She is an icon. She mesmerizes. She is a towering talent in a five-foot, four-inch frame. She’s earned an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony. Follow that breadcrumb trail of clues and you’ll find Liza (not “Lee-sa”) with a “Z”.
For all of Liza Minnelli’s vital contributions to stage and screen, her output in the recording studio is surprisingly sparse. There have been numerous stage productions documented on albums or, in the case of Liza’s at the Palace (2009), recordings that serve a stage production. Since winning the “Best Actress” Oscar for Cabaret (1972), Minnelli’s studio output can be counted on one hand: The Singer (1973), Tropical Nights (1977), Results (1989), Gently (1996) and now Confessions.
The gap between projects is not because Minnelli cannot be accurately captured on record. One need only listen to “You Stepped Out of a Dream” from Gently or the Pet Shop Boys-produced “Losing My Mind” to hear a vocal approach that contrasts with Minnelli’s definitive renditions of Kander & Ebb songs like “New York, New York” or “Mein Herr”. Besides a packed itinerary that includes the odd film appearance or television guest spot (Arrested Development, anyone?), concert tours, and the occasional Broadway run, it’s the right material, right producer, and, to a lesser extent, right record company that determines when, where, and how Minnelli undertakes a studio album. Fortunately, all three factors work in her favor on Confessions.
Producer Bruce Roberts and Minnelli’s longtime musical arranger Billy Stritch keep the arrangements classy and elegant. The instrumentation is minimal, highlighting every nuance of Minnelli’s wonderfully rich vibrato. Essentially, this is Liza Minnelli fronting a jazz combo. It’s an effective setting for the vocalist, who conjures the twinkling lights of the Manhattan skyline on songs like “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” and “Close Your Eyes”. The intimacy yielded by these performances is a welcome departure from the booming Radio City Music Hall heights associated with the singer. Indeed, listening to Confessions is like experiencing a private concert with Liza Minnelli at renowned NYC haunts like Birdland or the Metropolitan Room.
The singer casts a beguiling spell as she serenades with her singular vocal style. On nearly every one of the album’s 14 tracks, she employs memorable phrasing. “I get the feeling I’m a powder keg that’s just about to blow-oh-oh-wooahh”, she sings on the Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh-penned “You Fascinate Me”, emphasizing the explosive properties of the last word in the lyric. The guttural moan that punctuates “My heart seems to melt in your glance, oh” on “Moments Like This” further illustrates that no space between the notes is taken for granted. The way Minnelli enunciates the syllables on a cool and snappy makeover of Peggy Lee’s “He’s a Tramp” is like a round of darts hitting an invisible target. When she says, “I could cross the burning desert” on “If I Had You”, not only can you visualize the flames rising from the sand, you can feel the heat. Her humor is as dry as a martini on the title track. The jocular flavor of the song is too tasty to reprint here but will inevitably elicit a “No, she didn’t”-type response by those familiar with the Liza Minnelli story.
Along that continuum, Minnelli name-checks her legendary mother in “On Such a Night As This”. The intertextualization of Liza Minnelli singing a line that paraphrases “The Boy Next Door” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) cannot be overestimated, especially since Minnelli herself is now exhibiting traces of ’60s-era Judy Garland in her voice. For the majority of her career, Minnelli has made a concerted effort, and appropriately so, to distinguish herself from her mother. Only in recent years, and especially in last year’s production of Liza At the Palace, has she formally integrated Garland into her projects. Sweetly singing her mother’s name in “On Such a Night As This” is a small gesture that speaks volumes about how Minnelli can now comfortably acknowledge the impact of her mother without eclipsing the merit of Minnelli’s own self-made talent.
Such passages are wrought in the moment, a quality that constitutes the appeal of Confessions. Through the wise direction of Bruce Roberts, the album is a magnified view of a woman whose greatest gift is touching audiences, even from the distance between a stage to the last row in the balcony or, in this case, from a recording studio to the stereo in your living room. Confessions will make excellent company for the next 14 years.