[1 December 2009]
The great American songwriter Cy Coleman’s songbook contains marvelous, witty, and sophisticated songs that deeply express the pleasures and pain of love and the mysteries of the human heart. These are show tunes, as in Broadway and all the glitz and glamour that conveys. Coleman is the composer of many Tony Award-nominated and -winning scores of plays most people today have never seen, such as Sweet Charity, I Love My Wife, City of Angels, Barnum, and more.
But Coleman is best known as the writer of songs from these musicals that went on to be pop hits for singers who didn’t star in the original scores, such as “Witchcraft” (Frank Sinatra), “The Best Is Yet to Come” (Ella Fitzgerald), “Big Spender” ( Peggy Lee), “Hey, Look Me Over” (Judy Garland), “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (Sammy Davis Jr.), and others. The aforementioned performances can be characterized by their shared exuberance, as the compositions beg for inspired delivery. These are BIG songs.
The baker’s dozen selections on this wonderful tribute album include just a few of the most famous Coleman tunes. Patty Griffin takes on “The Best Is Yet to Come”, which once won Ella Fitzgerald a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Griffin slows the song down and turns the lyrics into a wet and sultry promise. “We’ve only tasted the wine / We’re gonna drain that cup dry”, she sings with appropriate gusto. Perla Batalla, best known as a backup singer for Leonard Cohen, and later for her versions of his material, turns the ebullient “Hey, Look Me Over” into a carnivalesque monologue. She twists the optimistic creed into an act of desperation for theatrical effect. The result reveals the dark side of determination. Like she says, “Look out world”.
All of the 12 women who contribute to the album offer first rate renditions of the material. Much of the credit surely belongs to producer/arranger/musical director/pianist Dave Palmer. He creates a variety of artful arrangements where the singers can display their talents. But the women are the draw here. Their fame and celebrity are meant to introduce Coleman’s tunes to a younger audience.
Fiona Apple is the only one to sing two tunes: the intoxicated “Why Try to Change Me Now” and the winsome “I Walk a Little Faster”. Apple deliciously articulates each musical phrase as if she’s caressing the words. Jill Sobule performs the most charming track. She turns “I’ve Got Your Number” into a blushing declaration of love. Meanwhile, Sara Watkins might give the album’s most affecting performance. Her passionate rendition of “Too Many Tomorrows” has a formal beauty that’s simultaneously coy and worldly. Madeleine Peyroux, Missy Higgins, Sarabeth Tucek, Nikka Costa, Julianna Raye, Sam Phillips, and Ambrosia Parsley complete the talented cast of contributors.
Coleman’s songs capture the organic and inchoate longings that we all have to find another person to love us, a community to belong to, and a world to which we belong. He communicated these feelings in ways that make intuitive sense and tickle our sensitivities. These dozen women all connect with the material and provide ample evidence for why Coleman’s work should continue to be remembered, sung, and heard today.