CD Review: Ken Greves “Vintage and Rare: The Songs of Harold Arlen (Vol. 3) — Ridin’ on the Moon”
Of all the revered composers of Broadway’s Golden Age, whose work makes up a large part of the American Songbook mined by cabaret artists, Harold Arlen is perhaps the most blatantly jazz-influenced. For this reason – while the composer’s fans are surely delighting in the recent release of Ridin’ on the Moon, Volume 3 of singer Ken Greves’s Vintage and Rare: The Songs of Harold Arlen – one wishes Greves was more of a true jazz singer, and could use his vocal instrument with greater agility, versatility, and freedom.
His handsome voice is certainly easy-on-the-ears. Yet his straightforward musical approach and conversational singing style — attributes prized on the musical theatre stage—here underline the songs’ narrative elements without fully capturing the jazz-inflected qualities of Arlen’s music. Greves’s vocal sounds alone don’t supply enough musical variety to hold our attention throughout his CD’s 14 tracks. However, the accompaniment—swingy, jazz-trio arrangements by Greves and Wells Hanley that are enhanced by a seductive guitar and a soulful string quartet on some of the numbers —generate the desired jazz sensibilities in exciting abundance.
An enjoyable compilation of top-drawer songs, the disc marks the third installment in Greves’s ambitious project, a planned series of 10 CDs documenting the full scope of Arlen’s music which comprises numerous pop standards, Broadway musical scores, and songs for Hollywood films, most famously “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Though this disc doesn’t serve up that Arlen classic, Greves uses another popular song from Oz as its scaffolding device. He divvies up the three versions of “If I Only Had …” and presents one each at the CD’s beginning, middle, and end.
The opener, an easy-going rendition of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” is energized by the trio’s first-rate musicians—Hanley on piano, Peter Donovan on bass, and Jacob Melchior on drums. Tinkling piano passages drive an infectious instrumental break and the overall impression is marred only by a couple of strained-sounding high notes from Greves. Unfortunately, that same effortful sound, plus some pitch problems on top notes, take the fun out of the next track, “I Love to Sing-A,” a tongue-in-cheek song with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, Arlen’s collaborator on Oz, as well as the Broadway musicals Bloomer Girl (1944) and Jamaica (1957).
Greves’s unornamented singing style works well, however, on the song that follows, as he punches out the sharp Harburg lyrics of “I Don’t Think I’ll End it All Today.” Yet when the mood shifts from that toe-tapper to the dark “Come On, Midnight,” it’s the interplay between piano and percussion that proves gratifyingly atmospheric. While Greves explores a broad dynamic range, one, nonetheless, yearns for a darker, edgier vocal quality. And in the reserved interpretation of “A Woman’s Prerogative” from the musical St. Louis Woman (1946), Greves’s straightlaced singing sounds bland voicing the sassy Johnny Mercer lyrics, originally performed by Pearl Bailey on the Broadway stage.
One of the most appealing traits of this amalgamation of Arlen songs is the way it pivots—track by track—from one musical style or feel to another, as the next three songs so beautifully do. A downright pretty arrangement of “Love Held Lightly” (from the 1959 Broadway musical Saratoga) softly conjures a Caribbean ambiance and contains a gem of a solo by guitarist Sean Harkness. And it’s the guitar again, though this time with a country twang, that enriches the following selection, “Green Light Ahead,” a catchy song, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, that was dropped from the film A Star is Born (1954). Then things turn blue. Though a stronger sense of the pushing and pulling movement of the music is needed to draw out its bluesy qualities, Greves’s crooning rendition of “I Wonder What Became of Me” is emotionally persuasive. He really indulges in the reflective nature of the affecting song, another Mercer collaboration from St. Louis Woman.
Marking the mid-point of his journey through these compelling Arlen tunes, Greves proffers the Cowardly Lion’s “If I Only Had the Nerve.” In light of Greves’s actorly approach to his vocal work, this character-driven piece should have been one of the disc’s most entertaining tracks. But rather than fully committing to the character’s beloved goofiness and exaggerated, New York-accented pronunciations, Greves plays it safe and only hints at the humor. The result isn’t as funny as we would have hoped.
Following a rumba-esque arrangement of “Neath a Pale Cuban Moon”—deliciously enhanced by the strings, yet begging for a sultrier vocal sound—Greves tackles “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” probably the only widely-known song on the recording, with the exception of the Oz tune. Sadly, the romantic ballad exposes some of the holes in Greves’s vocal technique. He often slides sloppily in and out of notes, which are not always on-target pitch-wise.
Yet the next two tracks are fabulous, as Hanley’s expert piano-playing steals the show. Though the song demands bolder vocals than Greves supplies, Hanley electrifies the instrumental interlude of “Got to Wear You Off My Weary Mind,” reveling in its striptease feel. And in “Ridin’ on the Moon,” his propulsive solo contributes immeasurably to making this track the highlight of the recording, and the obvious choice for the CD’s subtitle. The smartly paced arrangement of the exquisite song (yet another Mercer collaboration from St. Louis Woman) changes gears unexpectedly after the instrumental break. It races thrillingly to the finish line and would have made for a terrific closing track.
Sticking to his framing concept, however, Greves closes with a tender rendition of the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Heart” and ends the proceedings on a sad note that feels too downbeat to be the concluding statement in this otherwise stimulating tribute to Arlen. Valuable for the spotlight it shines on Arlen’s considerable songwriting gifts, the CD succeeds largely on the merits of its snappy arrangements and skilled instrumentalists. More adventurous vocal treatments of Arlen’s songs can be found, most notably, on compilation albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.
Volume 4 of his series, featuring arrangements for piano and voice, will be available, Greves predicts, within a year or two.