At Last - Notes by John Hoglund
From the gin joints of New York's Greenwich Village to the watering holes of London's basement beer halls and all points in between have emerged once unknown artists as diverse as Tony Bennett, Harry Connick, Jr., Jamie Cullem, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Al Jarreau, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand and The Beatles. They all started in dusty, noisy saloons. Add Marcus Simeone - with his hauntingly beautiful vocals, who, after recording over 300 demos for celebrated and unknown songwriters' and singers, has built a solid reputation in the industry as a singer's singer. With his ethereal, multi-octave voice, perfect pitch and flawless phrasing, he has emerged as a contemporary vocalist with few peers.
After a string of disappointments from record producers and companies that even folded, this album had to happen. I'm happy I was able to help. Marcus is a unique vocal talent who deserves wider recognition. From the start, whether he is singing jazz, pop, soul, R & B or standards, he is able to create vocal images that are masterpieces in each idiom. That is his gift.
While many have tried to pigeon-hole him, Marcus Simeone's voice defies comparison and is at home in all genres of music.
From the liner notes by Will Friedwald* August 2006:
"Still someone said,'She's sincere,' so I'm here." Stephen Sondheim certainly had a sense of humor when he wrote that line in Follies, but that doesn't mean he didn't mean it. My friend, the theatre critic Elysa Gardner, and I have had many discussions about how irony and sarcasm have become the dominant modes in contemporary culture; that every show on Broadway or every artist in pop music seems to be making fun of something or everything or him or herself. Sincerity is a quality I try to keep on the lookout for, and I don't find it very often.
I heard it last fall at the Cabaret Convention in the form of a young singer named Marcus Simeone. It seems like the other kind of details that used to be hotly debated have lately become less important: is so-and-so a jazz singer or a cabaret singer? If Elton John writes for Broadway, is the result pop music or legitimate show music? All of those concerns, which once seemed so important, seem to be moving slowly to the back burner. The only thing that matters these days is: can somebody sing it like he means it?
That was the first thing I noticed about Marcus Simeone: that whatever he happened to be singing really seemed to mean something to him and therefore, by extension, to the audience as well. Of course, the other aspects of him are important too: his beautiful voice, his extremely wide range, his ability to switch effortlessly from baritone to tenor to falsetto, and, likewise, his multigeneric ability to move easily between the worlds of pop, cabaret, theatre music, soul and even jazz. Or, perhaps, not so much move between them but dwell in all of them at the same time.
But, I insist that the crucial factor is his intimate relationship with the songs he sings. You hear a lot of singers these days who seem to be afraid to take the old songs at face value—that to accept them in all their apparent naïveté would somehow make them , as artists, look less intelligent. But, the truth is that you can't second guess the great songs or sing around them. You have to sing them directly and trust that the mostly long-gone composers and lyricists who wrote them knew what they were doing.
When I heard Mr. Simeone at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall in October 2005, he had elected to celebrate the music of Johnny Mathis—music that, as was immediately clear, meant a great deal to him. In the show recorded for this CD, however, he instead sings several songs that were signatures for Nat King Cole, who was, in fact, the single greatest influence on Mr. Mathis. "Answer Me, My Love" is an American love song that was adapted from a German religious song, which explains all the references to "sin" and "guilt." It is, admittedly, somewhat sanctimonious. But, if you try to avoid those qualities, you'll only look stupider, like you're somehow trying to second-guess that material. The only way to sing it is to dig right in and make it meaningful, which is exactly what Marcus does.
"Strange Fruit" is another text with a broader scope than your average love song, dealing more with the failure of the human race to get along with itself than with the ability of two people to relate to each other. To sing it with anything less than complete commitment would be a total train wreck, but Marcus brings exactly what it needs. And, I don't think I've ever heard a white man sing it before (even though it was, in fact, written by one). Mr. Simeone's singing here shows the influence of another one of the founding fathers of modern pop music: the Granddad of Soul, (Little) Jimmy Scott. Like Mr. Scott, he sings in a high, clear voice (with genuine head-tones rather than an affected falsetto) and with the same level of integrity that Mr. Scott has always brought to his music.
Also impressive is Mr. Simeone's ability to interpret the music of comparatively contemporary composer-performers, most notably the Motown-centric songwriters Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Their best songs demand to be interpreted and re-animated in the same way that the great show tunes do. Mr. Simeone is one of the few artists I have heard—and in the future I am sure that ther e will be others—who can be stylistically faithful to their idiom but at the same time be creative within it…not slavishly replicating these hit records like a wedding singer. His placement of Mr. Wonder's "Sir Duke" -- which is not necessarily exclusively about Ellington but a paean to the transcendent power of all great music-- in the middle of "Sunday Morning" (by a band called "Maroon 5," which I admit to never having heard of) is especially effective.
He also juxtaposes Mr. Wonder's "Too Shy to Say" with the Cole classic "Nature Boy" and thereby illuminates an aspect of the Eden Ahbez song that I had never previously considered. Like few other singers I have heard, he gets both classic and contemporary pop songs to live side by side with each other and get along in perfect harmony. And he explores the common ground between the two, particularly with a song new to me with lyrics by the team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and melody by the celebrity keyboardist Dave Grusin ("A Child Is Born"). Marcus also achieves this by combining what amounts to a classic and a contemporary song with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Mercer was, in fact, kind of a Nature Boy himself, and both of these use the outdoor world as a metaphor: "Autumn Leaves, the Huckleberry Poet's adaptation of a famous French chanson and one of his all-time masterpieces and "When the Meadow Was Bloomin'," for which pop star Barry Manilow wrote the music after Mercer's death.
Simeone's approach works on two levels, which at times may seem inapposite to each other. He can sing a roughly contemp-pop song like "Alone Again," or something more soulful like Ashford and Simpson's "Keep an Eye," or even the multi-culti "Brazil" (which is genuinely from that country though it's been a part of the Great American Songbook for 60 years, thanks to the excellent English lyric by Bob Russell). Simeone can sing either song in a way that's completely faithful to the idiom. In fact, I like his treatment of the Gilbert O'Sullivan song better than Mr. Sullivan's own hit record. He is true to every idiom he works in, yet, curiously, he somehow seems faithful to all of them at the same time—like a man with multiple mistresses.
The last aspect of Marcus Simeone's talent is his skill as a songwriter. His one original here, "Never Left Behind," is a thoroughly satisfying contemporary pop song in the traditional ABAB structure, with two distinct melodic portions—the second of which is a thoroughly satisfying and catchy hook. The first time I heard Marcus Simeone, he was paying homage to Johnny Mathis. Now, in the second encounter, he shows me what he can do with every conceivable kind of pop music—with the exception, perhaps, of country and western music or the "Beer Barrel Polka," and I don't doubt that he could sing the heck out of those as well. Whatever he sings, he does it with total sincerity. Marcus Simeone is sincere, and I for one am glad that he's here.
*Will Friedwald is internationally recognized as the leading authority on jazz singing and "adult" pop music. He the author of three books on the subject, the most recent of which is Tony Bennett's biography, The Good Life (1998, Pocket Books) and also include Jazz Singing and Sinatra! The Song is You, both published in hardcover by Scribners (Simon and Schuster) and in paperback by Da Capo Press.