03.16.13Life Is a Bitch review by Michael Dale in BroadwayWorld.com
I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of being conceived back when Fran Landesman began writing the lyrics and poetry that would earn her the title of the beat generation’s “poet laureate of lovers and losers.” And I’m quite certain the same can be said for Mary Foster Conklin, but in her tribute to the scribe best known for “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” the sly and smoky jazz vocalist creates a mood that one can imagine replicates the feel of low-key cool and coffee house worldliness that accompanied the material when it was a young woman’s reaction to the masculine sensitivity of 1950s Greenwich Village and the hipster side of St. Louis.
Titled Life Is A Bitch after a comically fatalistic poem that was a favorite of Bette Davis, Conklin is joined by music director/pianist John di Martino and bassist Greg Ryan for 90 minutes of wisdom, anecdotes and some ravishing words and music presented with knowing dramatics and warm intelligence.
The trickily rhythmic "Nothing Like You" (music by Bob Dorough) opens the program, followed by the creamy “Never Had The Blues” (also Dorough), setting us up for an evening of flippantness and emotional colors. “In A New York Minute” (Simon Wallace) highlights the jumpy, unexpected rhythms of the city, “Scars” (also Wallace) has Conklin at her most beautifully intimate, assuring a new lover that they can freely expose each other to the evidence of their past wounds (“Don’t be ashamed, everybody’s got scars. / That’s the way we keep score on this planet of ours.) and in “Small Day Tomorrow,” her “anthem of the unemployed,” the singer lounges in a relaxed playfulness.
That last selection, as Conklin explains, was inspired by an evening where Landesman was left alone in a favorite watering hole because all of her friends had a “big day tomorrow.” She quips, “Out came a bar napkin and the rest is history.” And “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” (Tommy Wolf), best known as a gay anthem, she explains was actually inspired from the lyricist’s learning that one of her obsessive artist friends was about to marry a 16-year-old girl and she was thinking how someone so young couldn’t possibly be prepared for what she had in store.
The charming between-song patter not only expresses Conklin’s personal appreciation of the songs, but gives a rather thorough history lesson of her subject’s life and career; her open marriage of 61 years to Jay Landesman (founder of the beat lit magazine Neurotica), their years in St. Louis, mingling with the likes of Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand at the Crystal Palace, and writing The Nervous Set with Tommy Wolf, the musical about New York’s beatnik culture that was a smash in St. Louis but failed to win over Broadway audiences.
The brief Metropolitan Room run of Life Is A Bitch has sadly concluded, but any future opportunities to hear the perfect match of Landesman’s hip observations and Conklin’s stylish interpretations is certainly worth a listen.
08.12.12Standing in the Rubble of New York's Cocktail Life
Classification is practically a divine endowment. As Genesis says, the Lord breathed existence into being, divided the day into two categories, and called them night and day. Why complicate things with intermediacies such as dawn and twilight?
Fortunately for the musical arts, the current era is not Biblical. The dominant theme of twentieth-century music in all categories is the collapse of categories, as genres, styles, and cultural associations mingle and blur. Musically, we're in the dawn of twilight (or the twilight of dawn, whatever), and I saw the evidence recently in two extraordinary concerts in New York City.
This Thursday, the singers Mary Foster Conklin and John DiPinto did a wonderfully unclassifiable show at the Metropolitan Room, a swanky mid-sized spot in Chelsea. Conklin, a former punk rocker from New Jersey, could sing anything but chooses to sing only what she chooses, and her taste is refined but not parochial. For the past several years, she has been performing, sometimes with DiPinto, in the underground series of “Renegade Cabaret” events staged, initially, on a fire escape by the Highline. In their show at the Metropolitan Room, Conklin and DiPinto, who plays the accordion, of course, presented an unaffectedly varied selection of tunes they love and sing well together. I had never heard half of the songs before, and every one was a pleasure: “Louisiana,” a gem from the 1930s by Fats Waller’s colleagues J.C. Johnson and Andy Razaf; “Shut Up and Talk to Me,” by the celebrated country tunesmith Guy Clark; and “Without Rhyme or Reason,” a deep obscurity by Fran Landesman and Bob Dorough (from a time when Dorough was musical director to the ’60s top-40 group, Spanky and Our Gang); and “Music to Watch Girls By,” done with affection and just enough of wink.
However oppressive the days, some of the nights have been good in New York this summer.
08.22.11Tony Sheldon visits North Square and lives to blog about it
Last week's brunch gig at North Square was a blast - many friends and singers in the house. John Dipinto sat in for two numbers each set. A surprise guest was Tony Sheldon from PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, who was kind enough to mention me and John Dipinto in his blog.
10.06.06Blues for Breakfast - Remembering Matt Dennis
Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis
Mary Foster Conklin | Rhombus Records (2006)
By Jack Bowers
I don't review many albums by singers these days, but I couldn't pass up a tribute to Matt Dennis, one of the most talented and sadly neglected songwriters of the Twentieth Century. Before scoffing, remember "Angel Eyes," "Will You Still Be Mine," "Everything Happens to Me," "Violets for Your Furs," "Let's Get Away from It All," "Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World" and "The Night We Called It a Day." All were written by Dennis, who sang them (and others) for many years in nightclubs across the country while accompanying himself at the piano.
To Mary Foster Conklin's credit, she doesn't rest her case on these familiar melodies but has unearthed a cache of other forgotten treasures with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, Bobby Troup, Ted Steele, Jerry Gladstone and Ginny Dennis, and performs a duet with Cuban artist David Oquendo on "Encanto d'Amor," Dennis/David Gillam's "It Wasn't the Stars That Thrilled Me" translated into Spanish by Oquendo. Among the others, Dennis/Steele's "That Tired Routine Called Love" is especially clever, right up there with Rodgers and Hart's "Everything I've Got Belongs to You," Lerner and Loewe's "How Can Love Survive," any Cole Porter lyric, and Dennis/Tom Adair's "Let's Get Away" and "Will You Still Be Mine."
Conklin's midrange voice is sweet and expressive, her articulation clean, and she caresses each lyric with notable warmth and perception. She's not quite as irresistible as Dennis himself, but few singers, no matter how adept, have ever equaled his offhanded charm. The backup group is splendid, with pianist John di Martino doubling as arranger and saxophonist Joel Frahm making brief but welcome appearances on three tracks. Dennis/Troup's "Where Am I to Go?" is a graceful duet with guitarist Tony Romano. Conklin also sings the seldom-heard verses to "Angel Eyes," "Will You Still Be Mine" and (spoken) "The Night We Called It a Day."
Conklin deserves applause for breathing life into such moribund classics as "Before the Show," "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore," "Blues for Breakfast," "Let's Just Pretend," "Learn to Love" and the other songs already cited. The album is worth hearing for them alone, even more so for Conklin's earnest and caring interpretations. Even for those who thought they knew Matt Dennis, it should be a real eye-opener.
Track listing: Before the Show; Spring Isn't Spring Anymore; Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World; Angel Eyes; That Tired Routine Called Love; Encanto d'Amor; Blues for Breakfast; Will You Still Be Mine; Where Am I to Go?; The Night We Called It a Day; Let's Get Away from It All; Let's Just Pretend; Learn to Love; Violets for Your Furs.
Personnel: Mary Foster Conklin: vocals; John di Martino: piano, arranger; Tony Romano: guitar; Sean Smith: bass; Ron Vincent: drums; Joel Frahm (1,3,13): tenor, soprano saxophone; Wilson "Chembo" Corniel (3,6): percussion; Leo Traversa (3,6): electric bass; David Oquendo (6): vocal, lyrics.
09.03.06A Work of Art and Heart
by Scott Johnson
If you're a fan of the great American songbook, you're familiar with at least two or three compositions by Matt Dennis. "Angel Eyes" is one of the highlights of Frank Sinatra's great "Only the Lonely" album. Sinatra's "unusual performance" -- beginning with the release instead of the first verse -- "served to remind us that Dennis was an unusual songwriter," according to Alec Wilder in the last chapter of his influential American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. "With its tension between driving music and restrained lyrics," Philip Furia writes in Poets of Tin Pan Alley, "'Angel Eyes' is in the tradition of the greatest of all torch songs -- Mercer and Arlen's 'One for My Baby' (1941)."
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded "Angel Eyes" two or three times. Among many others who have given it a beautiful ride are Chet Baker, Nancy Wilson, June Christy, and Mel Torme and Cleo Laine in duet. Most recently, the late bluesman Johnny Adams made it a highlight of his "One Foot in the Blues." Two or three more of Dennis's compositions -- "Violets for Your Furs," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Let's Get Away From It All" -- have attracted a similar panoply of performers. Dennis's work is otherwise more or less forgotten or unknown.
"What else should I know about Matt Dennis?" cabaret/jazz singer Mary Foster Conklin wondered when she discovered June Christy's version of "Angel Eyes" courtesy of her accompanist, John di Martino. Conklin discovered that Dennis had first taught his songs to Sinatra when they both worked in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra and Conklin lit out for -- where else? -- the Library of Congress to take a look for more of Dennis's work.
On "Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis," Conklin shares the fruit of her research -- only there is absolutely nothing archival or musty about the results. Conklin brings the fourteen Dennis compositions on "Blues for Breakfast" to glorious life in superb arrangements anchored mostly by di Martino's piano and Sean Smith's bass. Listen to clips of five songs from "Blues for Breakfast" by clicking on the image of the disc on Conklin's site (linked above on her name).
Judging by "Blues for Breakfast," Mary Foster Conklin is an artist of great talent perfectly suited to bring out the life in the buried treasures she discovered along with the well-known highlights of Dennis's career. "I'm convinced that these tunes wanted to be found," she writes in the recording notes on her site. Having spent the weekend listening to the disc, I would add that these tunes wanted to be found by Mary Foster Conklin.
In his characteristically excellent September 2, 2001 New York Times profile of Conklin, Terry Teachout wrote:
"I don't do all-Gershwin shows, or little stories about wanting to come to New York and be an actress," Ms. Conklin said in a recent interview. "I sing ballads for grownups -- ballads about reality, about now. I mean, I lived in the East Village during the crack years. One of my first gigs was with a punk-rock garage band, with me dressed up in full Cyndi Lauper regalia."
Just as important, she is constantly on the lookout for newer material that meshes with her postmodern approach. "I got frustrated with standard cabaret because my perspective didn't really contain a shred of what you'd call old-movie romance," she said. "One of my acting teachers told me: 'You're playing the part of a cabaret singer. You're dressing up like your mother. Wear pants. Do material that fits your age, your story, your life.' So I started singing songs that were more about sex than romance. Songs about anger. More contemporary stuff, by people like Tom Waits and Dave Cantor. And that was when I started to become myself."
Conklin seems fully to have become herself on "Blues for Breakfast," a labor of love that she has turned into a work of art and heart. Thanks to Conklin's husband, Glenn Bowen, a Power Line reader who sent me the disc on the condition that I promise not to write about it (he relented), and to Chet Baker biographer James Gavin, who wrote the liner notes on which I have drawn for my comments here.
UPDATE: In the post above, I originally credited Ron Vincent with the bass work on the recording. Mary Foster Conklin has written to correct me and give credit where credit is due:
My husband woke me this morning to read me the kind words you posted about "Blues for Breakfast - Remembering Matt Dennis." I thank you for the review - it's clear you are a Matt Dennis fan and I'm so glad you enjoyed the recording.
I need to offer one gentle correction - especially since my musicians deserve credit where credit is due. In your post, you stated: "Conklin brings the fourteen Dennis compositions on 'Blues for Breakfast' to glorious life in superb arrangements anchored mostly by di Martino's piano and Ron Vincent's bass." Ron Vincent is, in fact, my drummer who brings close to 30 years of experience to his chair and is one of my favorite players in New York. My bassist is Sean Smith, also a terrific musician and composer. Without them, along with John di Martino, Tony Romano [on electric guitar] and the rest, I would not have succeeded in bringing Matt's music back to life.
Many thanks again.
Best regards, Mary
I've made the correction and would like to add that the contribution of Joel Frohm on sax on three numbers is also stellar.