Marlene VerPlanck – Ballads . . mostly

May 18, 2013

The world of popular music is increasingly imperfect. Audiences tolerate (if indeed they are aware of) singers who cannot sing in tune but whose performances are subject to technical ‘adjustment’. Songs have lyrics that, if it is possible to hear them, have little or no meaning. Occasionally, a latterday singer will choose to sing songs from bygone days but in doing so prove that they understand neither the lyrics nor the essence of the period in which the songs were created. Well now, I am sure that you don’t need me to tell you any of this; it is, after all, a situation that has existed for several years now. But there is a reason for these opening remarks – okay, so maybe it’s become a rant – that might be summarized thus:

What we get in popular music today is seldom what we might expect from the packaging.

This is one of the reasons why a new album from Marlene VerPlanck is something to celebrate. All of us who love popular song know by now that when such an album appears our eager anticipation is always satisfied. Everything is as close to perfection as can happen. The choice of songs is always thoughtful – some are familiar, yet not overworked by other singers, others are not heard as often as they deserve, and there are occasional new songs that fit perfectly with their better-known companions. Then there are the arrangements, most often by Billy VerPlanck, Marlene’s husband for so many years, whose death in 2009 left a hole in music and in life that is impossible to fill. When it comes to accompaniment, Marlene always chooses to work with front-rank instrumentalists, finding rhythm sections well versed in those special skills that cushion and carry a singer, alongside soloists who can add special luster to a song without overpowering the vocal line. And then there is the voice. Astonishingly, given the number of years she has performed, Marlene still retains the gorgeously fluid crystal-clear sound that has always been a distinctive hallmark of her timeless work.

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For this, her 22nd album, Marlene’s choice of songs was sparked by the discovery of several arrangements made by Billy but forgotten about. These were compositions by Cy Coleman and there are eight of them here, including Witchcraft, You Fascinate Me So, The Rules Of The Road, and I Walk A Little Faster. Five of the Coleman songs have lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, one by Dorothy Fields and two by Joseph A McCarthy. There are four songs composed by Harry Warren, I Wish I Knew, My Dream Is Yours, I Only Have Eyes For You, and There Will Never Be Another You. Two of these were written with lyricist Mack Gordon and one each with Ralph Blaine and Al Dubin. There is also a lovely original, composed by Billy VerPlanck with lyrics by Leon Nock; their collaborations came late in Billy’s life and other examples have enhanced previous albums by Marlene.

Two separate rhythm sections are heard here; one has pianist Tedd Firth, double-bassist Boots Maleson, and drummer Ron Vincent; the other is led by pianist Mike Renzi, with double-bassist Jay Leonhart, while Ron Vincent is again the drummer. On some tracks interweaving with singer and rhythm section are two distinguished guest soloists: trumpeter Claudio Roditi and tenor saxophonist Houston Person.

All the tracks on Ballads . . mostly are gems and any can be considered in assessing the album’s superiority. For example, It Amazes Me is one of the Coleman-Leigh songs; written way back in the 1950s, the song has not attracted many recording artists although listening to Marlene’s delightful interpretation this is hard to understand when, accompanied by the trio of Renzi, Leonhart and Vincent, she explores its melodic and lyrical charm. Another song by the same composing duo is Witchcraft; this song, which dates from the same decade has found many admirers, with perhaps three dozen recordings. Despite this, Marlene brings a fresh touch for which the same rhythm section is on hand, this time joined by Claudio Roditi whose trumpet playing (usually muted on this date) provides an elegant backdrop with deft solo touches. On I Wish I Knew, one of the Harry Warren-Mack Gordon songs, Marlene is backed by the Firth, Maleson, Vincent trio, who are joined here by Houston Person. The tenor saxophonist adds his trademark earthy tones to the songs on which he solos. The closing track on the album is the VerPlanck-Nock original, Why Was I Thinking Of Springtime. This song, with its pleasing melody and meaningful lyric, provides a fitting curtain to this exceptional album.

All who are familiar with Marlene VerPlanck’s work will need no urging to rush to buy this album and, as I remarked earlier, all expectations will be fully met. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this singer has a real treat in store.

Flick back to my Jazz CDs reviews in mid-July 2012, which includes Marlene’s One Dream At A Time.

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Reviews of many other albums by this exceptional singer have appeared over the years in Jazz Journal.

To buy any of these albums, try good walk-in stores or go online – Amazon

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