Vintage & Rare: The Songs of Harold Arlen Vol 3 'Ridin' On The Moon' Liner Notes
Notes to Riding on the Moon
I remember the day in 2011 vividly, as if it were today. It was a cold day in November, just as it is today. I received a flattering email from a guy by the name of Ken Greves via my address in www.allaboutjazz.com He told me about what I thought to be a very ambitious and challenging project he was dreaming about, a 10-CD homage to the legendary songwriter, Harold Arlen. I was taken by what I thought to be – at that time – a rather reckless, madcap, but devilishly great idea. And while I felt it was an enormous challenge for any one person to produce such a colossal project, I warmed to Greves immediately upon the utter politeness of his request as he even remembered to thank me for the review I wrote of his album The Face of My Love a year earlier.
I went back to the album I had reviewed and listened to it anew. I remember catching my breath a few times at the innovative approach to classic ballads by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Burton Lane, Cy Coleman, Jimmy Van Heusen and others. To my mind he had taken some rather daring liberties in his approach to intonation and phrasing. And though he was always true to the melody he often threw caution to the winds when it came to pitch (Think Sheila Jordan and then listen to “Where Have You Been” on that album). You don’t come across that in a lot of vocalists. Not ever. Pulling that off, I thought, took some daring-do. But then two things struck me about Greves’ singing. He is always true to the narrative and those narratives seem to speak intimately to him, as his vocalastics will testify. Still, I thought: a BIG Arlen Songbook? This is going to take some doing.
It is the 11th of January; almost six years to the day I first heard from Ken Greves. It is also two volumes into his 10-disc odyssey in search of Harold Arlen. And he is, and his ‘Arlen’ is a keeper. The series began with Vintage & Rare (Volume 1) and Greves followed that up with Vintage & Rare (Volume 2) a few years later. Now, six years after the first volume was released Greves is on to Volume 3 of the Arlen Songbook, entitled Riding on the Moon after one of the Arlen tunes on the record. I was fortunate indeed to be asked once again to pen these liner notes. To be sure, I was also curious to see how much – if anything – has changed since 2012, when Volume 1 was released. Not just “had Greves matured into his role of an interpreter of the so-called Great American Songbook”? More importantly, would there be any new insights into the Arlenesque oeuvre? And if so, how would Greves take on his detractors once again; give them something to think about?
Ken Greves has detractors. You’d better believe there are those who want a melody sung exactly as it has been written; no telling a story in your own words, so to speak, but just as it is written to be sung, pauses and all. Don’t expect that from vocalists of repute and don’t expect that from Greves. These are lyrics, meant to be poetically expressed; idiomatically and not prosaically. Anyone who has a problem with that ought to listen to Gerald Finley singing Franz Schubert’s Winteresse. Or listen to Barbara Hannigan’s version of Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite. And speaking of flipping the script that’s exactly how Ken Greves opens Riding on the Moon: with a surprising, Latin tinge and a somewhat sad story, but now a happier twist on “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz. Here’s why I love the album-opener: It sets the tone for another risqué sojourn by Greves which leads right into the rest of the breathlessly effervescent music.
With “I Love to Sing-a” there is an impossibly daring gymnastics-like leap into the unknown from the A section of the lyric into the B section; that devil-may-care touch to the song right off the bat towards the end of verse one:
“I've got my heart where it belongs,
Don't care who makes the nation's laws”
The he knocks it, appropriately tongue-in-cheek, right out of the park in the song’s whacky dénouement that Yip Harburg and probably Harold Arlen as well had in mind all along:
“I love to sing-a
I love to wake up with the South-a in my mouth-a, I love to sing-a
I love to wake up with the South-a in my mouth-a,
And wave the flag-a,
With a cheer for Uncle Sammy and another for my mammy,
I love to sing!”
So is Greves’ weighing in more aligned with Tex Avery’s version of the song in his iconic 1936, bestselling cartoon film of the same name? With the mock-gargling at the beginning and punctuating the end of the song, why not call “Showtime…!” with a splash?
From there on to “I Don't Think I'll End It All Today” the gentle “ditty” that absolutely confirms that while Greves seems to honestly believe that “these songs were given to him”, he is also willing to have fun with them, as Harold Arlen once did, when they were, just as honestly, I might add, “given to him”. There is a droll sense of humour here and it punches what might easily be construed as a suicide alarm right out of the lyric. Something else to note here is that Ira Gershwin felt Arlen’s piano playing as “flowery” and recommended that he “just play it with some rhythm and take it easy.” As if on cue here, both Greves (in his singing) and certainly pianist Wells Hanley have taken that apocryphal story to heart.
Ominously growling arco playing by bassist Peter Donovan, an almost Ansel Adams-like tonal beauty, to the crepuscular “Come On Midnight” while Greves’ voice ascends the registers along with Hanley, first soaring in the darkness and then dropping down to a near-whisper before Hanley takes a craftsman-like solo, painting the big shadows in triplets and broad arpeggios, a cue to Greves to swoop down, first holding a high note seemingly interminably, and then following that up with lyrical cascades. On “A Woman's Prerogative” we get a sense of just how much of a lyrical craftsman really is Arlen. Greves’ angular approach to the lyric together with the swinging piano, bass and drums clearly establish how Arlen understood better than anybody what it took for a song to move people and to get into their minds, becoming, of course the songs that people would live with all of their lives. “Love Held Lightly” does just that especially well. Greves holds the lyrics in the warmth of his heart, then tosses off lines with nimble airiness, ending the song with a fluttering “fly away…”
On “Green Light Ahead” your heart might sink a bit as Greves begins by letting his voice drop to husky depths, then it rights itself into its comfort-zone, accompanied first by the guitar of Sean Harkness and then, with the rest of the band, the song famously described as “the one that almost got away” (from Arlen) rights itself again as the group swings it, punching their way to its end. “I Wonder What Became of Me” is appropriately rueful but still luminous, especially with Greves’ sharp accenting of the word “laughter” just before the song’s bridge leads, a sharp interval above, into the brightness of the forthcoming verse. “If I Only Had the Nerve” is the second in the “If Only I Had…” series of songs, sung with a delightfully puckish, mock-Australian accent as the opener, “If Only I Had a Brain”. Like its partner, this one too is marked by some exquisite harmonic accompaniment on guitar. and then “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” follow each other, awakening in short order a new interest in these old Arlen chestnuts.
Piano and strings herald “Neath a Pale Cuban Moon” and the opening – both by Greves and pianist are framed by the lush atmosphere that this arrangement creates. Here Greves shows how wonderfully his singing style seems to be made for anything that’s written in a minor mode, strings notwithstanding. The same may be said of “Got To Wear You Off My Weary Mind”, which is striking in its myriad Arlen tonal water colours. “Riding on The Moon” is pure magic in the manner of its recreation of romantic imagery. It is a very conventionally structured show-tune and Greves gives it a rousing send-up – especially when it’s dialed up in the second half of the song. And that’s an appropriately apposite way to begin winding things down because along comes “If I Only Had a Heart”, another classic from The Wizard of Oz. The final song gets the full orchestral treatment and is superbly anchored by Wells Hanley as Ken Greves’ voice soars ending Riding on the Moon with bittersweet, but rapturous beauty.
So how does Ken Greves measure up in the terms suggested earlier? As far as “maturing into Arlen”, so to speak, there can be no doubt that the singer has taken iconic Arlen repertoire to new heights in a characteristic manner beyond description. The performance of these songs themselves is evidence of that. Does he bring new insights into Arlen? Consider what the master himself had to say about his original efforts after the songs were written: “I don’t think I’m trying to be different,” Arlen said in his biography Happy With The Blues. “Sometimes I get into trouble; in order to get out of trouble I break the form: I start twisting and turning, get into another key or go 16 extra bars in order to resolve the song. And often as not, I’m happier with the extension than I would have been trying to keep the song in regular form.” One can hardly argue with the fact that Greves has done just as the master ordered on this disc too.
Finally what Ken Greves ought to be thinking of his efforts is aptly summed up in this: Reputation is what others think of you. Honour is what you know about yourself. Indeed, Ken Greves has ridden the moon and given an honourable account of himself once again.