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SEPTEMBER SONGSThe Music of Wilder, Weill and Warren
HighNote Records 2003
|Listen to Wesla's
at "Wesla's iPod"
- september song
- speak low
- i only have eyes for you / jeepers creepers
- a child is born
- lovers and losers
- i know why and so do you
- i had the craziest dream
- it never was you
- september in the rain
- my ship
- i wish i knew
- lost in the stars
- here i'll stay
- moon and sand
- while we are young
wesla whitfield: vocals
mike greensill: piano / arranger
Tommy Flanagan: Piano
john wiitala: bass
Peter Washington: bass
Michael moore: bass
vince lateano: drums
Tootie heath: Drums
gary foster: reeds / Woodwinds
Kronos Quartet: Strings
orrin keepnews: producer
As I write these notes, it is early Spring of 2003. Among other things, that means I have been going into studios and control rooms with Wesla Whitfield for about fifteen years, as a producer of a suitably varied but always remarkable series of albums in which she applies her considerable vocal talents and deep emotional sensitivity to celebrating the vast repertoire of truly immortal music most often described as The Great American Songbook.
That’s a pretty heavy opening paragraph. And I will quickly get even heavier by advising you that this is undoubtedly the most complex and adventurous of Wesla’s many recordings, largely because it departs from her customary rather simple and direct format to present her in the company of a far-ranging series of guest artists, all of them primarily linked by a deep appreciation of her considerable talents.
I have begun by describing the music that Wesla specializes in as a “vast” repertoire and as “truly immortal,” so it might be a good idea to stop for a moment to justify such strong language. But it should only take a moment – this is, with rare exceptions, music from the first half of the twentieth century, when a vast number of amazingly talented composers and lyricists worked almost ceaselessly to feed the insatiable musical needs of Broadway and Hollywood, of radio listeners and record buyers. And since so much of this music has retained its charm and emotional power for anywhere from five decades to almost a full century – in sharp contrast to current pop hits that rise and fall so swiftly that one can have trouble remembering last year’s blockbuster – “immortal” can seem a safe enough word.
It has, however, also become a relatively limited music. Very much like jazz with which it is often linked and with which it has shared over the years much material and more than a few artists, “song book” music asks its listeners to feel deeply, to pay attention, to have a sense of humor, sometimes even to think. These are not easy requirements, and they tend to somewhat limit the size of the audience. But they are much more than a casual audience, to a very great extent they are loyal and passionate and dedicated and informed. That tends to make it all seem worthwhile to an artist who feels the same way, and certainly increases the feeling of satisfaction when on occasion it becomes possible to repay them with a rare special treat. That, I feel, is the best way to describe this album that Wesla and Mike Greensill (her accompanist, arranger, bandleader and husband) and I – with the invaluable aid of several good friends – have carefully and over a period of time constructed.
As is invariably the case with this music, choice of repertoire is a truly essential element. But somehow the decision is always either to concentrate entirely on the work of a single major composer or, moving to the other end of the scale, to touch lightly on a whole crowd of writers, some celebrated and others with perhaps just one notable evergreen to their name. For some reason – and we remain not too certain why it happened – we chose to avoid both of these presumably inevitable extremes and to emerge with a fairly even division between three wonderful and highly dissimilar writers. The three were legitimate finalists towards the end of our planning period; and we were of course rather startled at the bizarre coincidence of all three sharing their last-name initial not only with each other but with the artist. At one point Wesla did reveal that she was not entirely comfortable about coming up with an entire CD by any one of them. We may have simply proceeded from there to a three-way conclusion. On the other hand, there may have been something less pragmatic and more mystical about this decision. It is, after all, not necessary to be realistic about how one arrives at repertoire. It may not actually be possible to rationally explain the unlikely trio we have assembled – the European-born, classically-trained refugee Kurt Weill, whose American theater success included as lyricists Ira Gershwin, poet/humorist Ogden Nash, and major playwright Maxwell Anderson; the intellectual misogynist (and friend of Frank Sinatra) Alec Wilder, writer of esoteric instrumental octets, pure art songs, and pop hits, who basically called New York’s Hotel Algonquin his home, and Harry Warren, the quintessential writer of Tin Pan Alley songs for the silver screen during the golden age of movie musicals. But it should be quite easy to enjoy what Wesla Whitfield and several of her talented friends and colleagues have made of all this.
A quick glance at the credits and statistics that appear elsewhere in this package will make it clear that this record was a couple of years in the making. This does not indicate indecision or changes of direction; once under way, we were certain of direction, once under way were certain of exactly what we wanted to do, but doing it was not that easy. To begin with the final and most formidable example, I have known the members and management of the incredible Kronos Quartet for almost two decades. When they were barely beginning to make their tremendous impact on contemporary classical music, I produced two albums that provided them with jazz icons like Ron Carter and Jim Hall as associated in unique interpretations of music by Thelonious Monk and by Bill Evans. But that did not make it any easier to find room in their truly international schedule for some rehearsal and what eventually was just one day of studio work – even though the situation was helped considerably by coordinating with the availability of their present record producer, Judy Sherman, and their preferred engineer, Leslie Ann Jones, in what for some time has been their accustomed studio setting, the sound stage at the legendary Skywalker Ranch.
On the other hand, it did not take long to find time for Tommy Flanagan, an old friend whom I had first worked with in our hard-bop days in New York some forty years ago. But as it turned out, we did need some fortuitous circumstances. Tommy’s session was the second we recorded and came just after another old friend, drummer Albert “Tootie” Health, had joined him and bassist Peter Washington in what would be the final Flanagan trio. One of the great accompanists of our time – as his long tour with Tony Bennett would suggest – Tommy was already well aware of Wesla and was quickly ready to provide her with the amazingly empathetic backing that was his trademark. He also provided some notable solos on three Alec Wilder compositions. It was the only occasion in at least a decade and a half that Wesla has recorded with a pianist other than Mike Greensill. Flanagan was in good shape at the time, but the week in the San Francisco bay area during which we were able to record turned out to be his last local club date. Not long after this his health began to deteriorate; he died in the fall of 2001.
The third guest group here is accurately listed as the Gary Foster Horns. To be entirely precise, however, one would have to specify that all the horns be in the hands of one man. Master of a wide variety of reeds and woodwinds and one of the most active and highly regarded players in the Los Angeles recording studios, Foster has appeared on several previous Whitfield albums. Like virtually all musicians who have worked with her, he has become an avid fan, and eagerly accepted the challenge presented by these Greensill arrangements. On all four of his numbers, Gary initially played with the rhythm section. On “I Know Why and So Do You,” his tenor sax remains the only horn. But on the other three, overdubbing enables him to expand. On the CD opening “September Song,” he becomes a four-part flute ensemble and on “I Wish I Knew” he is four clarinets, while “I Had the Craziest Dream” calls for the sound of a full saxophone section.
In the intimate clubs and cabaret where one is most likely to encounter singers who concentrate on the Song Book, drums are apt to be considered too weighty, so that a piano/bass duo is the most frequently employed instrumental support. For an extensive period of time that included the initial session of this project, one of the most accomplished and in-demand of today’s jazz bassists, Michael Moore, made it his business to be available as often as possible to work behind Wesla with Greensill. (As this writing, for example, Moore has been prevailed upon to serve as part of a reconstituted Dave Brubeck Quartet.) In the overall pattern of this album, the five selections that instrumentally involved only two players are designed to provide balance and contrast, but it is clear that musically nothing has been subtracted. Among the specific rewards are some striking bass solos, most notably a remarkable arco chorus on “A Child Is Born.”
(This seems a very logical place for some clarification about this song. “A Child Is Born” qualifies for this collection in a somewhat irregular way. It began as an instrumental by jazz cornetist and orchestra leader Thad Jones, but subsequently acquired a full set of Alec Wilder lyrics. This was an entirely authorized contribution, with the words accurately depicting the meaning of Thad’s title. Nevertheless, this work somehow consistently turns up in Christmas collections, although paying attention to the lyrics makes it clear that what is being celebrated is the total wonder of birth – of a human child being born)
When studio work was eventually completed and Phil Edwards, one of the most skilled and sensitive recording and remix engineers a singer could hope for, had effectively overcome all the differences of time and place and human frailty to provide us with a unified and consistent final master tape, it was time for one last series of key decisions. How should this complex body of material be sequenced? One thought was to pretty much go with the flow, to acknowledge that this is difficult and almost constantly varying music, and to let the listener avoid further difficulty by merely dividing the album into its four basic units: Kronos, Flanagan, Foster and Moore/Greensill. But the truth is that even though the album’s unique appeal lies largely in the way Wesla and the various others interact, she remains the focal point of this album, all these guests and friends having been brought together to underline and enhance her performances. So the answer was to program pretty much in terms of the principal artist and how she deals with this material.
But regardless of how you approach it, and even if you choose to provide your own answers by rearranging the CD sequence to suit yourself, I am going to remain entirely pleased with the results and deeply enjoyable album that salutes a most valuable artist.
Title of CD: September Songs
Record Label: HighNote
The indefatigable Wesla Whitfield is at it again, breaking new ground on her umpteenth album, September Songs (HighNote), by uniting with various combinations of
sidemen to concurrently explore the songbooks of Alec Wilder, Kurt Weill and
Harry Warren. Backed by husband Mike Greensill's elegantly subdued trio (the
comfortable Whitfield setting we're most accustomed to) and the Gary Foster Horns,
she opens with a "September Song" that's more bitter than sweet, then shifts gears,
augmenting the trio with the lilting strings of the Kronos Quartet for a dreamy "Speak Low" and a splendidly clever medley of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Jeepers Creepers."
Next, she swaps out Greensill's trio for Tommy Flanagan's for a lively spin through Wilder's wittily upbeat "Lovers and Losers." The Foster Horns then return to lend a touch of big band vivacity to "I Had the Craziest Dream." Finally, Whitfield downsizes to the comparative sparseness of her husband's duo (Greensill on piano and Michael Moore on bass) for one of the most lushly reflective versions of "September in the Rain" I've ever heard, a radiant "A Child Is Born" and, in the album's only real disappointment, a reading of "Lost in the Stars" that's disconcertingly robust.
Typical of Whitfield outings, she also unearths an underappreciated treasure or two. This time around they're Warren's feathery "I Know Why and So Do You" and Wilder's unsettlingly inky "Moon and Sand," both welcome additions to the massive Whitfield canon
Reviewed by Christopher Loudon in the Vox section of the Jazz Times, September 2003
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
These 'September Songs' are wonderful Whitfield
Sunday, July 27, 2003
September Songs: The Music of Wilder, Weill and Warren High Note; $17.99
Local treasure Wesla Whitfield ranges far afield in her splendid new CD, with a meander through the disparate show tunes and ballads of Alec Wilder, Kurt Weill and Harry Warren. Some new instrumental collaborators, including the Kronos Quartet, come along for this beguiling tour.
As ever, in a Whitfield recording (or live performance), impeccable musicianship, liquid phrasing and acute sensitivity to the lyrics prevail. Who else could sashay by with a chestnut medley of Warren's "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Jeepers Creepers" and give it both a jaunty lightness and surprising weight? Or find all the slow-building deep heat Whitfield does in Wilder's "Moon and Sand?"
Whitfield spins out such a gorgeous pearly tone that the slightest roughness of grain -- a perfectly placed sibilant "s" in Weill's "September Song," a penetrating edge in his "It Never Was You" -- stands out in telling relief. When her voice takes on that wonderful, slurry daze of hers, in Wilder's radiant "A Child Is Born" or Warren's confiding "I Know Why and So
Do You," her hold on the lyrics only seems to tighten. Whitfield always knows just what a song's speaker is feeling at any instant, and it's often more than the listener suspected was there.
With Whitfield's peerless arranger/pianist (and husband) Mike Greensill on board, "September Songs" has the reliable polish, tact and wit of these longtime partners. There's also a greater amplitude of instrumental sound here.
The Kronos adds swift, melting little riffs to "Speak Low" and a shimmery undercurrent for "My Ship," both by Weill. Warren's "I Wish I Knew" gets a jaunty, big band flourish from the combined forces of Greensill's trio and Gary Foster on horns. The album's bassists have nifty back-to-back moments in "A Child Is Born" (a sweet yearning turn by Michael Moore) and Wilder's
"Lovers and Losers" (solo by Peter Washington).
Some listeners might long for a bit more punch and drama now and then. But for anyone who values the kind of nuanced emotion that Whitfield's musical refinement captures, these "September Songs" will endure for many seasons to come.
Kronos Quartet Sweetens Wesla Whitfield's New Weill, Wilder, Warren CD
In Stores Now
By Kenneth Jones
22 Jun 2003
The 2003 release, "September Songs," includes songs by Kurt Weill, Alec Wilder and Harry Warren, with the Mike Greensill Trio, Gary Foster, The Kronos Quartet and Michael Moore.
The 2003 disc, coming a year after the vocalist's Irving Berlin disc, "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me" includes, "September Song," "Speak Low," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Jeepers Creepers," "A Child Is Born," "Lovers and Losers," "I Know Why and So Do You," "I Had the Craziest Dream," "It Never Was You," "September in the Rain," "My Ship," "I Wish I Knew," "Lost in the Stars," "Here I'll Stay," "Moon and Sand," "While We're Young."
Whitfield, who shows she can be mellow and smooth as well as swinging, has played choice cabarets around the country and even sang in her own Off-Broadway cabaret show, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, in 1998. She got wide exposure more than 10 years ago when she opened for Michael Feinstein in concert.
New for the singer in 1998 was the spelling of her first name, which used to be spelled "Weslia" and was always supposed to be pronounced "Wesla," as it is among family and friends. But after years of people calling her Wes-lee-uh (because of the obvious spelling) she finally changed it to avoid confusion. Most of her dozen or so recordings bear the name Weslia Whitfield.
As early as 1990, Whitfield was opening for Michael Feinstein concerts, singing a hip, optimistic version of "The Trolley Song." Her early independent recordings are harder to come by, but such discs as "Lucky to Be Me" and "High Standards" are common in record stores' cabaret or vocal sections, particularly on the coasts.
Whitfield's Off-Broadway debut, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, played Oct. 13-Nov. 1, 1998. Her following in New York is rooted in her 1993 debut at (and subsequent returns to) the Algonquin Hotel. Among her tales in her Off Broadway show was the rarely discussed, 1977 random shooting that left her unable to walk. In Wicked Stage , Whitfield again worked with longtime pianist arranger Mike Greensill. Whitfield rose from being a singing waitress, to singing for San Francisco Opera and then to cabarets and boites around the country.
Orrin Keepnews and Judith Sherman produced the new disc.
Wesla Whitfield Steps Out
Wesla Whitfield has carved out a distinctive niche on the jazz/cabaret scene with her gift for transforming familiar standards into startlingly fresh narratives. So perhaps it's not surprising that the San Francisco singer's latest act of reinvention is herself.
After two years in limbo, her breathtaking new album "September Songs" (HighNote) has finally been released, and it sounds nothing like her previous recordings.
Exploring the music of three disparate composers -- the urbane Alec Wilder, musical theater genius Kurt Weill and Tin Pan Alley giant Harry Warren -- Whitfield collaborates with a host of musical stars, including the Kronos Quartet, reed master Gary Foster and the late jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan, in one of his last recordings before his death.
With elegantly elaborate arrangements by pianist Mike Greensill, Whitfield's longtime creative and connubial partner, she stretches like never before, offering some of her most jazzy singing, while also delving deeply and convincingly into art song territory.
"Normally we're minimalists, which is fine for what Wesla does," Greensill says. "But it's always lovely to have more instruments. With Kronos, the big challenge is that so many people write string arrangements as if the quartet was an orchestra. I'm really pleased that it sounds lush while retaining the quartet's integrity, using counterpoint and each player as an individual voice."
Overseen by veteran jazz producer Orrin Keepnews, the album was originally recorded for E-Music, but when the company went under it took more than a year to buy back the masters and make a deal with HighNote, the label that has released Whitfield's last six CDs.
For Whitfield, the biggest challenge wasn't working with Kronos, who were joining her on her own turf, it was recording three Wilder tunes with Flanagan, one of jazz's greatest accompanists.
"It really was scary," Whitfield says. "Here's Tommy Flanagan, an absolute legend who worked with Ella Fitzgerald for all those years. I just tried to stay out of the way."
Whitfield will be performing material from "September Songs" as well as other standards from her vast repertoire tonight and Saturday at Theatre on San Pablo Square.
While she's worked in the area with the San Jose Symphony several times over the past decade, Whitfield hasn't performed her own jazz/cabaret show in San Jose in more than a dozen years. She has been a regular presence as a teacher, though, conducting master classes with the American Music Theater of San Jose, where she and Greensill will be on faculty from July 21 to 23.
Over the past few years, with the uncertain economy making gigs increasingly scarce, Whitfield has turned her occasional master class stints into a regular program. ``I've been reinventing myself as a teacher,'' she says. "I find that I learn far more from them than they do from me.''
Since April, she's been offering her own month long master class program at the York Hotel's Plush Room, where she has held forth annually as a performer for some two decades. The application process involves a questionnaire and sending in an audition tape. With no more than six students for each class, she concentrates on how to interpret lyrics, rather than on technique.
"Teaching someone technique takes months and years, "Whitfield says. "And you can mess someone up pretty badly if you just try to give them some little tips when you don't even know them. I get people to look at the lyrics as the most important part of the song. I give my students songs I know well and encourage them to interpret them in their own way and some of the things that come back are astonishing."
Special to the Mercury News
Published: Friday, July 11, 2003