Michael Feinstein has become associated so strongly with interpretations of standards from the likes of Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen or Irving Berlin, among others, that the material in his next recordings could be predicted, even as Feinstein explored the finer nuances of the songwriters’ works, such as his release of previously unheard but important recordings on his Feinery label. But now, Feinstein has defied expectations by recording some of the songs of Jimmy Webb, one of the most popular songwriters of the 1960’s and 1970’s with hits like "Didn’t We" and "Wichita Lineman." However, Webb has remained prolific during the intervening years, writing music for Broadway and involving himself in various recording projects. With Feinstein’s typical diligence in researching the music he records and absorbing musical minutia in general to store it away for future use, he pored through Webb’s songbook, looking into tunes that Webb forgot that he had written. The result appears on Only One Life: The Music of Jimmy Webb,
which attains a consistent medium-tempo pace throughout, allowing the listeners to digest the words and to understand Webb’s intentions in writing the songs. For example, no doubt few people paid attention to the words of "Up, Up and Away," letting The Fifth Dimension’s version breeze past them perhaps as a result of the song’s imagery (as the group always appeared in front of the prop shop’s balloons or made floating motions with their bodies). Feinstein tames the song and makes it intelligible as a ballad of romantic invitation, instead of an anthem to the practice of ballooning.
It turns out that Feinstein, after sorting through Webb’s songbook and excluding such songs as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park," chose songs that conform to his deliberate style, and thus that fall into his definition of those from a "great American songwriter." He should know, having apprenticed with Ira Gershwin in his very early career. Thus, once again, Feinstein finds often untapped meaning in a popular Webb song, "Didn’t We," by slowing it down and emphasizing its dramatic moments. And he contrasts that early Webb song with one that shows his later maturity of observation and description, "The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress," whose evocative personification other singers like Sheila Jordan have discovered as well.
Much of the credit for the Only One Life’s
success should be attributed to the arrangers, Alan Broadbent and Matt Catingub, as well, for they have added dimension and depth to the final recordings, taking Feinstein’s performance out of the realm of cabaret atmosphere of just voice and piano. Broadbent has had substantial experience in orchestrating for Feinstein due to Broadbent’s work with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, which toured with Feinstein a year ago. That familiarity with Feinstein’s style shows on his restrained arrangement for songs like "Skywriter," on which Webb plays piano. In addition to the orchestral arrangements, vocal arranger James Robert Brown surprises listeners with his doo-wapping street-corner quartet which takes the second chorus of "Belmont Avenue," which Feinstein identified among Webb’s work for an upcoming musical version of A Bronx Tale.
Feinstein opens and closes the CD with "Only One Life," whose spectrum of meanings, like those of other memorable standards, will connect with a wide variety of listener categories, and thus ensure its longevity. Only One Life
is a project that was over a decade in the making, ever since Feinstein and Webb met at an event hosted by Rosemary Clooney, their mutual friend. Through note-for-note and lyric-by-lyric accretion and through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions along the way, Feinstein and Webb jointly have produced a CD resulting from their mutual musical admiration. The CD represents a departure for each of them, even as it remains consistent with all of their work that preceded it.