Stephanie Blythe and Craig Terry: "As Long as There Are Songs"
Songs by Arlen, Berlin, Chaplin, Henderson, Jenkins and others. Texts and notes. Innova 875
Stephanie Blythe is clearly having fun in her first pop-music recording, but she is neither coasting nor trying to change her nature. The style can be brassy, bluesy or inspirational, the mood casual, defiant or needy, but the technique is brilliant and the commitment operatic.
In a much-touted innovation, the recording uses the Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system of microphone placement and a minimum of post-recording enhancements, methods elaborated by John Meyer at the Pearson Theatre in Berkeley, California. The impact of this technique, to these ears, seems slanted toward the soft end of the sound spectrum. Blythe's minute inflections in pitch and color achieve a vivid presence that a listener in a vast auditorium might miss.
The gain in intimacy allows the singer to widen her pop repertoire. It's not a huge step for an opera diva to try on some big stand-and-deliver show tunes (as Blythe did in a recent New York Philharmonic Carousel) or stirring anthems of the Kate Smith variety (another of her recent efforts), and this recording explores that vein with a heartwarming "White Cliffs of Dover" and "Look for the Silver Lining." In such cases, a singer trades one big stage for another. But now Blythe also makes her stylistic way into the sophisticated lounge and the grimy late-night bar.
At times, she trades brass for a silky woodwind timbre with somber undertones, reveling in minor mode and film noirdiction. The results are a beguiling, rhythmic "Serenade in Blue," delicate pianissimos in a nearly corn-free "Always" (Irvin Berlin) and, most surprisingly, the smoky, burned-out feeling of a couple of Harold Arlen numbers, "The Man That Got Away" and Frank Sinatra's trademark, "One for My Baby" (the latter in a clever medley with "Any Place I Hang My Hat"), along with a desolate "The Thrill Is Gone."
The migration in style is still a little tentative. Blythe and her able accompanist, Craig Terry, seem unwilling to stay with the dark demons — or maybe they're just too eager to entertain. Typically, a moody number builds to a quick, loud climax, with a little something for everyone. Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin's "Please Be Kind" goes through four gear-shifts, ranging from near-recitative to sweet lyricism, then to raucous belting and finally some staccato high kicking in vaudeville style, where you can imagine a hat and cane waving in sync. Each element is terrific in its way, but one wonders whether "Serenade in Blue" needed such a boisterous coda, and especially why "One for My Baby" shakes off the blues and turns almost celebratory.
The arrangements of these standards that date from the 1920s to the 1960s are by Blythe and Terry. Terry, who also has a classical background, is strong and versatile, supportive and also a spirited, full-fledged partner trading themes back and forth in some high-stepping moments. Yet nothing feels improvised; there's no scat singing — although it would seem within Blythe's grasp — and certainly she can't channel Billie Holliday, as the masterful Eileen Farrell used to do. But it's hard to resist Blythe's awesome range and its lavish, exuberant deployment.
DAVID J. BAKER
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