From TalkinBroadway.com: Sound Advice: The Great That Resonate Top 10 Cast Albums of 2006/ Jan04/07
In picking a top ten list, what's considered is not that initial delight of discovery, but the lasting impact. Some lose their punch and others only seem to shine brighter with time and repeat plays. The list below is eclectic. I only consider items reviewed and released in this calendar year, and reissues are excluded. The albums are not listed in any particular order, as they are not ranked.
THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN: A STORY IN JAZZ FOR CHILDREN AND ADULTS
Artists House (reviewed 2/2/06
This treasure is not a cast album per se, but is very much worthy of special mention and one of the year's most captivating. It is not based on a staged show, but rather a book, and has narration and songs.
Jazz is the genre for the very gentle tale of The Cat Who Went to Heaven, an enchanting enterprise that I fall a little bit in love with each time I hear it. Based on a children's book by Elizabeth Coatsworth, it's been transformed into a jazz musical with captivating music and lyrics by the singer Nancy Harrow, who sings the title role. Appropriately, her singing is warm and fuzzy and sinuous. The cast includes Grady Tate, Daryl Sherman and Anton Krukowski, with narration by Will Pomerantz. They're all charming, and this piece works like a charm. Musical accompaniment features well-known musicians and adds the flavor if its setting of Japan.
Computer-compatible, the enhanced CD comes with access to the printed score and the directions to produce the piece. With elements of mystery and melancholy (an animal dies as a main event), plus Buddhism, this is far from just a "kiddie" event. It's a loving story, and very good, low-key jazz music.
From May-June 2006 issue of Cookie & Sept.'06 Music Reviews & Playlists, cookiemag.com
The Cat Who Went to Heaven
Based on a 1931 Newbury Award-winning book, this opera blends contemporary jazz and traditional Asian folk music. The musical melange works perfectly to tell the tale of a Japanese artist whose love for his cat trumps his desire to please the village elders.
From Talkinbroadway.com/Sound Advice, Feb. 2, 2006:
The Cat Who Went to Heaven
What a remarkable and unique achievement we have in The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It is an exquisitely delicate delight, lovingly done and I'm totally enchanted by it. This charming cameo of a musical is based on a 75-year-old children's book of the same name by Elizabeth Coatsworth. As the story is set in Japan, judiciously used Japanese instruments add flavor within this score which is very much a jazz journey. Mostly gentle, it has its joyful and jaunty tunes and is not without humor. A certain simplicity will appeal to children, but this is not by any means some kind of sugary, bouncy, commercial kiddie fare (nor does it resemble any other musical about Cats, despite the plot point about Heaven).
The melodies are instantly attractive, some sinuous and others hypnotic by virtue of their sweetness. The composer-lyricist is Nancy Harrow, whose recorded work as a jazz singer over the years has always appealed to me. The class and modesty in her singing is also seen in her writing. She shines in the role of the cat with her warm and fuzzy voice, especially effective when expressing contentment and shyness.
The adorable The Adventures of Maya the Bee, recorded as a cast album and running as a puppet show for the last six years in Greenwich Village, is Nancy's other musical for families. She has other albums inspired by the work of other writers (Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel Hawthorne) and is reunited with several of the same singers and instrumentalists here. Her son, Anton Krukowski, has an open, clean vocal quality in his two songs; although some may feel he sounds too "youthful" to be an imposing Buddhist priest, I find his sound to be disarming. His "The Perfect One" is a real highlight.
From the Maya recording come two longtime favorites of mine: jazz veteran Grady Tate, who was for decades one of the premier drummers and has also had a side career as a smooth, deep-voiced and very hip vocalist, which is now his sole focus. He sings the role of the painter who gradually comes to care for the cat in the role that has the most vocal variety. He meets the challenge with flying colors. And Daryl Sherman brings emotion and flair, as well as her customary honey tones, to the part of the housekeeper. Daryl is most often found playing the keyboard for herself on Cole Porter's piano at the Waldorf-Astoria and elsewhere, but here the piano work is by the sensational Kenny Barron, a strong presence throughout the CD. Other major jazz names are on hand as well, such as Gerry Neiwood (clarinet and flute), George Mraz (bass) and guest spots by Frank Wess (sax and flute)and the great Clark Terry (not only on flugelhorn but with a very cool scat vocal). In addition to drums (Dennis Mackrel) and the Japanese instruments, there are some strings and horns on some tracks. It's all restrained, focused and economical. Kenny Werner, whom some readers will know as Betty Buckley's musical director, did the piano scores and Michael Mossman is the arranger and conductor for all the songs.
Will Pomerantz's narration, with background music, sets and keeps the tone of the simple but emotional tale. The sound is clear and warm (the album producer is John Snyder, another frequent collaborator with Nancy Harrow). Special features on the CD can be accessed by playing it on a computer. The full lyrics and sheet music (full score) can be seen, as well as stage directions and narration, plus a short video and access to related website information. This is all meant to be an invitation for groups to stage the musical.
Further information and sound samples are available on the websites for Nancy Harrow and the label: www.nancyharrow.com and www.artistshousemusic.com. I urge you in its direction.
--- Rob Lester
From UrbanBaby, November 21, 2005:
As the creator of Maya the Bee -- the popular puppet show now in its sixth season at the Bleecker Street Theater -- jazz singer and composer Nancy Harrow knows a good kids' story when she reads one. This time around she's set her sights on a Newbery award-winning book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Written in 1931, this story of love, integrity and compassion continues to resonate today.
Grown-up fans of rock and roll seem to have plenty of fun kids' options, but those who favor jazz haven't always been so lucky. Until now. Through original compositions, lyrics and narration, The Cat Who Went to Heaven integrates the story line with an accessible, but sophisticated jazz score that pleases everyone.
Harrow has been composing, performing and recording innovative jazz music for decades, with 14 records to date. Here she draws on her connections to assemble a roster of talented artists that includes Grady Tate, Kenny Barron and Frank Wess.
Music that's sure to be a family affair and also helps an important cause.
Sounds like jazz heaven.
Nancy Harrow has done it again!
This delightful CD presents the fifth in a series of works by this greatly gifted singer-composer-lyricist that casts her in all these roles, and also demonstrates her talent for discovering texts that are just right for transformation into a genre for which there is no real precedent -- at least not in the annals of jazz. (Though I tentatively described an earlier entry as a song cycle, that Schubertian-Schumannesque category isn't a proper fit for what Nancy creates.)
Of the five, The Cat Who Went To Heaven is the second to be inspired by a children's book, in this case by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986),a resident of Maine whose large output also included memoirs and poetry. (The Cat won her the Newbury Award in 1931.) Though this is genetically impossible, The Cat is nontheless the direct offspring of Nancy's prior sampling of literature for children, The Adventures of Maya the Bee. Conceived in 1998, this utterly charming jazz puppet show (also a CD) is now in its sixth year as a Saturday morning feature of The Culture Project in Greenwich Village.
Let us note at this juncture that Nancy's other literature-based works are Lost Lady (1994), from a short novel by Willa Cather; The Marble Faun (1999), from the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, and Winter Dreams (2003), impressions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life as seen through his fictional characters. Let us also note that Nancy's knowledge of and interest in literature has been lifelong, and at one time found her editing a literary magazine, temporarily depriving us of her performing talents.
Another aspect of these musical-literary endeavors is that they have spawned a kind of repertory company: another Harrow talent is for attracting gifted collaborators. Thus, among those involved in The Cat, Grady Tate was a principal voice in all but Lost Lady; Daryl Sherman was Maya the Bee (having morphed in a remarkably short time from two-day-old Maya to aged Housekeeper); Frank Wess and John Mosca were on hand for Marble Faun and Winter Dreams, Michael Mossman was soloist on Dreams, and Clark Terry was present on Secrets, the first album to display Nancy's songwriting gifts. And, last but by no means least, there is Anton Krukowski, previously heard on Faun, who just happens to be Nancy's son.
And producer John Snyder is a team player as well; he played that role before on Faun and Dreams, as well as on two of Nancy's earlier ventures, Street of Dreams and her Beatles album. John's distinguished career as a producer is too long to do justice here; it is a record of uncompromising integrity. "His taste and judgment are impeccable," Nancy said, "even when he's under pressure -- that studio clock, you know -- he makes everything work without losing his cool."
Nancy says that nothing gives her as much pleasure as to hear her tunes sung by another singer, and in the case of The Cat the pleasure is tripled.
"Anton's voice always touches me, and I don't think it's just a mother's astonishment and pride -- he just has that soulful quality when he sings. Daryl is so musical and lyrical --I never tire of her interpretation as Maya, and now, as the housekeeper in this tale, she is just as memorable (although she tells me that her friends think it's a riot that she should be cast in that role, considering the reputed state of her apartment.)
"And Grady is my hero. This is the fifth album we've done together, though on the first he was the drummer, not the singer, yet giving me generous advice, and he continues to amaze me. It's his humor and timing on uptempo tunes combined with great pathos on ballads and a wonderful voice -- I just think he's a great singer."
There's nothing like singers on singers, so we listen when Daryl describes herself as a longtime fan of Nancy's singing. "Her voice has a distinctive timbre, resonance and warmth that is very alluring, but in recent years as I've come to know her better, I've also come to love her visions. I happen to be a dreamer too, but Nancy manages to deliver way beyond the dream state."
Daryl's point is well taken: there is a kind of jazz alchemy involved in Nancy's ability to bring her ideas to full realization, step by step. For The Cat, the talented (and mercurial) Kenny Werner wrote what Nancy described as detailed piano scores, and also a sketchy plan for orchestrating each tune, but when the job became too time-consuming for him, she turned to Michael Mossman. That fine trumpeter, arranger and composer, on the faculty of Queens College, had been on Winter Dreams, but there was another Harrow connection: he had been a protege of the late Roland Hanna, Nancy's key collaborator on the Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, and Maya projects.
Werner and Mossman, Nancy said, never worked together at all, but what resulted (and with the string quartet, the --for jazz--exotic double reeds, and the Japanese instruments, no routine assignment) sounds just about perfect.
Pianists have played a key role (no pun intended) in all of Nancy's projects, and Kenny Barron is no exception. His skill, taste and adaptability to every musical situation bring to mind Hank Jones, no less, perhaps his only peer.
He makes notable contributions everywhere, but in particular on the jazz interludes, which, Nancy explained, were all done on the spot with no preparation at all.
The interludes are indeed wonderful. It is a treat to hear Frank Wess, still the undisputed master of jazz flute and as fine as ever on the tenor, one of those incredible octogenarian jazz masters. (When I grew up listening to jazz, it was considered a young person's art.) Clark Terry is another -- his wonderful sense of humor is undiminished in spite of physical hardships, and the chops are still there. He'll surprise you with one of his inimitable vocals (instrumentally conceived). And all hands, including the string quartet, interpret the score peerlessly (don't forget the team of Mraz and Mackrel).
But none will resent my naming Kenny Barron the instrumental star. Outstanding are his two solo interludes, and in particular the one that ends the proceedings, "Good Fortune Was Her Name", which, Nancy told me, he claimed he didn't know what to do with. "If that's what happens when he doesn't know what to do," Nancy said, "I think he really does have genius. To me, it sounds as if he is saying, 'And that's the way it was, back in those times in Japan.'"
Old Japan, of course, is the setting for our tale, which, like all good children's stories, has a moral. It's a sweet story, but Nancy's words and music lift it to a higher sphere. The Japanese atmosphere is suggested with minimalist strokes --evocative but never overstated or cliched. The individual characters emerge clearly, by dint of their distinctive voices, of course, but also the words and music that characterize them: the shyness of the cat, the primness of the priest, the devotion of the housekeeper, and the humanity of the artist.
The contrasting voices (Nancy's mezzo, Daryl's soprano, Grady's baritone, Anton's tenor) sometimes meld in ensembles, and the music, in accompaniment and interludes, underscores the action.
As Daryl Sherman put it, "Nancy has a special knack of propelling all this into a whirlwind of creative, sympathetic vibes, and voila, the characters snap to life and the music is truly lovely and swinging."
I couldn't have said it better myself. Yes, Nancy Harrow has done it again. We'll be waiting for what this unique artist has up her sleeve next, and rejoice that The Cat is out of the bag!
Director, Institute of Jazz Studies
Author, Living With Jazz (Pantheon)
Simplicity and beauty are at once the highest and hardest qualities to achieve in works of art. Nancy Harrow's jazz opera, based on a child's tale, achieves both. It is child-like, but never childish. Suffused with an intimate acquaintance with the jazz song tradition, Harrow's work has a lyrical expressiveness that consistently avoids mere sentimentality.
Elizabeth Coatsworth's text provides an initial clarity and focus. What follows is a refined jazz idiom interspersed with elements of melodrama and reminiscences of an older tradition of music radio drama. The literature and the music work together effortlessly. The engagement with a story line is brilliantly integrated with an accessible but sophisticated jazz. The instrumentation is unusual and informed by non-Western elements and sounds. The resultant sonorities are original and offer the listener a palate of music that frames a dramatic arc. In the section "Lost in Contemplation," we encounter yet a third element, a nearly neoclassical evocation of the classical tradition in Western music, which evolves seamlessly back into jazz.
This recording suggests that The Cat Who Went to Heaven demands a stage production. We are living in an era of revival for the operatic medium. In this sense, opera is distinct from musical theater in its use of highly sophisticated musical materials. Nancy Harrow's work has the additional virtue of being capable of realization without massive forces and daunting apparatus. Like the innovative operas of the 1920s, particularly those by Kurt Weill, Harrow combines accessibility with elegance, all within a context of practicality. This is a work of charm and delight that suggests a new avenue for the operatic medium, one that merits not only recording, but live performance as well.
American Symphony Orchestra
News Item: The Cat Who Went to Heaven puppet show will have a run at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April/May 2011.