Track-By-Track Breakdown: Bobby Conte Thornton On His New Jazz Album Along the Way

Special Features   Track-By-Track Breakdown: Bobby Conte Thornton On His New Jazz Album Along the Way
 
With album producer James Sampliner, Thornton shares the narrative trajectory of the cabaret act-turned-record.
I Wish_Feinstein's/54 Below_2019_X_HR
Bobby Conte Thornton Michael Kushner

"This record is based off a solo cabaret I started writing in 2015 to debut at the Fairmont San Francisco upon graduation from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance," Bobby Conte Thornton says of his new album. Hyperaware of the absurdity that a 22-year-old would stand on the same stage where Tony Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and attempt to speak (or sing rather) on universal human truths of love and loneliness and what it means to be alive, the concert was aptly entitled Blame It on My Youth, after the iconic Oscar Levant and Edward Herman standard."

Here, Thornton and producer James Sampliner share behind-the-scenes stories of the album, the trajectory of the narrative, and how they made old standards feel fresh. Along the Way is out now from Broadway Records.

“Nature Boy / Blame It on My Youth”
It’s always seemed more like a thesis statement than an opening number, separate from the specific story we’re telling of this not-so-fictional young man’s journey into the “real” world. Bookending this song with “Nature Boy” spurred from the notion that the inner child that lives within all of us has the answers at the end of the day. The answer to a fulfilling life is very simplistic at its idealistic core: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” That’s easier said than done in our conventional, superficial, pragmatic, terrifying adult world. So to live life fully means to experience all of life to the fullest, for better or for worse. Feel love to the fullest. Feel heartbreak to the fullest. That desire to feel truly alive is very youthful. And as this young man attempts to lead a life in service of that inner child, he’d like to preface his tale with the caveat that when shit perpetually hits the fan,“blame it on my youth.”
JAMES: I wanted to give some depth to the “Nature Boy” harmonic structure so Bobby had some room to play with interpretation without going too jazzy. Things like putting a weird voicing when he got to the word“strange” in the opening phrase, or “many things, fools and kings.” And then for the main part of the track, I felt a Brazilian samba texture mixed with jazz and theatrical accents would give Bobby the room he needed to show his lyricism while creating excitement and drive underneath it. Dillon Kondor’s exquisite Nylon Guitar playing helped accentuate this drive, along with our killer rhythm section (Michael Blanco on bass and Jamie Eblen on drums), which you’ll hear on the whole record killing every song. And I think it’s that motor that makes the arrangement pop. This is one of those charts that needed a very direct rise in energy from extraordinarily quiet up front, to a giant release by the end, and I think we achieved that in spades.

“Along the Way”
BOBBY: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote their first song cycle, Edges, during their sophomore year at U of M, and I’ll forever be in awe of that feat. The entire score, particularly this song, is so actor friendly because there’s such profound specificity of character. In searching for a song that would launch the story proper, and in turn become the title track, a character-driven story song was essential. And the story of our young man having to (in a very roundabout, humorous, and anxiety-ridden way) try to explain to his girlfriend why he’s terrified at the prospect of becoming a father hit very close to home, personally. It’s a sucker punch that I never saw coming the first time I heard this song in high school, because the top is filled with such levity and charming self-deprecating humor. It’s material you crave as an actor—where the listener is never ahead of you.
JAMES: I first heard this song years ago when I met Benj and Justin, and I loved it then. I always knew I wanted to treat it similarly to Donald Fagen’s cover of the classic rock ‘n’ roll song “Ruby Baby.” So that’s the front part of the tune and the “comical” element of the story. But when the mood irises in, I felt the need to make the story much more intimate...as though the storyteller is now holding hands with his partner to convey his true fears. Thus taking the warmth of a Wurlitzer electric piano and the string quartet and bringing that forward. And the nylon guitar playing what is usually reserved for the other voices in Edges at the end really becomes effective as a “memory” device.

“Time Heals Everything”
BOBBY: Now imagine knowing you’re not ready to be a father, but that if you were to have children, you’d absolutely want it to be with this woman who’s asking you to take this step with her. Because you’re not ready, she has to leave. That’s a legitimate first real adult heartbreak. And no amount of time (“next year, some year”) will make you forget loving that first love. Set to one of the greatest songs ever written for the stage by the late great Jerry Herman, this haunting lyric and sweeping melody (aided by James’ sweeping, dramatic arrangement) felt like the right combination to give voice to this particular breakup.
JAMES: You don’t need to do a lot with a great song, and this is one of my most favorite Jerry Herman songs ever. Simple strings up front leads to some thick warm harmonies from the piano. But then we expanded the quartet to a fuller tripled-string sound when the jazz quartet comes in. Sometimes simpler is better, and because Bobby is such a natural with his phrasing, all this needed was some MGM love and some stürm und drang at the end.

“Everybody Says Don’t”
BOBBY: You can’t tell a story examining the human condition utilizing songs of the American musical theatre without including Stephen Sondheim. Plain and simple. And “Everybody Says Don’t” is one of his most aspirational, progressive, childlike songs in its questioning of authority. And after experiencing heartbreak born out of such pragmatism, it seems natural for the inner child to want to let loose. Create your own “miracles” now instead of waiting around for love to simply happen to you later. We’re young! Time’s a-wasting! It’s an addictive, youthful mentality.

JAMES: The idea for this arrangement was to give a more contemporary backdrop for Bobby to spit these incredible words out. And the halftime soul/rock groove felt right. It’s got elements of big ’70s records where the strings take center stage, but contemporary grooves that relate to more recent bands like Jamiroquai or Incognito (both from the U.K.). And because the words are relentless and the passion comes out so brilliantly in Bobby’s interpretation, this was a track I felt needed the band to match (rather than support) his intensity or his warmth. One of my favorites I wrote for Bobby on this record for sure.

Me and Mrs. Jones”
BOBBY: Exploring the dynamic of an extramarital affair is exactly the type of thing the nay-sayers and all-knowing adult world would disapprove of. Because, to be fair, they mean well in trying to warn against a relationship that can only lead to hurt. But it’s hard for that child to take in all those harsh realities when under the intoxicating spell of such in-the-moment, unapologetic requited love. They’re in uncharted territory, far from what is deemed “correct.” And that’s thrilling. A man leaving himself open to all possibilities of connection (or what he perceives to be connection at the time), cannot help but gravitate towards a set of circumstances like this. Only when the concept of the real world seeps back in does the heartbreak return. And with a dynamic alto saxophone to play off of as the other scene partner, so to speak, how could that child not feel heartbroken? Interestingly enough, there’s no implication in the lyric that, even with this awareness, the singer ends the affair. The love being felt is simply “much too strong.”
JAMES: When Bobby presented this song to me, I knew I had to do something different with it. Every version I had ever known before, and pretty much every version I found on streaming platforms were in a triplet feel (12/8 for you musicians out there). And I had to get inside this story differently...crack it open in a different way. And then I kept coming back to this feeling from listening to Luther Vandross and Anita Baker back in the ’80s. Their voices were so smooth and you really feel things deeply, while the bands underneath them were playing this gorgeous kind of fusion jazz groove that made your head bob a little bit. And I found the language of the arrangement very quickly after that. The spacey electric piano, the smooth groove once the band hits was all a great setup for Bobby’s interpretation...and then, the gut punch of Andrew Gould’s spectacular alto saxophone. The gospel hits in the band after that solo just emphasize the storyteller’s pain more. He knows he has to leave this crazy affair, and yet doesn’t really want to. But the call and response from voice to sax represents what they think could be the final meeting between the two of them as they prepare to possibly end it. But is it the end?

How Deep Is the Ocean? / Maybe Its Because I Love You Too Much”
BOBBY: I first heard this Irving Berlin medley in college where my great friend and teacher, Brent Wagner, played a masterful piano arrangement pairing these two songs together by Michael Feinstein. “How Deep Is the Ocean?” is my favorite love song of all time. It’s as simple and direct as any love song can beAnd James’ masterful string quartet arrangement sets this version in a world completely of its own, while paying homage to Michael for the foresight of melding these two sets of lyrics—one widely known and the other far lesser—together. In the context of our story, it fits well in the setting of our young man professing his love to a married woman who is unable to accept. It’s a devastating song because what’s left at the end of all that reckoning and broken connection is still the simplicity of love. And how we strive to maintain that idealistic simplicity in the face of such heartbreak.
JAMES: This was the hardest to find inspiration for but has ended up becoming the chart I am most proud of writing for this record. I wanted desperately to make this as intimate as possible, but this one eluded me. At first I thought we should cut it and replace it with something else, but oh boy, was I wrong. After a couple of hours, we cracked it together by finding the language and inspiration of one of my favorite composers of string quartets, Johannes Brahms. His intense romanticism and beautiful lines all made sense for this track. The second song of this medley is completely unknown and is a masterwork of using the word “maybe” over and over again without it becoming trite or irrelevant. And all I needed to do was carve room to let Bobby soar. His vocal on this particular track is unmatched both in its musicality and its heart-wrenching emotion. I could listen to this over and over again and still hear it anew every time.

“I’m All Over It”
BOBBY: Oh “denial,” how lovely to see you. From the first lyric, “Hello innocence / though it seems like we’ve been friends for years / I’m finishing,” you know this guy isn’t being honest with himself. And I love how James’s inventive arrangement has made this Jamie Cullum ear-worm I’ve been a fan of for years a nuanced story song, one that leaves the singer and listener in a different place emotionally than where they began. In the young man’s re-hashing of the relationship, the soothing jazz quartet feel pervades through each verse. As we hit the choruses, we literally rev into a more jaunty, shuffle-y rock feel, at first with fun and impunity, then growing with intensity and anger and ultimate insecurity as the young man realizes no matter how he wants to color the situation, she’s gone. For good. And holding on to the notion that “I’m all over it” and totally fine is a falsehood, and will not sustain.
JAMES: Jamie Cullum is unique, smart, and just plain awesome. The end. But how could I make this song unique to Bobby? We talked and I liked the idea of playing with a jazz and a rock groove in the same song. I don’t hear that a lot, and wanted to try it as an experiment, and I think we got it done pretty well. So in the verses, the band is jazz based: acoustic bass, hollow body electric guitar and acoustic piano with brushes on the drums and soft horns in verse two. In the choruses, we have electric bass, heavier guitar, and I’m playing Rhodes and Hammond Organ. I love the way we as a band made these transitions seamless, and I truly think it’s a modern day standard that Bobby has made all his own here. His vocal is unsurpassed.

“Here, There, and Everywhere”
BOBBY: So now we go back to basics. In every regard. If he ever wanted to attempt it, I think Paul McCartney would make a fantastic theatre writer. It’s phenomenal lyric writing, utilizing specificity of time and location that allows story and character to progress while the melody stays simple and constant. Dillon Kondor soloing on acoustic guitar does a phenomenal job servicing that gradual lyrical progression with his arrangement of a gradual musical one. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser for the listener, and for our young man as he pauses and takes stock of what he truly wants in a relationship.
JAMES: A simple treatment for a great song. I left Dillon and Bobby alone in the studio to come up with an idea for this song. They came up with this simple, plaintive and ever-growing arrangement, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. All I did was guide some choices “along the way” to get them to be the best they could on this very intimate track. And the musical quote you’ll hear at the end? Well, I needed to add that cherry to the sundae myself. I just couldn’t resist. And Dillon executed it brilliantly.

“She Loves Me”
BOBBY: If the impeccably crafted Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick classic She Loves Me is about anything, it’s about celebrating the randomness and unpredictability of love. How does one tap into this mindset, where you’re not over-extending yourself to every woman who gives you a look, but also not blindto someone emotionally slapping you across the face screaming, “Hi! I’m a catch!”? Imagine if the solution was an old, “dear friend” that you never would’ve seen in a romantic light based on a first impression. That’s an important stepping stone for the inner child—to not be solely reliant on impulse. I’ve always loved this song and role, and for James to take those ever-expanding sensations and arrange them musically in a way that, I swear, made our engineers in the recording studio break out into salsa dances with each new take is a “tingling” feat and feast for the ears.
JAMES: The title song from one of my favorite shows, and a song that I’ve heard in various forms and interpretations before. But I wanted to do something a little different, because the refrain feels like an great old jazz standard. While the introduction remains faithful to the original version, as we get to the refrain, it’s clear that we are gonna swing this hard. So I took a little bebop and then a surprise turn for a few bars in a mambo to really bring the chart some unique flavor. It’s fun to play and super hard for the horns but Jami Dauber and Marc Phaneuf nailed it. When we do it live, we’ll probably extend the form for some solos too!

“Love to Me”
BOBBY: We all want to feel seen. To be accepted and loved not in spite of our flaws, but because of them. Adam Guettel talks in an interview for the PBS Great Performances telecast of The Light in the Piazza about how the title of the show represents the “oxygen of love”; that love is like photons flying radically in every direction, where everything is love when you’re in the midst of it. And his melodies and harmonic progressions truly engulf the listener in that all-consuming light. It’s heavenly. And James’ beautiful call-and-response cello arrangement (played stunningly by Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf) highlights that feeling tenfold. It was the hardest song to take out of its original context since there are some uber-particular lyrics in reference to the plot (“hat is carried in the air just so you can chase it”), let alone singing it now in a colloquial American accent vs. Italian. However, being enveloped in that air of love, a love that’s selfless, seemed like a universal sensation that could withstand isolated re-interpretation…and a vital step for our young man.

JAMES: Adam Guettel’s music has always been amongst my favorite, not just because he’s considered a “theatre” composer, but truly out of any composer in the world. His daring use of harmonies and his penchant for unbelievable melodies that twist, turn, and soar is second to none, and there are a lot of songs from his shows that I constantly think, “Man, I wish I wrote that.” This song is one of them. In The Light in the Piazza, the musical treatment of this song in the context of the show is in a complex rhythmic meter: 5/8+4/8. So it has a certain “off-axis” feel to it for a very specific dramatic purpose. Bobby and I talked about this, and as an arranger and in this context, I felt it needed something grounded in this world as opposed to Italy in the 1950s. And we decided on two things: put it in 4/4 and then ask Mairi to duet with Bobby. She becomes the love interest in what was a solo, and here it becomes an indie folk/pop duo. And of course, the ending I left in 5/8+4/8 as an homage to the original.

“That’s Life”
BOBBY: My grandparents on my mother’s side are 100-percent Napoletano, and have lived on Long Island in the same house for over 50 years. Naturally, Frank Sinatra croons throughout their home almost daily. I was raised on his voice and, most importantly, his expert way of phrasing a lyric. And “That’s Life” is my grandfather’s (or Pappy as we affectionately call him) favorite song. A song about perseverance to the highest degree, acknowledging how little is truly within your control, and the profound faith that is required to continuously brush off disappointment. And similar to “Blame It on My Youth,” it initially felt silly imposing the story of a young man’s struggle with love onto a lyric that my 89-year-old Pappy hears in a much more authentic way. But with James’ candid advice, it became the perfect sentiment for a somewhat oblivious 20something down on his luck in love: a young man who has gone through his privileged version of emotional trauma. And it’s a valid, almost peaceful thought, that when he truly can’t hack it anymore, the option to “roll [himself] up in a big ball and die” is always there. I have to say... since working on this song, it continues to amuse me how the Sinatra arrangement accompanies this final “and die” lyric with a triumphant musical rideout, horns blaring and little “doo dahts” from his back-up singers. It’s almost charmingly irreverent. We had to go in a different emotional direction. And in so doing, learned that that final lyric could not be the culmination of this particular young man’s story.
JAMES: It’s been covered a lot of different ways by a lot of different artists over the last 50 years, and I wanted to find something more unique for Bobby to sing over. Ray Charles has always been a hero of mine as well as all the different branches of the Black musical expression, so I combined a few into this chart. Starting with sermonic gospel, we move into the R&B of old and modernize it with more contemporary R&B harmonic content in the second half. Bobby sounds so amazing on this and delivers the“puppet, pauper, pirate, poet” alliteration phrase two different ways with two completely different emotions. And that alone was worth the price of admission to hear this genuine wünderkind tackle this very intense lyric. And for the ending, we decided in my home studio that we needed to not end the record with this, but rather find another song to close out the sentiments Bobby was truly trying to convey. And we found it with...

“Vienna”
BOBBY: So picture that inner child on a window ledge, when suddenly a hand grabs his shoulder, and a voice whispers, “Slow down, you crazy child / If you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?” The voice of that child’s older self, saying, with love, that he has a whole life still to live: A life that will be filled with countless more disappointments and heartbreaks. Where expectation will be shattered constantly, and where so much unknown awaits him. How thrilling. To not take it all too seriously, to gratefully be just at the beginning, not the end. Billy Joel’s perfect song seemed to be the perfect response to “That’s Life.” It’s a sobering worldview, one that Billy wrote about at the age of 28 (I’ll turn 28 this August). One that will change this young man’s life forever. And yet it’s still in service of the inner child. His overarching want doesn’t change. His curiosity doesn’t change. His open-hearted way of life doesn’t change. It’s just knowing now that the world will in fact “keep spinning around” when life inevitably takes advantage of that child’s heart. A world that doesn’t revolve around him. There’s still another moment waiting. Another love. Another opportunity to live life to the fullest. What else could anyone want?
JAMES: Billy Joel is and was everything I ever wanted to be. A spectacular songwriter, a fantastic pianist, and a New York hero. And this song from The Stranger is one that I honestly feel like the original version is so good, so simple, so honest that the right singer can make it their own without having to change much of the original arrangement. And so much of the sound and the textures are almost verbatim from the original, including the accordion solo. But where I made slight little changes is where it speaks to Bobby specifically. A redo of the strings with live players (Monica Davis and Christina Courtin on violins, Fung Chern Hwei on viola and Eleanor Norton on cello) was necessary, as well as Bobby finding new ways to navigate the melody near the end to find his own interpretation of what this (altogether so apropos) song means to him in this stage of life. A fitting finale to a journey as a young man just beginning, rather than ending.

“Alice”
Bobby: After making my Broadway debut singing his score in A Bronx Tale, legendary composer (and one of my childhood heroes) Alan Menken graciously bestowed upon me “Alice”: a previously unpublished song for which he wrote music and lyrics for as part of a trunked musical adaptation of The Honeymooners in the mid 1970s. It musicalizes the moment when the protagonist, Ralph Kramden, meets and falls in love with the woman who would become his wife, Alice. This is a beautiful story song of enduring love, with a melody that will undeniably get stuck in your head, like many a glorious Menken tune. Whenever and wherever we’ve performed this tune in concert, it’s become an instantaneous fan favorite. With Alan’s blessing, James and I recorded and issued a single of “Alice” in June of 2019. We are pleased to include it here as a bonus track.

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