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Music Reviews

Janice Mars
Introducing Janice Mars
Baq Room Records

Album cover

For information on ordering Introducing Janice Mars, try contacting All Music Sercvices

Review by Michael Mascioli

Janice Mars is a mere footnote in the history of popular music. It's safe to say she's never been discussed at any length anywhere but in James Gavin's fascinating Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (a book which keeps alive the memory of many otherwise forgotten artists like Spivy, Nan Blakstone, Rae Bourbon, Dwight Fiske, and Claire Hogan). In it, Gavin touches on Mars' reign, at 33, as the proprietor of—and sole singer at—her own club, the tiny Baq Room on 6th Avenue in the late 1950s. There her following was comprised of the New York cognoscenti, including Judy Holliday, Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, Comden & Green, Noel Coward—and Marlon Brando, in whose study the master tapes for Mars' only album—never released— were stored for safekeeping for the last 40 years. The recent, long-overdue release of the CD Introducing Janice Mars moves her at last out of the footnotes and onto the main page, alongside more famous— but no more talented—names, where she rightfully belongs.

On the CD cover Janice Mars looks mild, staid—even (dare I say it?) a little boring—and inside there's an old newspaper photo of her holding court at the Baq Room (Tennessee Williams sits ringside), looking for all the world like the quintessential boite chanteuse— sort of a white Mabel Mercer, only standing up. So imagine the shock of playing this recording for the first time and hearing an opening blast of trumpets and a huge orchestra building to a crescendo to herald Janice, who makes a bold entrance, blaring, "Damn the city!! I'm SICK of the whole city!" It's the beginning of Baldwin Bergersen & Phyllis McGinley's ultra-obscure and ultra-charming Commuter Song, from their 1948 revue Small Wonder. Mars quickly relaxes and begins to extol the joys of quasi-pastoral living:

Got a bee in my turban
That I'd like to be suburban
And live among the vegetables and fruit...
Let's be commuters and commute.

The scenery's pretty and life is swell
In Garden City and New Rochelle
And every morning, come rain or sun,
We can hurry in a flurry to the 8:01....

And every night when work is done
I think we might have a lot of fun
For the very best families get begun
Between the 5:08 and the 8:01.

(Bergersen, incidentally, also served as Mars' accompanist at the Baq Room.)

Janice Mars is essentially a dramatic singer, and she shares the fluttering, heartthrob vibrato of Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, as well as the latter's hearty, authoritative, clarion style. Indeed, Mars was considered by some to be America's young answer to Piaf. Both her singing and her interpretations are—there is no other word for it— charged. But she also owes much to Eartha Kitt and to other theatrical singers who trod the floorboards a block or two west of the Baq Room during Broadway's golden age—belters like Susan Johnson and, especially, Eileen Rodgers, whom, along with Kitt, I would name as the singer Mars most sounds like, though clearly only by coincidence, not by calculation or imitation. But Mars is, I think, more capable than either of examining all the layers and levels of emotion and color below, shall we say, "the belt." She can be sweet and tender, girlish and genuinely vulnerable when necessary— witness her readings of When the World Was Young (which must be the quintessential cabaret song), Nobody Told Me (also from Small Wonder) and especially the first half of Bye Bye Blackbird (before it begins to build, thrillingly).

That same Broadway sensibility invests her with a sparkling personality, a sense of fun and lightness missing from so many other self-consciously serious, even somber, singers, especially these days. After all, musicals used to be called musical comedies. On Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen's "mockalypso" I Don't Think I'll End It All Today (from Lena Horne's Broadway vehicle Jamaica) you can almost see Mars sashaying and swishing her skirts as she grinningly makes her way through a list of ways to end it all—only not today.

Throughout, she is supported by vibrant instrumental settings created by the triple-threat combination of orchestrator Ted Royal, arranger Don Evans and conductor Milt Rosenstock (who, significantly, was the Musical Director for classic shows like Funny Girl, Gypsy, Finian's Rainbow, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells are Ringing and Can-Can). Their combined talents add infinite excitement and color to the proceedings.

The CD contains a dozen songs—her entire recorded legacy—including a hidden bonus track, her commanding version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (of all things) which, legend has it, a very young Janis Joplin would come to hear Janice sing. I also especially like her uber-dramatic version of Winter of My Discontent (a song I never enjoyed before) by Alec Wilder and Benedict Berenberg—who, it turns out, was Mars' first husband. If she performed this at the Baq Room with this kind of intensity, they're probably still scraping the audience off the walls.

Rounding out the esoteric yet accessible program are Duke Ellington & John LaTouche's Take Love Easy, Lilac Wine (earlier popularized by Eartha Kitt), The World is Your Balloon (from the famous '51 flop Flahooley, starring Barbara Cook—and Yma Sumac!), Take it Slow, Joe (also from Jamaica ), and Frank Loesser's Inchworm (strangely, a big favorite with jazz and cabaret singers.)

Introducing Janice Mars has fast become one of my desert island discs. Of course, my desert island is populated by singers like Frances Faye, Elaine Stritch, Susan Johnson and Kay Thompson—confident, assertive, big-voiced women considered a little sharp, a little edgy, a little too Broadway by some, especially, I would think, by today's growing coterie of jazz snobs.

It's said that Janice Mars (who is alive and well in New Mexico) mistrusted fame and sometimes even seemed to sabotage her own career—surprising considering her enormous, self-evident talent. We can only thank the gods that two members of her family decided to resurrect and release these important recordings as a "late-blooming gift" to Janice. And that Marlon Brando keeps his study so well organized.

Alex Pangman
Can't Stop me From Dreaming
Sensation Records
Album cover


How grand it is to tell you that Alex Pangman's sophomore recording, Can't Stop Me From Dreaming, is as good, if not better, than her first! We worry sometimes that we'll go overboard about a disc we like and later discover the well doesn't go very deep. Happily, this isn't the case with Pangman and we look forward to lots of offbeat, vintage and sincere recordings for years to come.

Alex Pangman sticks to Popular music mostly written between the World Wars. But one of her many talents is discovering great songs that have escaped "standard" status. There is no Stardust, I've Got You Under My Skin or It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) here. Instead of Gershwin, Porter or Arlen you hear works by Scholl, Silver and "Unknown". To these old ears, it's a gas. Ten of the 15 songs were new to us and the only song that might be considered a standard is Prisoner of Love.

Ms Pangman sings like a grown up cast member of the Little Rascals. Or maybe Olive Oyl's talented sister. She doesn't posses a huge voice but it swings and warbles and yodels in all the right places. A young woman at the turn of this century singing these old chestnuts in a vintage style is in danger of being far too cute and none too musical, but Pangman is so sincere and so right on the money stylistically, there's no need to worry.

On Pangman's very good last disc, They Say, she was backed by a small hot combo that seemed to be a little more confident than the singer. She always sounded fine but the solos from the band members seemed almost a relief for the singer rather than a chance to share the chores. It might be imagination but on Can't Stop Me From Dreaming, it seems like Pangman can't wait to jump right back in to the action after the various solos. She's officially one of the boys.

It's going to be a while until we take Can't Stop Me From Dreaming out of the CD player and neatly file it away between Patti Page and Anthony Perkins on the CD shelf. In fact, it probably won't be sent away until Pangman's next disc arrives.

Leon Russell
Signature Songs
Leon Russell Records

Album cover

Signature Songs is rock legend Leon Russell's new collection of hits, re-recorded with just Leon on piano and occasionally an electric bass line and a funny little ricky-ticky percussion help. The album would have been better with just the piano as the bass and percussion sound like they're from a lounge in a Midwestern Ramada Inn. So what's so wrong with having a beer in a Ramada Inn?

Aside from the occasionally odd accompaniment, the most striking thing about Signature Songs is Russell's voice. The old quirks that used to make him interesting have aged and mellowed and we find him one of his generation's best singers. A great example is the opener, A Song For You. Clearly, Russell must have sung this song a thousand times too many throughout his long career but now, rather than stick to the melody, he wanders around it and adds a dimension that wasn't there before.

Next you're bound to notice the songs themselves. As played by Russell, without all the trappings of a rock and roll act, there's a distinct mathematical certainty to them that reminds you what a topnotch songwriter he could be. A modern "song" seems to be a team of producers and a vapid artist "chillin'" in the studio and stealing, er, sampling riffs from more creative people's recordings. Voila! A song is born. Russell's songs have melodies you can sing, lyrics you can understand and occasionally emotions beyond the grasp of someone who can't legally vote yet.

A lot of musical trips down memory lane end up in a bust. With Leon Russell, we end up feeling a little guilty that we haven't taken him more seriously throughout the years. It's awfully nice that fellows like Billy Joel and Elton John have found continued success but for our money, we'll take Leon Russell.

New and Notable

Album Art

The adorable Dolly Dawn has her own collection of vintage Swing tracks on You're a Sweetheart (Collectors' Choice CCM 176-2). We didn't know much about her but we learned fast. Dare we say she was one of the era's best vocalists? We'll take that dare!…Anita Ellis may not be a household name, but her voice thrilled millions as the voice of Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Soundies has a new collection of radio transcriptions of Ellis called Out in Front (Soundies SCD 4136). Despite the really ugly graphics, it's worth checking out…Argenti is the new solo album by keyboardist/singer Ferdinando Argenti on the Ferdi's Music label. It's a nice collection of standards and orginals but we particularly like his take on Alberto Rabagliati's Bambina Innamorata





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