This CD crosses two soft borders: one between Canada and the U.S, and one between show tunes and jazz. It presents the work of the most famous Broadway songwriter of the past half century as might be heard performed at the Village Vanguard rather than the Winter Garden.
Saxophonist and arranger Bobby Hsu
's "A Sondheim Jazz Project" realizes Stephen Sondheim compositions as they're rarely realized. Hsu's motive: "I want to be Sondheim's advocate in the jazz world, rather than appropriating the songs as mere source material."
An ensemble of accomplished Canadian performers delivers something striking by re-imagining as jazz fourteen songs from eight Sondheim productions. The songs are what many critics and fans have come to admire: inspired in voice and temperament, with the unique perspective of a songwriter who sees the world differently . . . way differently.
Sondheim's hallmark of intelligent quirkiness lends itself to a jazz sensibility. From the liner notes' synopses of two of the disc's cuts:
"Three men answer the question 'Are you ever sorry you got married?'"
"A woman begs to leave the department store where she has lived day and night."
If the most common theme of a "show song" is Boy Meets Girl, the closest thing to a common Sondheim theme might be dubbed Lost Soul Serenades Existentialism.
Yet Sondheim can vividly describe something as concrete as life in New York. From "Another Hundred People":
"It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day
The ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks
And they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks."
Hsu's arrangements are clean yet passionate, rhythmic and confident in a way that suits these Sondheims.
Vocalist Alex Samaras is ideal for the project: a straightforward but big-hearted tenor who puts energy and acumen into every Sondheim story, whether set in ancient Rome, Victorian London, or the Roaring Twenties.
Usually leading with his fine sax, Hsu has his jazz arrangements beautifully served by pianist D'Arcy Myronuk, bassist James McCleney and drummer Morgan Childs. Two songs with a more female perspective, "Lovely" and "Take Me To The World," feature, respectively, vocals by Jenny Johnston and Jackie Richardson
All the performers have opportunities to take off and interpret. Each does so skillfully, within the character of the song.
There's some nice veering from the mainstream in Hsu's selection from the many hundreds by this composer (who veers around so much himself). Still, he understandably includes the one Sondheim that's been performed by everyone from Bing Crosby
to Megadeth. To the performers' credit, "Send in the Clowns" here is strong, jazz rather than stage, and wholly original (maybe just a shade less original than the tear-soaked 1993 version by the Simpsons' Krusty the Clown).
Many have known this music only as show tunes. City of Strangers
is a fresh way to hear Sondheim's iconoclastically jazzy stories.