Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A new Nancy LaMott CD

I never expected to be so fortunate, to again have a shimmering new Nancy LaMott CD, not to mention a two-disk one of 21 previously unreleased songs. Nancy, my favorite cabaret singer, died of uterine cancer in 1995 when she was 43. Her death was a huge loss to lovers of the American songbook everywhere because nobody, nobody, sang it better.

Now, in addition to the DVD of Nancy’s performances that I reviewed April 25, we are gifted with this recording of songs mostly done live on radio or in one take in a studio with her renowned accompanist/arranger Christopher Marlowe. The quality is excellent; if she had gone into the studio last year and intentionally recorded all these songs together for a new CD it couldn’t be better. Her voice has the same bewitching power it always had, and the musical accompaniment is sublime.

In the CD’s liner notes, its producer, songwriter David Friedman, explains how the compilation came to be. After Nancy’s death the radio show host Jonathan Schwartz used to play unreleased recordings Nancy had given him as gifts. Every time he did he was flooded with calls from people wanting to know what CD they were on and how they could get a copy. This interest in Nancy’s compelling singing continued, so several years ago Friedman and others decided to bring those unreleased songs together into a new recording.

The challenge, Friedman writes, was to get them all to play evenly, since they had been done in a variety of locations and with different kinds of equipment of varying quality, “without losing the dynamic range that was the trademark of Nancy’s live performances.” In every case they tried to leave the songs as they were originally sung, “so with the exception of raising and lowering volumes and a few small nips and tucks, all these performances are untouched. The result is an intimate, natural look at these songs just as Nancy sang them. No frills, no tricks, just Nancy.”

Most of the selections were familiar to me, but two quite interesting ones I had never heard. One, “Killing Time,” by Jule Styne and Carolyn Leigh, is a portrait of lost love and regret -- “Filling spaces./ Killing time./ Making small talk,/faking pleasure,/killing time./ Punching pillows,/lunching late/and missing you.” The other, “On My Way to You,” by Michel LeGrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is a triumph of love found -- at last. It’s about a woman reflecting on her journey toward true love, and Nancy sings it with such feeling -- “. . .the smiles I never answered,/doors perhaps I should have opened,/songs forgotten in the morning./ I relive the roles I played,/the tears I have have squandered./ The many pipers I have paid/along the roads I’ve wandered./ Yet all the time I knew it,/ love was somewhere out there waiting,/ though I may regret a kiss or two./ If I had changed a single day,/ what went amiss or went astray,/ I may have never found my way to you.”

The most heartbreaking number, both in terms of the words and how Nancy sings them, is Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Here is a song about someone who realizes finally what she has, the love she had always sought throughout a life that “was no prize”. “I wanted love/ here it was/shining out of your eyes.” And with such feeling she sings softly and knowingly at the end, “and I know what time it is now.” It was the last song Nancy ever sang, recorded live at the Museum of Broadcasting Dec. 9, 1995. She died nine days later.

Nothing about this recording is depressing, though. Even with that last song, when Nancy knew she was dying, she sings without self-pity, giving her soul to the song she was singing, just as she always did. She is alive through this recording, and we are so blessed to have her with us again.

As Schwartz says in the liner notes, he recognized Nancy’s specialness right from the start. “This tiny figure of magic would become, I knew, the voice of its time. I think of Nancy every day. This CD will compel you to regard her as a singular figure, alone on the stage, without pretension. The light in her hair, and in her voice.”

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