Album Review: “A Collective Cy–Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman”

April 28, 2024

Anyone choosing to explore the songs of Cy Coleman finds a cornucopia of jazz, pop, and Broadway with words by some of the finest lyricists the Great American Songbook has to offer. The power, wit, style and breadth of melodies and rhythms have much to offer, and singer Jeff Harnar has wisely partnered with a particularly fine arranger/ conductor/ music director, Alex Rybeck, on his new release, A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman. In an earlier time, Rybeck would be spoken of in the same breath as Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and other masters of the medium. His work throughout this album is rich, detailed, witty, dramatic, distinct, and masterful. With the quality of the material and the inspiration of Rybeck’s virtuosity, Harnar offers some especially assured and involving vocals on his sixth, and most recent, album.

It is probably not a surprise to anyone familiar with the singer’s previous work, ballads prove the most successful. “With Every Breath I Take” (lyrics, David Zippel, from City of Angels) is gorgeous; the orchestra echoing and enriching Harnar’s passionately romantic longing. “So Little Time” (lyrics, Michael Stewart, from Barnum) has a sweet, music box sound inspiring (or inspired by) the gentle revery and regret of his vocal. The wonderfully conversational lyrics by Carolyn Leigh are a perfect match for his laid-back delivery on “It Amazes Me” and Sean Harkness’s delicate guitar accompaniment is just right.

Many Coleman songs have an edgy, sharp, urban feel that needs a very different type of phrasing to really work, and here the recording comes up short in a few places. That edge is provided at every turn by Rybeck’s exemplary work, but it is sometimes at odds with the (for lack of a better term) wholesomeness of Harnar’s delivery that undercuts the knowing, bittersweet, worldly wise narrative that flows through the songs. This deprives a medley of “My Personal Property” (lyrics by Dorothy Fields, from Sweet Charity) and “My City” (lyrics by Fields, from Seesaw) of the exultant fire that should fuel the words. Under similar attack, “Witchcraft” (lyrics by Leigh) becomes more lugubrious than lascivious, losing its seductive sexiness. 

Leigh’s words and Coleman’s music fare much better with “The Best is Yet to Come” which lets the singer loosen up and swing a bit and it’s a welcome change. He also shines on his part of “I’ve Got Your Number” (lyrics by Leigh) but it becomes a duet with Ann Hampton Calloway.  She acquits herself well, but the lyrics are not really meant for a couple; if the two people in the story felt exactly the same about each other there would be no need to sing the song at all.  

The saccharine specter of Lawrence Welk hovers over the ill-advised vocals on “Rhythm of Life” (lyrics by Fields, from Sweet Charity) and “The Doodlin’ Song” (lyrics by Leigh) which are meant to be fun, but fail.  The recording would have benefited from their absence because it would have afforded time for full versions of three terrific songs that are truncated into one medley of “The Rules of the Road” (lyrics by Leigh), “Come Summer” (lyrics by Leigh), and “I’m Way Ahead” (lyrics by Fields, from Seesaw). Harnar does not have enough time to do them justice. 

The album ends with one of Cy Coleman’s best-known numbers, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (lyrics by Fields, from Sweet Charity), which begins as a gentle, thoughtful ballad, nicely delivered, giving each word its due; unfortunately, it stays a ballad without the release of a burst in tempo and energy. It is a somber, controlled ending rather than a celebratory close to an album that has much to offer. Perhaps there is a lesson for Jeff Harnar here—losing control can be a good thing, a vital thing, a thing to explore in the future.  



About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”