Album Review: Ben Cassara’s “What a Way to Go!”
As we come to the end of the hottest month in the history of recorded temperatures (aren’t we lucky that there is “no such thing” as climate change?), one sure fire antidote to the incessant heat is the cool sound of Ben Cassara’s latest CD release, What a Way to Go!, produced by the great Ronny Whyte. Ben Cassara, perhaps best known at the moment as curator for the consistently entertaining and important series Wednesday Jazz Nights at Pangea, has been singing and studying with some of New York’s best jazz singers, musicians, and teachers for years and has developed his own voice within the community. His new recording is the best example yet of his style, taste, and talent. Since both Cassara and Whyte are involved, it is a given that the repertoire will be filled with tasty material both classic and rare, and the album does not disappoint.
Also, given the singer’s connection with the N.Y. jazz community, it is not surprising that he has lined up some of the best musicians around to back him up. Ronny Whyte plays piano on four tracks (which he also wrote), while Josh Richman plays the remainder of the recording. Each master musician arranged the tracks on which they appear and it all blends together seamlessly. Harry Allen on saxophone, Boots Maleson on bass, and Tim Horner on drums round out the band and each contributes mightily to the success of the project.
The opener, “I Just Found Out About Love” (Jimmy McHugh, Harold Adamson), is the perfect introduction to Cassara’s attention to lyric detail and his understated embrace of the swinging jazz idiom which is heightened by the groove established by Richman and Allen that reflects the subtlety of the vocal. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dreamer” (“Vivo Sonhando”) appears under the name “Living on Dreams,” with English lyrics by Susannah McCorkle, and benefits from the singer’s blend of storytelling and bossa rhythm, never favoring one over the other. The title song, “What a Way to Go” (June M. Tonkin) is new to me, and it’s a stunner. The gentle passion of his delivery is haunting and echoed in Allen’s smoky horn. I confess that I went back and listened to the track a second time before continuing to the other tracks. The first of Ronny Whyte’s contributions, the delightful, “The Party Upstairs,” with sparkling wordplay by Francesca Blumenthal, is a classic New York tale—hip, urban, sophisticated, and smart. Cassara lets the words do a lot of the work, laying back rather than pushing, and the approach is just right. The singer embraces the evocative assonance of Dave Frishberg’s lyrics in his “Zanzibar,” a great example of what I like to call “geographical jazz”—a genre of lyric celebrating travel to places near and far, usually as a metaphor for falling in love. Loosely connected is the follow-up, “Fotographia” (Jobim, with English lyrics by Ray Gilbert) as it opens with “You and I, we two, alone here on this terrace by the sea…”, but the infectious rhythm is replaced by delicate sounds underscoring the singer’s touching reminiscence. His beautiful delivery calls to mind gentle breezes and waves caressing a sandy beach.
Wittily rejecting the romance of foreign shores, “Let’s Eat Home” (Frishberg) allows Cassara to go for smiles rather than guffaws as he romps through the humorous list of destinations where the grass is never as green as it first appears. He relishes the intricate lyrics like “…setting trends with my trendsetting friends, the frequent flyers.” Those smiles come often in the course of four delightful minutes. On “Secret Love” (Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster), he never quite lands in the pocket of the interestingly dark, brooding tempo so his phrasing takes a rare turn to the ordinary, as if he’s too concerned about getting all the words out rather than concentrating on the emotions. He rebounds wonderfully with the rarely done verse for “I Wish I Knew” (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon) and settles into a relaxed swing that suits the lyrics perfectly; unfortunately when the tempo picks up the vocals get a bit forced. In addition to the expectedly fine sax work, bass and drums come to the fore in irresistible ways.
“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Henry Nemo, John Redmond) is a revelation and the highpoint of the album. Richman’s brilliant arrangement allows Cassara to take— as his guidepost to the story— the line, “I know I lost heaven…I won’t know sweet music until you return.” The sadness and regret of the lyric has never been as palpable, and I applaud the choice to reject the customary uptempo ride in favor of a more deliberate embrace of loss. On Frishberg’s “Wheelers and Dealers,” Allen steals the song with some heated and larcenous saxophone aided by the impassioned thievery of Richman’s piano. The vocals come in as passable but a disappointing third place.
The album closes with two Ronny Whyte tunes featuring the composer’s beautiful piano. “Linger Awhile” (lyrics, Roger Shore) starts with a gorgeous pairing of keys and voice before blossoming into a classic trio sound. “I Think I’ll Fall in Love Today” (lyrics, Jack Harrell) is vintage Whyte with sophisticated yet conversational lyrics wedded to a simply beautiful melody brought to warm, heartfelt life by Cassara’s thoughtful, openhearted phrasing.
So as the mercury boils out of thermometers everywhere, and readouts distressingly display three digits, refresh yourself with the musical breath of fresh air that is Ben Cassara’s “What a Way to Go!” You can thank me later.
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?”