The Great American Songbook is relatively crowded with contemporary interpretations of its stellar music characters. Cole Porter is well represented; so is Irving Berlin and even, to a certain extent, Jimmy McHugh. And while one of its most prolific musicians from the 20s to the 50s is often remembered for his Best-Loved Song of the 20th Century, “Over The Rainbow”, Harold Arlen has never really been paid homage due to one of his position in the American Songbook: One of its most prolific writers and one of its best-loved on Broadway, in Hollywood and in the recording studios frequently used by the likes of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. But that is about to change with Arlen’s complete oeuvre being given a classic once-over by Ken Greves, the New-York based tenor who has paid his dues but has never been given his due as one of the fine new interpreters of the American standard. 

Ken Greves has so far wowed critics and musicians and just plain lovers of music with an album, The Face of My Love, an ambitious album that approached the theme of “love” in all its pain and glory. It was very possible then as it still is now, that no one in recent memory may have got into character to perform the role of “lover” with such majesty and fire as he played out the myriad shades of sadness and joy associated with the eternal passion that exists where heart and mind meet. Greves’ “lover” was almost as powerful and desolate as Heathcliff, but with a classical triumph of human endeavor, he always settled the score with the demons who threatened to break his spirit as love triumphed in the end. 

Having tackled the eternal conundrum of love with passion, grace, and fire, Greves now approaches one of the most beloved figures in American music: Harold Arlen. Only this time Greves intends to re-interpret the entire oeuvre of Arlen. This might seem foolishly ambitious, but perhaps it is not quite so. There is something of a powerful union between the two: Apart from the fact that the two are musicians and therefore share a similarly heavenly-bound soul; even more fortuitously both men were singers first. 

There is that little known fact that Harold Arlen fronted a band as pianist and singer of a popular ensemble called the Buffalodians. At the time, Arlen was already an accomplished pianist and writer, but his ambition was always to be a singer and so he was given the honor of fronting the ensemble. Throughout his career with the Buffalodians, as the group toured fairly extensively, Arlen continued to show what an emotional storyteller he was as a songwriter. The show tunes and novelty songs that he wrote for the ensemble captivated audiences to such an extent that he finally reconciled to the idea that his true calling was as a songwriter. Still, his music reflected a penchant for and empathy for the vocalist who would ultimately sing his gems. 

And so it would seem that the music Harold Arlen wrote was written for specific singers. “Over The Rainbow” seems to have been written just for Judy Garland and no one else. Similarly, in 1943, Arlen wrote music for a film The Sky’s The Limit which starred Fred Astaire, who is known to have said that one of the songs “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” was “one of the best songs ever written for me.” This seems continued on unto this very day when Ken Greves has undertaken to complete a Harold Arlen Project, singing songs written by the master that appears to have been written just for Greves. 

Although Greves has come to be a troubadour, courtesy of his first album, he appears to have broadened the scope of his vocal emotions, expressing joy and comedy just as brilliantly as he does songs of love and hurt. His greatest strength, however, is one that would have pleased Arlen immensely and that is his ability to tell a story. On “My Shining Hour” for instance he shows just how he triumphs over adversity so much so that the glow of the shining hour becomes almost visible and palpable. Similarly, on “Moaning in the Morning” he is able to laugh at himself while he tells the story of his adverse situation. His swaggering annunciation of the line “down with love…” as he and pianist Wells Hanley let the song swing with tremendous abandon until the singer almost kicks up his heels at the end of the song. 

Greves’ interpretation of the classic “A Sleepin’ Bee” is probably the most exquisite in recent times. What makes this so is the manner in which Greves dallies over words relating to the imaginary conversation he has with the somnambulant bee over his love life? Once again, Hanley is brilliantly supportive and seems to “hear” the exact emotion that the vocalist wants to annunciate. On “Ill Wind” Greves notes the vicious nature of his situation being down on his luck; another great story exquisitely told not only in musical terms but also in a manner that makes the song almost visual to the listener. “Legalize My Name” is a fine novelty song written by Arlen and Greves deals with it with just the right amount of humorous narrative that it deserves. 

“Out of this World” is a deeply ponderous and brooding song and this is where Greves is at his finest; singing noir lyrics in a style that is pronounced. As always his diction and delivery are stunning as he dwells on words with just that right amount of dark and sad emotional sensibilities that the lyric deserves. Moreover, his voice glides over quarter notes with elegance and genius. “I Love a New Yorker” is a wonderful swinging chart that Arlen wrote as a Broadway show tune and Greves delivers it with Hanley chasing him; both with aplomb. 

The “Blues Medley” has an interesting story to it. At the time that “Blues in the Night” was being composed, Arlen was working with Johnny Mercer and struggling with the tune until Arlen “cracked it”. He suggested that Mercer reconsider  “that line in the middle… Let’s start the song with it…” and that is how the song began with the classic line: “My Mama done tol’ me…” Although this is the only blues that Arlen wrote, Greves reminds listeners that Arlen’s versatility also extended to that Afro-American idiom, singing the sequences with great finesse. “Cocoanut Sweet” is a beautiful dawdling song which Greves treats with part comedy and a great measure of one of his greatest assets: his sensuous treatment of lyrics. Sliding his “esses” like a drunken lover, he brings the song to life in all its color and taste and tactile genius. 

“You Or No One” is a gentle Bossa Nova, which Greves makes his own by swinging it with a dallying splendor that would have brought great cheer to even an exacting Brasilian. “Sing My Heart” is a chart that is a classic example of Arlen’s forte—a combination of deep emotion, mixed with the joy of experiencing love in the deepest recesses of his being, and Greves makes it his own like no other interpreter of Arlen. The album ends with a gentle “threat”: “I Could Go On Singing”, a gently swinging chart that portends well for the future of this project. After all, this is only the first in the series that Ken Greves has marked as The Comprehensive Harold Arlen Songbook. If this is any indication then there is much more celebrated—even award-winning—works from a vocalist whose skill is matched only by the repertoire that he brings to lifetime and time again. 

Raul d’Gama, Editor: and and author of the forthcoming book The Unfinished Score - The Complete Works of Charles Mingus ., Ontario, Canada April 17, 2012