Tag Archives: Fred Astair

“THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL”: YAALA BALLIN SINGS IRVING BERLIN (CHRIS FLORY, MICHAEL KANAN, ARI ROLAND: SteepleChase)

As they say, “I’m a fan.”  Not only of the wonderful, completely-herself singer Yaala Ballin, but of guitarist Chris Flory, pianist Michael Kanan, string bassist Ari Roland . . . and that Israel Baline fellow, Americanized to Irving Berlin, gleaming on a splendid new CD.

Here’s a quick video-audio tour:

and — to support the title of this post:

I can’t get enough — Yaala truly improvises! — here she is with Michael, last Valentine’s Day, telling the Ballin – Baline story in a few words:

That should convince anyone that this is music to purchase, to treasure, to share.  But a few words.

Berlin himself is — like some stocks — disgracefully undervalued.

His music has been perceived for so long as well-behaved.  No sudden shocks of the sort you find in Hart’s or Porter’s lyrics; he doesn’t always aim for the arching melodies of Kern.  Berlin’s curse is that, like Bing Crosby, he manages so deftly to appear simple.  “I could write a song as good as that.”  But you didn’t, we must point out.  Berlin can be sassy and witty: “Be careful, it’s my heart.  It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.”  And how many of us know his arch but tender FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?  But his great strength is in his apparent plainness: the melodies that sound as if you could pick them out on the piano with one finger, the lyrics that sound like casual speech.  Of course his songs have “become part of the cultural landscape,” but that is why they get taken for granted.  Hear the singer stride into BLUE SKIES or CHEEK TO CHEEK and we may be forgiven for thinking, to quote Sammy Cahn, “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.”  It’s easy to regard Berlin the same way one might look at the two slices of toast that accompany our eggs at the diner.  Familiar, not essential.  But his music is lit from within by a depth of feeling that makes his songs expressions of dear truths.  Think of HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN, that most passionate declaration of love couched entirely in questions, decades before JEOPARDY.

And — if we stop to listen to his songs with fresh attention, they sparkle with gentle daring.

Gentle daring also characterizes Yaala Ballin’s singing.  When I listen to her, I always wish I had a very astute companion next to me to whom I could say, “Did you hear what she just did with that tone, that pause, that phrase?” She is incapable of delivering the simplest line in a formulaic way.  Her gliding phrasing, so musical, is a kind of lively quirky speech.  A minute hesitation here, a startling rush there: she’s not locked in by the 1-2-3-4 although she keeps lovely time and swings from the start.  Her slides from one note to another summon up instrumental masters Vic Dickenson and Ben Webster.  She is a magnificently subversive actress, because we never feel that she is acting.  As you hear in the examples above, she is a quiet risk-taker.  You don’t come to one of Yaala’s songs on this CD and think, “Wow, she painted everything bright orange and nailed a chair to the ceiling for effect,” rather it’s as if a sly artist has moved one vase and two bowls in the room and everything is wonderfully improved.  Hear her second chorus of HOW MANY TIMES?  Or THIS YEAR’S KISSES, always thought of as Property of Billie Holiday — Yaala and Michael Kanan, in their first rubato duet chorus, say kindly to the Lady, “We bow low to you, but we have our own ways of getting that feeling” — rueful feeling with swing but not needing capital letters.

It would be cruel to not share it with you:

Describing Yaala’s co-equals (it would be demeaning to call them “accompanists”) — Michael Kanan, Chris Flory, Ari Roland — I find myself in the nicest critical quandary.  Are they a subtle muscular twenty-first century Nat Cole trio?  No, I think, they are the 1940 Basie band in portable form.  The tracks that began with brief instrumental introductions brought happiness from the first notes.  And their approach mixes respect and innovation.  Singers have occasionally taken Berlin very slowly: here, REMEMBER, HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? SAY IT ISN’T SO, and BE CAREFUL, IT’S MY HEART are taken at walking tempos, stripping away decades of melodrama to reveal the strong structures beneath.  Several of the songs have unexpected rhythmic underpinnings, adding freshness: for the first time ever, I was able to put Astaire aside while hearing CHANGE PARTNERS.

And the CD sounds the way these four people sound in person, so I had the dreamy sensation of having Yaala, Michael, Chris, and Ari in my living room.  Thanks to Chris Sulit and Nils Winther for making this happen.

The CD is deliciously varied: the compact performances feel just right, completely satisfying in their old-fashioned refusal to sprawl.  Little arranging touches — Yaala in duet with each of the players, split choruses and other variations — make this a splendid tasting menu.  I kept returning to some of the songs, as if it was too difficult to let go of the sensations they had evoked until I’d heard them three or four times.  I hope for a yard-length CD series of YAALA BALLIN SINGS THE __________ SONGBOOK.  (I vote for Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, but that’s just me.)

When I had finished my first hearing of the CD, I felt as if I had been given great gifts.  And then I played it again.  Deprive yourself of such pleasures at your own peril.  The disc and its digital contents are available in the usual places and the usual ways.

May your happiness increase!

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