By Steven Suskin
18 Oct 2002
AUDRA McDONALD: "Happy Songs" [Nonesuch 79645]
Happy Songs, Audra McDonald's third studio recording for Nonesuch, is every bit as wonderful as Way Back to Paradise andHow Glory Goes. Wonderful, satisfying, enjoyable, take your pick. Here is a singer who knows what she wants to do and knows how to do it. What she wants to do is, happily, what we want to hear; so this CD is very happy indeed. The lady sings, and how!
Ted Sperling, ofHow Glory Goes, conducted. Tommy Krasker, who did McDonald's first two albums, produced. Sperling and Krasker, both, are eminent musicologists; one can imagine them sitting around the piano with McDonald trying out rare songs, and oh if we could have a live tape of those sessions. Nonesuch's Robert Hurwitz was the executive producer. We can be glad that his label continues to favor us with high-quality albums of musical theatre material.
As on the other Audra CDs, the orchestrations come from several hands and are uniformly well-suited to the material and well-played by 30 top musicians. Bruce Coughlin, Don Sebesky and Larry Hochman, all of whom were represented on Audra's prior albums, are joined here by Michael Gibson. The latter does a wild job on Sperling's arrangement of "I Double Dare You" (Jimmy Eaton-Terry Shand), which when things get hot cleverly incorporates that old pianistic standard "Nola." McDonald, Sperling and Krasker made the interesting choice of presenting four tracks with only one or two players; in each case, the results pay off. "I Wish I Were in Love Again" uses a two piano arrangement, restored from an old recording by duo-pianists Rack and Eadie. It truly sparkles, in the (four) hands of Lee Musiker and Sperling. "I Must Have That Man!" — with guitar (Kevin Kuhn) and bass (Peter Donovan) — really takes off. Coming in the midst of an album full of large arrangements, these tracks are surprising and immensely satisfying.
Once again, McDonald includes new work from Michael John LaChiusa. "See What I Wanna See," from LaChiusa's still-in-progress musicalization of Rashomon, is a keg of dynamite, positively stunning (with an orchestration to match, by Coughlin). This is as exciting a musical theatre song as I've heard in a long time, and it fits right in with the other Happy Songs. No need to name them all; this is a collection of good (and interesting) songs, well sung.
Audra includes four Harold Arlen songs, which can be added to the five on How Glory Goes. This is a perfect match of singer and songwriter; when McDonald sings "Ill Wind," you can almost feel coursing through you that wind that's blowin' her no good. (This performance reinstates the song's stormy interlude, which is not included in the published version.) Poor Harold, who created such an incredible cache of songs, spent his final 20 years sitting alone in his room, in the gloom. A pity that he isn't around to hear Audra inhabit his work. But how exciting, for us, that she has the good sense to sing Arlen. And other fine songs, too, "happy" or non.
The only open question is why they would call this collection Happy Songs. The 14 selections include at least two songs of unrequited love, one song of lost love and one song about a lynching. Happy?? Pondering this after several hearings, the reason finally became clear. Happy Songs leaves me, the listener, happy. I expect it will do the same for you. Continued...