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Music Reviews

Editor's Note: We love Barbara Lea and we love Noel Coward, so we were thrilled when Lea, along with pianist Keith Ingham, made an album of Coward's music. Guest contributor Peter Wagenaar was kind enough to provide MrLucky readers with the following intelligent review.

Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham
Mad About the Boy - The Songs of Noel Coward
Challenge Records, 1999

Noel Coward

Review by Peter Wagenaar
Johannesburg, South Africa

Nineteen ninety-nine delivered a hat-trick of songwriter centenaries - but you might be forgiven if you missed the fact. For the US media, especially, 1999 was the year of Duke Ellington, whose significance in the scheme of jazz and popular music was assessed, re-assessed and celebrated with ferocity. The Ellington centenary almost completely overshadowed that of fellow American Hoagy Carmichael, and it was hardly surprising that Noel Coward, a quintessential Englishman, came in a distant third with little fanfare to mark his 100th birthday.

But then Coward has never received the same recognition accorded the great American songwriters of what, for want of a better 'brand' name, I'll call the Gershwin school. Yet he was arguably one of the single most talented individuals alive in the twentieth century. Astonishingly versatile, he did it all and did it well, writing plays (both drama and comedy), book musicals, revues, short stories and a novel. As songwriter he wrote both music and lyrics in diverse styles: operetta, patter songs, up-tempo novelties, sophisticated love songs, torchy ballads. They stand comparison with the best work of his American counterparts, such as Cole Porter (to whom he is most often compared), yet only a handful made it into the standards repertoire of the predominately American exponents of this genre.

Why, one wonders? Perhaps the most likely reason is that the best interpreter of Noel Coward songs is generally agreed to be… Noel Coward! As early as the 1920s, Coward's recordings of his own songs were so well received that in some cases no recordings exist by the singers who actually introduced them on stage. In the 1950s, as changing tastes saw the theatre-going public turn away from the sophisticated, stylised works that had been Coward's trademark, in favour of the kitchen-sink realism of the angry young men, Coward wrote less and performed more, emerging (to his own astonishment, as he subsequently admitted) as a very successful and sought-after cabaret attraction. More than ever, Noel Coward songs seemed to have become the preserve of Noel Coward. With this in mind, certain writers have argued that he was the first true "pop" star, performing his own songs almost exclusively while prolonging his career by reinventing himself with each decade as the world around him changed.

Though he enjoyed considerable popular success in his lifetime (with his knighthood in 1970 bringing a revival of interest and a couple of nostalgic revues in the years prior to his death in 1973), his reputation and fame seem to have declined in the years since and even in his native Britain his centenary passed with relatively little fanfare. One of relatively few news articles rather patronizingly dubbed him "our Cole Porter". (Would any American writer have called Porter "our Noel Coward", one wonders?) Admittedly, there was a tribute CD released in late 1998, on which a number of pop stars brought their own individual approaches to the Coward oeuvre. One charitably assumes that it was well-intentioned but, a few numbers apart, it was a misguided mess.

Enter an American singer to redress matters. And Noel Coward couldn't have gotten luckier. Barbara Lea burst onto the jazz scene in the mid-1950s to rapturous critical acclaim and a great future seemed assured. Unfortunately, the rise of rock 'n roll and its erosion of what music critic Joel E. Siegel once described as "the jazz-pop middleground" meant that she never achieved the heights predicted for her. But for 40+ years, she has remained one of the classiest acts around.

"I believe in jazz and in singing, but not necessarily in jazz singing," she declared in the self-penned sleeve notes of her third album in 1957. The ensuing decades may not always have been easy, but Lea has never abandoned this philosophy, respecting the music and the lyrics and singing them with care and precision. "I'm aware that there are people out there who might find my singing bland," she told me recently, "but I came to terms a long time ago with the knowledge that not everyone would understand what I was doing - going for truth."

Coward went for truth too. His lyrics run the gamut from the giddiness of new love (You Were There) to mature retrospection (If Love Were All) and their resonance is often breathtaking. They've seldom, if ever, sounded better than they do on this album, to my knowledge only the third ever Noel Coward songbook by a female vocalist. Few voices age as gracefully as Barbara Lea's. At 70, her warm, textured voice, with its distinctively "furry" quality, sounds almost exactly the same as it did 25 years ago.

Accompanied by pianist Keith Ingham, with whom she has collaborated successfully before, Lea presents a programme that balances Coward's well-known songs with a few more obscure gems. The former include the title track, a medley of the three famous waltzes (I'll See You Again, Someday I'll Find You, I'll Follow My Secret Heart) and If Love Were All, one of the finest love songs ever written. Lea opens the verse at a jaunty tempo which initially comes as a surprise. On a second listening one realises how appropriate the setting is to the lyric ("Life is very rough and tumble…people must laugh their fill, You mustn't sleep till dawn comes creeping.") Mid-way into the verse and in the refrain, as the tone of the lyric becomes more resigned and philosophical, so too does Lea's approach. The lines "Although when shadows fall I think, 'If only…'" have seldom been sung with such wistful longing and yet without making the singer sound victimised.

Two of the rarities deserve special mention. Something Very Strange and Come the Wild Wild Weather, both written in the early 1960s, contain some of Coward's most satisfying lyrics. Works of maturity, Lea sings them with a grace and understanding few singers working today could have mustered.

Coward's music was long overdue for a retrospective such as this one, and there isn't a false note in the entire project, which is a triumph of good taste, elegance and, most significantly, understatement. Ingham is to be commended too for his accomplished backing, and he adds a few sly imaginative touches of his own, such as the use of a motif from Gypsy in My Soul to introduce Coward's Zigeuner.

 

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