Mark Heard It First


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To release a collection of Sondheim vocals with a decidedly reimagined approach, a singer had better have three things going for her – a first class pedigree as a strong vocalist, innate acting ability, and an outstanding supporting team.

Some familiar names populate this ambitious release. The core trio consists of West Coast stalwarts Kevin Axt on bass, Dave Tull on drums, and John Beasley on piano. Jamieson Trotter is an arranger who has been consistently putting his stamp on some of the finest material being recorded today. The classical composer and arranger Bevan Manson expertly employs strings and arrangements on two tracks, and “Take 6” founding member Mark Kibble contributes a surprisingly fresh arrangement of perhaps Sondheim’s most famous, if somewhat over performed, song.

John Beasley’s arrangement of “I Remember” begins the journey with a dreamy, introspective piano figure cascading over Kevin Axt’s anchoring bass line. Bentyne’s voice is immediate, expressive, and self -assured.

Eli Brueggemann’s arrangement of the obscure “Sand” uses shifting feels and meters.  At times it has a straight-ahead determination, and at other times it floats freely with a bit of uncertainty. This is a smart and effective approach, true to the material.

“The Ladies Who Lunch” is one of Sondheim’s better-known Broadway anthems. I was surprised to hear the often used “Killer Joe” treatment. But after all it was “That’s Killer Joe” on the Manhattan Transfer’s landmark “Vocalese” album in 1985 that breathed new life into Benny Golson’s standard. Bentyne and Janis Seigel supplied the soaring vocals on that groundbreaking recording. So if anybody is entitled to use the riff again, it is Cheryl Bentyne in the company of Janis Siegel, joined by multi-Grammy nominated Tierney Sutton. Jamieson Trotter’s treatment is actually spot on, and the rock solid groove laid down by the core trio gives the ladies a framework in which to party.   This can be a very dark piece, but in the hands of Bentyne and company it is sophisticated, fun, self aware and never bitter. There is nothing over wrought about it. Everybody laugh.

Dave Tull taps out an urgent message on the cymbals at the beginning of “Everybody Says Don’t.” Kevin Axt supplies an insistent bass pedal point, and Bentyne delivers the message. It takes an expertly crafted arrangement to succeed with bass, drums and voice only. The arrangement by Axt is perfection and once again Bentyne shines as a musical actress, handling the rapid fire lyrics with ease.

Bentyne brings in arranger Bevan Manson to handle another of Sondheim’s better known pieces, “Comedy Tonight.” He employs the string section with theatrical flair, giving Bentyne a vehicle to display an admirable range of colors and timbres. It has an off kilter silliness appropriate to the material.

She wisely follows this romp with a plaintive, heartfelt reading of the beautiful “I Wish I Could Forget You” from “Passions” with solo accompaniment by Tom Zink on piano. The pair gets to the essence of Sondheim’s brilliance as a writer of ballads and melodies. Like all gifted singers, Bentyne spans different genres with ease. To my ear if she had just given a little more length to the final word the effect at the ending would have been enhanced.

“Not A Day Goes By” is another strong Jamieson Trotter arrangement. The song’s melody and lyrical structure, particularly the “day, after day” repetition, lends itself to the romantic bossa approach, with a gorgeous piano solo by John Beasley and beautiful, understated enhancement on guitar and percussion by Tom McCauley.

Bevan Manson returns with an arrangement for strings and voice and once again his classical credentials serve Sondheim well on “Move On.” The arrangement has a well crafted dramatic arc, and when Bentyne closes with the line “Stop worrying where you’re going,” I believe this is a person with a profound understanding of the message she is delivering.

“Send In the Clowns” is a gutsy, if logical closer. With Mark Kibble’s arrangement, and background vocals by Kibble and Armand Hutton we have Bentyne venturing back into “Manhattan Transfer” territory, backed by precise, inspired harmonies. But this arrangement is no throw back. It has a light, lilting Latin feel with Roy Wooten on cajon and Tom McCauley on shakere. Kibble’s arrangement strips any laborious pretentions from this overly performed song. This is gorgeous stuff, and in a collection of Sondheim by an important singer, of course we should have “Clowns.” But in this case, don’t worry, they’re here.

I wanted to like this record, and I actually love it. The strong arrangements are detailed, intelligently conceived and delivered. Bentyne has the dramatic talent and the vocal chops to do justice to a legendary and complex songwriter like Stephen Sondheim. Everybody rise!


Produced by Cheryl Bentyne and Tom McCauley

Recorded, mixed, mastered by Tom McCauley