Our greatest living Broadway composer is Stephen Sondheim. All you have to do is sit through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George or Into the Woods to be smitten by his wordplay and bitten by his melodies. The songs win you over because they are like the couple in Two for the Road—at odds and in love. Sondheim's music goes its own way while his lyrics understand that an audience must be seduced. [Photo above of Stephen Sondheim by Ethan Levitas]
I mention Sondheim because pianist Bill Mays and bassist Tommy Cecil have just released one of the most endearing and engaging jazz albums of the year: Side by Side: Sondheim Duos. Here, Mays and Cecil capture the spirit of Sondheim's restless songs, which always seem simultaneously anxious and axiomatic. A question mark that changes into an exclamation point and back again.
As I listened to the high level of sophistication and playfulness by Mays and Cecil, I wondered whether Sondheim has heard the beautifully expressed results and what he might think. I posed this question to Tommy Cecil, also asking him how he came up with the ingenious idea to jazzify Sondheim's show music. [Photo above: Bill Mays]
Here's what Tommy told me:
"Last year I invited Bill to headline a gig of mine at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. He brought some of his charts, including an arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's Send In The Clowns. I thought to myself, 'Leave it to Bill to re-imagine what for jazz musicians is such a hackneyed tune.'
"It turned out great musically and how it appealed to the audience. Playing that gig with Bill was a highlight for me. In its wake, I imagined it would be a fun challenge to record a CD of Sondheim songs. I pitched the idea to Bill and he agreed. [Pictured above: Tommy Cecil]
"I hadn't had much experience with Sondheim's repertoire before this, other than a gig I did with Steve Ross at the Corcoran Gallery some years ago that was devoted entirely to Sondheim's works.
"The gig turned on a light for me. So much of what has become standard repertoire for jazz musicians (at least the ones who inspire me) started on the Broadway stage. Why not continue what I think is a wonderful tradition with Sondheim's songs?
"When the album was completed, I sent Sondheim a copy. He graciously sent me back a note saying, 'Thanks so much for the CD. I can't wait to hear it, and I assure you in advance that any liberties you take are more likely to delight than irritate me. Yours truly.' I had warned him in my note that some musical liberties were taken." [Photo above of Stephen Sondheim by J. M. Chapman]
Liberties indeed were taken. The album opens with Something, but if you think you've heard all of the Somethings you will ever want to hear, you'd be mistaken. Mays and Cecil breathe fresh life into this West Side Story saw (music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Sondheim), sending it up like a mid-tempo kite. On this track and all the rest, Mays never bogs down, constantly moving Sondheim's spirit forward with witty, confident improvisation. Cecil is badgering and powerful on bass throughout, an equal voice at the table.
Not While I'm Around from Sweeney Todd opens with Cecil using his bass strings like vocal cords, bringing warmth and intonation to the melody line. Broadway Baby from Follies is treated similarly. Everyday a Little Death (from A Little Night Music) is classic Sondheim—a song that yearns and yawns as it stretches and ponders where it wants to go next.
Ballad of Sweeney Todd is among the "liberties" to which Cecil was referring and Sondheim was encouraging. The spirited interpretation is spring-loaded with dark twists and turns, including a vibrant solo by Cecil that sounds as though his plucking hand is several times larger than the normal hand.
One of the album's many high points is Small World from Gypsy. Mays and Cecil retain the stage classic's innocence with conversational exchanges and improvisation. Best of all, they never lose sight of the fact that Sondheim wrote the lyrics, not the music (that was by Jule Styne). No worries, since they stick close to the song's lyrics sung by Herbie and Momma Rose:
Funny, you're a stranger who's come here,
Come from another town.
Funny, I'm a stranger myself here.
Small world, isn't it?
The final three songs are pure bliss: Side by Side by Side (Company), Anyone Can Whistle (from the show of the same name) and Comedy Tonight (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Each Sondheim composition sparkles with simplicity and complexity.
This is a perfect jazz album that proves there are no worn songs, just worn interpreters, and that jazz artists can unashamedly love show tunes—even if they turn them inside out a bit. For my money, Mays and Cecil could record seven more Sondheim albums. I'm sure each would sound better than the last. And I'm sure Sondheim loved what he heard here.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Side By Side: Sondheim Duos at Amazon here.
A big JazzWax thanks to Joe Lang.
JazzWax clip: Here's Bill Mays playing Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby, one of the most fluid interpretations of the piece...
Here's Tommy Cecil with pianist Chris Grasso and saxophonist Marshall Keys playing Yesterdays...