearns style of communication, transmitting a well of feeling and considered perspectives.
Gregory Toroian's arrangements capture the singer's humanity and bring extra depth and shadings when she underplays—quite the balance—and the rich fabric of some marvelous melodies get both loving care and informed emphasis in his playing. His settings have real character and form, avoiding clichés (some playing on selections about rain more subtly suggest the rhythms or tinkling of raindrops without risking a "sound effects" punctuated approach). And his jazzier excursions on solos are pure pleasure. Once again, he'll be at the keyboard with Mr. Finck in his place on bass, as Nancy Stearns and the fourth talented member of their returning creative team —simpatico director Helen Baldassare—debut another cabaret show, titled A Wish, tonight (May 3), repeating it on Sunday, at NYC's Metropolitan Room. After ten consecutive years of these thoughtful collaborations and explorations, several of which I've witnessed, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that we'll be set for another intelligent and informed presentation.
May 3, 2012
NANCY STEARNS/Weather or Not: The singing lawyer continues her love affair with albums that have themes, this time around the theme is weather. Kicking it off with “Blue Skies” and veering around the barometer from there, the cabaret inflected performer manages to successfully bring the weather spot on the evening news to the cabaret. How nice when you have a generous canon to pull from. When she's immersed in a lyric she loves, she seems like she should give up her day job.
Editor and Publisher
January 9, 2012
NANCY STEARNS in WEATHER OR NOT
at The Metropolitan Room, NYC
With Gregory Toroian, piano and David Fink, bass
Directed by Helen Baldassare
DELIGHTFUL from start to finish. Nancy Stearns has a voice to be heard and I'm not just talking about her wonderful warm vocals. This is a smart, smart lady. I have all of her CDs and listen to them often because she always seems to find a way to say something just a little bit different in tunes we have all heard for years. In a live show, she does this with phrasing and she does this with the most wonderful stories and song set ups that allow the song to just flow right out of a thought.
She tributes her work with Director Helen Baldassare and it is deserved. I am a HUGE Helen fan; I started with Helen so I know how Helen works. She guides and she edits while still always respecting the singers choices. She does what more directors should do - she fixes and then gets out of the way to let the singer and the show shine. We saw Nancy in this show and we saw her at very her best.
Adding to this team is Gregory Toroian and David Fink. For the sake of full disclosure, I have to tell you that Gregory is also my Musical Director and Arranger so I'm a bit biased here but his work on this show and in these charts is to be noted as well. Gregory's arranging work is impressive throughout but on "Soon It's Gonna Rain" it starts and ends with a constant plunking of the bass (David Fink is the master!) that brings raindrops to mind and instantly creates that melancholy mood. Later, in his solo, Gregory does this cascading rain effect that brings to mind a heavier rain fall ... it was stunning work.
The theme was arrived at by Nancy hearing a tune she wanted to sing and to share with her friends, James Taylor's "Summer's Here", and then, while leafing (get it ... weather, leafing ... ) through a Lands End magazine, she came upon the phrase, "Weather or Not" and a show was born. Yes, all the tunes relate to different weather patterns, some were expected in a show like this and some were not but they all mattered. They mattered because of how Nancy wove this show with song, lyric, music and patter.
The show ends with several back-to-back ballads (like 4 in a row) and normally I'm not one that likes a ballad heavy show, particularly at the end, but Nancy is that engaging ... she keeps you with her and her audience loved this show ... so did I. In keeping with the weather theme here, Nancy is a breath of fresh air in this community. So, when she sings, "It's it a Lovely Day?" I would say, "Yes it is when you're singing Nancy!" She will be bringing her show back and I will certainly let you know when.
SUE'S VIEWS, REVIEWS & NEWS
Cabaret Hotline Online
May 2, 2011
WEATHER OR NOT
New York, NY
Nancy Stearns’s light voice might not make it through the auditions at the Metropolitan Opera, but that’s okay with me because she’s a personable charmer, and in the intimate surroundings of a cabaret room, she delivered an enjoyable hour of music and entertainment. She nailed the lyrics of the songs she sang as if she were the writer and wanted to be certain you understood exactly what the number was all about. And if there was any doubt about just what that might be, all you had to do is watch her. She’s got as mobile a face as a mime, and the body language to match.
The song list lived up to the show’s title. In the midst of the dismal spring New York suffered, Stearns claimed the idea for the show came to her when she heard James Taylor’s “Summer’s Here.” More to the point, perhaps, was her inclusion of Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s “Nice Weather for Ducks,” although “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was also on the bill. Weather long has been a popular subject, and Stearns dipped into the songbooks of Noël Coward, Irving Berlin and Daryl Sherman, as well as Tom Jones and Duke Ellington, for relevant tunes.
The two highlights of Stearns’s very pleasant show were a rib-tickling “Christmas in New York,” by Francesca Blumenthal, and a sensitive and effective rendition of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” Newman’s impassioned lyric “Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline…,” written to commemorate that catastrophic weather, resonated three quarters of a century later with Hurricane, Katrina, and yet again with the current headlines of flooding in the Midwest.
Gregory Toroian on piano and David Finck on bass supported their vocalist well. In return, Stearns frequently stepped back to allow them the opportunity of instrumental breaks. Helen Baldassare directed. J-P Perreaux, the “artist in the booth” as Stearns described him, was technical director.
April 28, 2011
Salutes to the great of songwriting keep coming. Here are two tipping their hats to giants; the singers couldn't be more different at first impression. But both have distinctive charms. One's an ebullient showman bursting with irrepressible energy and a blast of a band. The other is a very understated lady with just a pianist and bass player.
YIP HARBURG: WITH HUMOR AND HOPE
With the recent revival of Finian's Rainbow brightening the Broadway skies, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's words have been in the air again, and Nancy Stearns has taken them to heart, to cabaret and to disc. Her latest CD represents her latest New York cabaret show with her two returning excellent musicians, bassist David Finck and pianist-arranger Gregory Toroian, who are old hands at tasteful settings that also flesh out the musical moods for this graceful woman who uses a small voice and a big heart. They imbue the songs with warmth and elegance, restraint and intelligence. The whimsy and wisdom and wistfulness of Harburg's "Humor and Hope" come through, and Nancy's unflinching kindred political spirit to Harburg's, from her many years as a lawyer fighting for progressive causes, comes through loud and clear. Well, not loud, but clear. It's a good match in that way, as it is (wisely) for a performer without a big voice to pick songs where the lyrics are so very strong and can be front and center.
She switches to speech very briefly here and there, but mostly sings very lightly and comfortably in tune with a gently pleasing sound. Some numbers withstand this approach better than others and there are times when I just miss having more oomph in this 18-track program. But then she draws me back in. Her having chosen some rarely done material, like "the Earl Robinson collaborations "The Same Boat, Brother" (a forthright protest song) and especially the 1971 gem expressing every warm wish for "One Sweet Morning," is another draw.
Finian's Rainbow is represented by three songs sung in a row: "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," "Look to the Rainbow" and "The Begat," with the thoughtful rendition of sweet optimistic philosophy a reassuring respite between the two quicker-paced witty waterfalls of words and sarcasm. She also groups a trio of Bloomer Girl songs, reminding us of that strong score written with Harold Arlen. In this case, she saves the ballad, "Right as the Rain," for last. A song that can be done with quiet awe and glimmers of wonder, it suits Nancy's chosen style but in this low-key album, even more welcome is the brisk, feisty feminist declaration, "It Was Good Enough for Grandma." The third Bloomer Girl pick doesn't bloom as brightly: "The Eagle and Me" could use more determination and spirit—it feels too casually approached to me. However, there's something to be said for her focus on the delight taken in the images of Nature presented in this song.
I also miss the drama in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' which seems to have its first-person protagonist too distanced from the pain and past, dignified instead of palpably suffering from bruised dignity. It doesn't have to go the soap opera route with all stops out but it needs more tension and centering. Far more successful is the focused portrait starkness and lamenting of "The Silent Spring" (music by Arlen).
As far as accompaniment, the duo becomes (as on past albums with this singer) a special joy to hear because of their high level of skill and way of complementing the vocalist without overshadowing or laying back too much. Gregory Toroian's arrangements and playing have a sensitivity and creativeness that subtly ornament the melodies like brocaded tapestries at times. Introspective but not abstract, his playing avoids wasted notes or flourishes and his too-few solos are immensely rewarding. Very present, the musicians add greatly to the proceedings, letting the singer keep her eye on the treasured words, but never losing sight of their job in presenting and exploring the musical bed on which the lyrics lay and the mapped-out road they must travel. There are lovely subtle details such as the glimmer of a reference to Harburg's most famous and voluminously recorded lyric, not sung here, "Over the Rainbow." It's a winning combination, and maybe the big winner and still champion is the brilliance of wordsmith Harburg whose polished lyrics (and his indomitable spirit) shine brightly. We need him as much as always and lawyer Nancy Stearns builds a good case for that.
March 4, 2010
Yip Harburg: With Humor and Hope
Don't Tell Mama
New York, NY
Sometimes good things come in vocally small packages. Nancy Stearns ain’t no belter. Though she’ll seldom sustain a note, her presentation rarely fails to sustain interest. Just a note on those notes: the note she’ll occasionally hold out indicates she’s maybe holding out on us. I wish she’d use more voice more often. She uses less, but nevertheless, she connects with lyrics and audiences. Her delight in well-crafted, intelligent songs is infectious. Lyricist E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg is a good match for her: his delicious word play (“The Begat”) and sweet romanticism (“What Is There to Say?”) thrive in the spotlight provided by her careful and caring approach, faultless diction, and warm phrasing. As a lawyer who dedicated her career to progressive causes and equal rights, she’s a kindred spirit to the pacifist writer of similar bent, illustrated in “Leave the Atom Alone,” “Same Boat, Brother” and others. Nancy has an admirable grasp of tricky lyrics and rhythms in patter songs. As usual, her musical partners here (and on the resultant CD) are sterling pianist Gregory Toroian and bassist David Finck, supplying rich, surprising, welcome textures. Director Helen Baldassare honed a crisp, tight show including Harburg’s light verse and relevant biographical facts. This reviewer caught her dancing along smilingly in the back, still enjoying its energy: a good sign the singer and lyrics are in good hands—and the music, too.
November 15, 2009
Yip Harburg: With Humor and Hope
Her previous shows have covered songs "with social significance...or not," including songs that grew out of the civil rights movement and the women's movement as well the Great Depression, while another show had songs "with rhyme, but for no particular reason" including little known songs which turned out to be gems (like "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" by William Finn, and "Up Jumped a Bird" by Bob Dorough). Other shows covered songs with words by women, and her last show produced more personal songs that reflected members of her family and some of her closest friends.
Nancy Stearns' new show "Yip Harburg: With Humor and Hope" grew out of her love of and admiration for this great lyricist who has been called Broadway's social conscience. As to why she chose Harburg in particular, she says what else would you expect from a singing lefty lawyer who has worked for women's rights, racial equality, the environment, and is a lover and a defender of peace and social injustice? One of the most obvious compositions to represent Harburg is his famous anthem of the unemployed: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Gorney), here sung slowly and with appropriate emphasis. No frills, because they aren't necessary. Stearns approaches each song with obvious care that she deliver it as it was meant to be heard; that is, stressing the often socially significant lyric. Her musical director Gregory Toroian has chosen subtle harmonies while still providing strong musical support, along with the distinguished and excellent David Finck on bass.
The fact that Harburg has written with so many composers (48, according to Stearns), gave great variety to the program, even though his closest and most frequent collaborator Harold Arlen was predominantly represented, beginning with the opening "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," sung with the rare verse, and with obvious glee, which may or may not have been politically motivated. Kern's "Can't Help Singing" was also done with much delight, and even joy, following our recent inauguration. A trio of songs from Bloomer Girl brought out the social significance of that score, and Stearn's lawyerly stance enriched her delivery. Her lovely rendition of the show's love song "Right as the Rain" was almost tear-inducing.
Harburg's advice during the 50's nuclear arms race, with weapons testing in Nevada and the Pacific, was to write a song about the mushroom shaped clouds in his show Jamaica called "Leave de Atom Alone," and Stearns sang it with great style. Subtle lighting changes, by the magical Bobby Kneeland, and strong direction by Helen Baldassare made this show a most professional and enjoyable experience in Don't Tell Mama's spanking new cabaret room which is both attractive and comfortable, even with a sold out and appreciative crowd composed of singers, songwriters and enthusiastic fans.
Vernon Duke's "I Like the Likes of You" was humorously sung directly to bassist David Finck, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. A trio of songs from the brilliant Finian's Rainbow (Burton Lane) displayed the fun, and also the honest and sincere Harburg lyrics in "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," which Stearns sold in a strong performance, and the beautiful "Look to the Rainbow." Naturally, she didn't omit "The Begat," where she sang of "begatting the misbegotten GOP." It was also great to hear some late Harburg with "Time, You Old Gypsy Man" (Philip Springer) from 1979, and the timely Harburg in "The Same Boat, Brother" (Earl Robinson) from 1945's Unity Fair.
Ending the show with the wonderful "Little Drops of Rain" (Arlen) from Gay Purr-ee was the piece de resistance for me, and Toroian even plugged in a measure or two of "Over the Rainbow" toward the end. Stearns and company have put together a delightful collection of Harburg tunes, and if you can still get in, I highly recommend you see the next show Wednesday May 6th at 7:00. Hopefully, she will follow with a CD of this show like she has done with her others. They are all a joy to listen to, and can be found on CD Baby.
This show is a keen portrait of both Yip and his wondrous lyrics.
Son of Yip Harburg, and co-author of
Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist
UNDER THE RADAR
E. Y. Harburg will be the lyricist whose songbook will make up the set list for singer Nancy Stearns in her new show premiering at Don't Tell Mama this Sunday and returning on May 6. That set will likely be on her next album—at this moment, we have This Moment. It's the previous show she presented with her usual mix of thoughtful songs done with understated grace and a bit of whimsy. There's just a drop of Harburg: a quick stroll through "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block" (a collaboration with co-lyricist Ira Gershwin and composer Harold Arlen) combined with the jaunty, jazzy "Walkin' Shoes" (Gerry Mulligan/ Bobby Troup). It's one of the livelier tracks on this mostly very low-key album where songs get a conversational, small-voiced/big-hearted approach. This is Nancy's fourth CD, and that's her M.O. Tasteful to a fault, modest in vocal endowment and manner, she communicates with directness and non-fussy ways rather than fanfare and volume.
The laid-back, near-parlando style works much of the time, but there are times when one wants more obvious intensity and drama, with more vocal variety and all-around oomph. For example, "Feeling Good" from the score of The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd need not be loud, but could use some more "guts." A celebration of freedom and relishing joy, it doesn't work for me being so relaxed and serene; it comes off not as seething with the carpe diem of "Feeling Good," but just "Feeling Pleasant." Another show tune that comes up kind of short is "Nobody's Heart" by Rodgers & Hart. The Hart lyric, on the surface, says of being without a romantic partner, "who cares? ... that is the least of my cares." But we know that thou doth protest too much and the loneliness is very much felt. Nor does she sound particularly bothered by the loneliness brought up in "Darn That Dream." She shrugs off both bouts of yearning as if they were only mildly pesky rather than tear-worthy. But enough quibbles: there is a lot to admire otherwise.
Nancy is particularly good as a storyteller; "Home Is Where the Heart Is," Sally Fingerett's 1990 song about a mother matter-of-factly teaching her child about their gay neighbors' loving relationships, is very affecting and elegant. Craig Carnelia's "The Mason" from Working brings out the nobility of the trade and the workman's contribution to posterity. A welcome change of pace is the humorous dig at "The George Bush Society," a rewrite of Michael Brown's 1960s satirical swipe at that era's arch Conservative, Communist-fearing group, "The John Birch Society." The update with its clever rhymes is by Mr. Brown himself. Politically astute Ms. Stearns is right on target as she points her arrows at this just-exited target. The album has many worthwhile and lovely moments, beginning and ending with two different songs with the same title of "This Moment"—written by talented tunesmiths John Wallowitch and John Bucchino.
On each of Nancy's four albums, her work is greatly enhanced by the contributions of the same two (and only two) stellar musicians: ace bass player David Finck, a plus on any album over the years; and the creative, skilled and thoughtful Gregory Toroian, pianist-arranger-co-producer and the ideal partner for her work. His arrangements instantly set moods, can flesh out some emotion and add subtext and are immensely supportive and just darned interesting to listen to (the ideas and the actual playing itself). Allergic to the overly sentimental and the cliché, his touch is always in touch with the song's intent and flavor. Together, this trio paints some graceful story-pictures.
... Until the next spin and sounds ... so long.
April 23, 2009
Song Sellers and Storytellers
Songs Sold Well, Stories Told Well
UNDER THE RADAR
WITH RHYME, BUT FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
Nancy Stearns generally performs just a couple of nights per year, quietly singing in her low-key way at the New York cabaret Don't Tell Mama. Since she released two charming CDs of her repertoire, she was invited twice in the past several months to appear at the MAC and Bistro Award-winning "Any Wednesday" free concert series at Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center, hosted by Bart Greenberg. Though she's therefore hardly the most visible presence on the scene, her most recent act was one I was glad to catch and this third CD presents that material.
There's major emphasis on lyrics in Nancy's approach to all of the material, given her lack of a big voice and scarcity of sustained tones, plus her very attentive phrasing and crisp, super-clear diction. She largely chooses songs with words that are especially literate (Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind") or clever (the hilarious "I Don't Say Anything" by Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty from the musical Inside Out). The latter is about being just a girl who can't say no – no, not "no" to lust like Ado Annie in Oklahoma! but being agreeable to whatever anyone suggests, from giving up a vacation to giving up a boyfriend. Her comic timing is great, as is this presentation of a smiling-through-gritted-teeth character - she should seek out more such material.
Other show tunes include Oliver!'s "Who Will Buy?" and the Gershwins' "Bidin' My Time" from Girl Crazy (or if you prefer, the latter-day Broadway revamp Crazy for You). Occasionally, the laidback style doesn't work so well, with "We'll Be Together Again" oddly dispassionate and offhand, whereas it has the potential to have gravitas to the point of being metaphysical in implication.
Nancy is in the company of the two musicians who appeared on her prior albums – both are strong reasons to stop and have an attentive listen — giving first class support with their classy, jazzy work, without ever overpowering the conversational approach Nancy takes to her song-story presentations. The two are pianist/musical director Gregory Toroian and bassist David Finck, who composed the music for the attractive "Here We Are" and collaborated on its lyric with Jack Murphy. The musicians nudge her into jazzland with Bob Dorough's tricky "Up Jumped a Bird" to spread her musical wings. She's game, but it feels a bit labored.
The Toroian arrangements and solos throughout are excellent and he does so more than accompany - he adds colors and subtle dramatic subtext much of the time. Playing moods as much as playing notes, setting moods as much as setting tempi, his work is exceptional here (he's also the co-producer of the CD with the singer). He joins her a bit on William Finn's "14 Dwight Ave., Natwick, Massachusetts" from the Elegies song cycle and it's a major highlight. The recollections of growing up in a kind of it-takes-a-village street of caring people who become life-long friends is beautifully done and extremely touching. When she proclaims, "Oh, lucky us for us for living on that street" or he recalls "where dad coached summer teams and won," it's believable and moving. They also sing together on the far lighter, brighter "Spring, Spring, Spring" from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers having great fun with the wordplay and clever rhymes of Johnny Mercer set to Gene de Paul's sprightly music. There may be "no particular reason" for these songs being together on one CD, but there are plenty of reasons to care.
April 10, 2008
Also keep in mind Nancy Stearns' Sing Me A Song With Social Significance, which its title from a Harold Rome song that was part of the 1937 revue, Pins and Needles, and from here, Stearns moves through a vast array of music from the 20th century. Some of my faves are the World War II era "Rosie the Riveter" and "Take Care of This House" from the Benrstein-Lerner collaboration 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Stearns has a true cabaret performers' flair, and you'll find that she uses her distinctive voice to give additional character to each of these songs – and others like ""Stop and See Me" (from David Spencer and Alan Menken's Weird Romance) and "Look Around" (from Will Rogers Follies).
Nancy Stearns proves that it's worthwhile to pursue a second career! Her version of our song "I Don't Say Anything" (from off-Broadway's INSIDE OUT) is charming, humorous, and a little too believable (must be something about that former career). She makes us laugh as well as empathize. We love her.
Doug Haverty & Adryan Russ
(the writers of "I Don’t Say Anything"
which is on The Words of Women and
With Rhyme, But For No Particular Reason)
WOMEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT
UNDER THE RADAR
There's nothing fancy about this Nancy: she keeps it simple and sincere.
Sing Me A Song With Social Significance ... Or Not
The Words Of Women
Sometimes it doesn't take the biggest voice to make a big impact. Nancy Stearns, though quite musical, is rather a minimalist as a singer. Crisp and clear, she sings the notes lightly but doesn't sustain them; however, she sustains interest with her thoughtful renditions. Focusing on the words, she serves them by having a presentation that is direct and persuasive. Fine diction is one of her strong suits. Nancy's two albums, recorded and released close together, provide ample evidence of the success of her approach. Each has 17 selections, and each has three tracks that come in at under two minutes and two going beyond four minutes in length - but each has a different thematic concept.
The Words of Women, as the title suggests, celebrates female lyricists. There are three tastes of Peggy Lee's work and another trio of samples from that pioneer for women writers on Broadway, Dorothy Fields, who career there spanned the 1920s to the 1970s. There are playful moments in this set, such "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" with the Duke Ellington melody and the Fields/ Cy Coleman "My Personal Property" heard in the movie version of Sweet Charity. But it's the meatier material where Nancy shines, with two related back-to-back pieces about defining home. "Home Is Where the Heart Is" (Sally Fingerett), the song about same-sex couples, has a dignity and builds well. "Finding Home," introduced by Jessica Molaskey in Dream True by Tina Landau and Ricky Ian Gordon, is also treated with tender loving care, if somewhat understated.
There are times when the singer stays squarely on the same (relaxed) energy level for (too) much of a number. The accompaniment often picks up the slack and always keeps things quite interesting. "I Don't Say Anything" by Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty is a comical delight, about a person who has a lifelong habit of being overly agreeable, and then resenting it. And it's fun to hear the Lynn Ahrens/ Stephen Flaherty cutie, "How Lucky You Are," with its mix of chipper cheer and sarcasm (" ... if worse comes to worse as we all know it will/ Thank your lucky star you've gotten this far").
The album I prefer because of its stronger impact, Sing Me a Song with Social Significance ... Or Not, reflects Nancy's dedication to the world view and social issues she worked on for years in her main career as an attorney. Thought-provoking performances with integrity proudly shining through dominate the CD, with a few charming comic relief selections.
The number inspiring the album title and "Doing the Reactionary" are both politically aware pieces from Harold Rome's score to Pins and Needles and the latter gets one lyric update by inserting the names Bush and Cheney into one line. But the serious songs never come across as soap opera or soap box preaching. In fact, there is a sense of comfort that comes through, as well as a confident intelligence – to sum it up, "wisdom" might be the key word.
That very socially conscious lyricist, Yip Harburg, is represented by two songs, each with a more recent theatre song on the same topic tracked next to it. Nancy presents the dignity and sorrow of the down-on-their-luck first person tales, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Harburg with Jay Gorney) and "Stop and See Me" from Weird Romance (Alan Menken/ David Spencer). Likewise, the world's fragile environment is appreciated in sensitive and cautionary readings of "Look Around" (Will Rogers' Follies) follows "Silent Spring," the Harburg piece written with Harold Arlen that borrows the title of the Rachel Carson book.
A lighter, brighter look at spring in full bloom comes via "Spring, Spring, Spring" with its fun Johnny Mercer rhymes relished. It's a charming vocal duet with Gregory Toroian, the prodigiously talented pianist and arranger for both albums. His creative and tasteful work is a huge reason for the success of these CDs. A skilled jazz player, he never overplays or upstages Nancy's low-key approach. He works subtly to add musical layers and his own mini-ruminations in some numbers, supporting and fleshing out the emotional moods established. Notably, they are joined by the top flight bass player David Finck on both recordings. Neither takes the spotlight for many extended solos, which is a shame.
Nancy will be performing with the same two sterling musicians this Sunday at the Manhattan nightclub Don't Tell Mama. (Coincidentally, just as we were going to press, Nancy's new CD based on this show, With Rhyme, But For No Particular Reason. became available for sale at CDBaby.com.) Their work in person is especially engaging, and Nancy Stearns is a gracious presence, her style well suited to an intimate setting. The show is a benefit for The Center for Constitutional Rights, a cause close to her heart and related to her other career. She's a pleasure. I rest my case.
November 1, 2007
Nancy Stearns: With Rhyme, but for No Particular Reason
I enjoy seeing cabaret shows in which a singer performs songs that are not your standard issue: those not so well-known tunes, and perhaps forgotten gems. Singer Nancy Stearns seems to make a habit of doing this. A previous show "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance... or Not" featured neglected tunes of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Harold Rome, Phil Ochs and Leonard Bernstein. Her new show "With Rhyme, but for No Particular Reason," directed by Helen Baldassare and recently performed at Don't Tell Mama, continues on that path, and is a treat for those who appreciate hearing the familiar and the obscure; others may find these songs thought-provoking or simply entertaining.
Case in point is "Music Reaches Places" (Fran Landesman/Simon Wallace), a lovely, quiet song which began this set, which states how potent music can be in our lives, creating vivid memories. Music often touches places in our heart and soul that nothing else can, as we get hooked on melodies and on words. Stearns possesses a soft, soothing voice that is very easy on the ear, and it's obvious from the start that she knows her way around a lyric. She chooses songs based on what they say to her, in hopes that they may also impress the listener. She has spent most of her life, after growing up in the 1940s and 50s, as a lawyer, using her skills working for women's rights, the anti-war movement, the environment, and such. So, obviously, she meticulously chooses words carefully, and never fails to articulate them.
Her talented musicians contributed greatly to her success with this show: Gregory Toroian on piano and David Finck on bass were perfect accompanists, offering plenty of rhythm, with Toroian also contributing vocally on a few numbers. Finck was particularly fine on "I Hear Music" (Lane/Loesser) which really swings, and Stearns proved her talent with complicated lyrics and poly-rhythms on "So It's Spring" (Tommy Wolf/Wayne Arnold), a total delight. Seasonally, "Tis Autumn" (H. Nemo) was nicely done by all. "I Don't Say Anything" (Adryan Russ/Doug Haverty) was a song to her womanhood and what women, and all of us really, often have to put up with. Following "It Never Entered My Mind" (Rodgers/Hart) with "You Are There" (Mandel/Frishberg) was like eaves-dropping on a personal moment. A new song from David Finck (and Jack Murphy) "Here We Are," with a pleasant light bossa beat, offered romantic advice and is a true gem. A song of remembrance of life's cherished moments, "I Don't Remember Ever Growing Up" (Artie Butler), hit home for many.
Another tongue twister, the delightful "Up Jumped a Bird," about a blue martin she'd met, from the pen of Bob Dorough, was given lots of life. In her semi-retirement, Stearns obviously still feels the need to express herself, and has chosen this musical life to do so. What a pleasure to hear a show filled with such variety of the familiar and the obscure, the serious and the thoughtful, with light and comic touches. The above two shows are also available on CD, along with another called The Words of Women, all beautifully packaged and expertly recorded. They can be found and sampled on CD Baby. They are worthwhile additions to any CD library.
Posted on Songbirds by Gregg Culling