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Judy Kuhn

Serious Playground

(Ghostlight Records; US: 2 Oct 2007; UK: Available as import)

Judy Kuhn is a Broadway singer, three-time Tony Award nominee and winner of an Obie Award for her role in the off-Broadway musical “Eli’s Comin’” (which was comprised of songs of the late pioneering singer-songwriter Laura Nyro: “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”). Kuhn cut a well-received CD of Jule Styne American Songbook classics in 1995, and attempts to do the same here with Nyro. The Bronx-born Nyro, who helped define the role of the singer-songwriter in the 1960s, was a multifaceted writer who created wildly individualistic music when she took her teenage love of soul, R&B and girl group music and melded it with poetic lyrics and innovative song structures. But Nyro wrote from an R&B foundation, and that makes for an uneasy match with the pristine-voiced Kuhn. Kuhn’s trained voice is so professional-sounding that it doesn’t meld easily with the bluesy notes that are at the heart and soul of Nyro’s melodies (accent on the “soul”). For the arrangements, musical director Jeffrey Klitz brings out the jazzy elements in the songs, but too often makes them overly busy or ornate. Not that Nyro wasn’t complicated; she often was. But when Nyro played with tempos, rhythms or dynamics it was always to underscore an expressive point she was trying to make. Kuhn and Klitz’s approach works when they tackle artsier songs, like “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp” or “Black Patch” or jazzier numbers, such as “Buy and Sell”. They’re less successful with the songs that depend on an interior rhythmic drive for their melodies to come to life (“Stoney End” and “Save the Country”). Still, credit Kuhn for her enthusiasm and good taste. She’s brought to light some lesser-known Nyro gems like “Mother’s Spiritual” and “Lonely Women” and put together the first-ever solo CD celebrating the work of a pioneering, often overlooked songwriter.

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