Little did listeners of Dom Minasi’s Time Will Tell
CD realize, when they heard Carol Mennie sing "Round Midnight" as a haunting rendition of sometimes indeterminate pitch, that Mennie had already recorded her own CD. In fact, her album preceded Minasi’s by four years. But, as wife and husband, Mennie and Minasi prioritized recordings. After decades of working below the radar screen after some promising work in the 1970’s, Minasi’s musical career started to take off again, and his reputation as an avant-garde guitarist took hold. Both agreed that it was more important for Minasi to concentrate on cementing that reputation before releasing I’m Not A Sometime Thing.
Now it’s Mennie’s turn in the spotlight, visually symbolized on the CD package’s cover, which features Mennie’s face tightly lit from nose to forehead. I’m Not A Sometime Thing
is revealing. Mennie’s one-time appearance on Time Will Tell
didn’t provide enough material for her to establish a fixed-in-the-mind presence. Like Judi Silvano on some of her husband Joe Lovano’s recordings, Mennie provided atmosphere, a certain dark melancholy, just as does cellist Tomas Ulrich. But on her own CD, Mennie establishes her own musical personality as one that considers standards as material for personal expression. And Minasi’s behind-the-scenes presence on I’m Not A Sometime Thing
is just as strong, for he wrote five of the eleven songs and he arranged all of them. The revelatory nature of Minasi’s participation is his sense of fun and the humor of his lyrics, characteristics not previously apparent on the CD’s he led as a guitarist.
Take "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz." That’s the first track, and it sets the stage, so to speak, for the rest of Mennie’s work on the CD, including an introduction of the band. She wanted a jazz waltz available for her performances, and sure enough, Minasi delivered. Interestingly, it seems that Minasi would write Mennie a song to make up after an argument, and one wonders if that was the inspiration for "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz." If so, the argument must have been a small one, for "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" is fairly light-hearted and has no indication of conflict or disagreement. One must admit that songwriting-as-making-up is
an intriguing way to build a list of original material. And a large repertoire would suggest.... what? In any event, "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" gives Mennie the opportunity to put to use her theatrical training on the verse before the band takes off on the swaying three-four statement. What’s interesting about "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" is Mennie’s emphasis upon the "z" of the word, which is no accident, for sustained "z’s" occur throughout the rest of the CD, even when Mennie sings words like "is." (But then, Mennie stresses the "j" of the word on the outro of "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz.") The gentle nature of the song gives each band member an opportunity to introduce himself as Mennie wordlessly sings harmonic lines behind them.
But "Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" is a fooler, not entirely representative of the entire CD, for Mennie has more varied interests and deeper emotions than the sense of fun indicated by the first track. The humor remains in some songs like "Who Needs You" ("Who needs another star-lit night/With Latin rhythms/Sexy and light?/The sound of violins and marimbas too./In other words/Who needs you?") or "I’m Not A Sometime Thing" ("I want a baby who holds me tight/Tells me he loves me every night./In return I’ll make him a king./And then he’ll know I’m no sometime thing"). Indeed, these are songs that we would never have expected from Minasi, based upon his instrumental recordings. But they work. And the inspiration for the titles of these songs is more obvious.
But Mennie is a singer of great depth and can convey numerous layers of emotion when she sings, just by the way she delivers a note, wavering between pitches or implying reservoirs of emotion behind the lyrics, somewhat like Billie Holiday in that respect. Realizing that the range and technique isn’t as important as the conveyance of an emotion, Mennie takes her time in crafting a song, making sure that she gets across the feelings it creates. On "Brown Eyes," as they "haunt my memory," she sings slowly, delivering each word with drawn-out precision and wistfulness. She does the same thing on the standards, like "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" or "Too Long At The Fair," which attain even darker shadings than those painted by Mennie’s voice with the addition of cellist Ulrich, who underlines Mennie’s statements with mournful harmonies.
Moreover, Minasi shows a higher degree of versatility than indicated on his own CD’s, as he accompanies Mennie, playing rhythm guitar behind her, setting up bluesy guitar licks, or improvising delicate solos like the one on "Angela," which Minasi named after a friend who died in a car crash after she heard the song played at a nightclub gig. He waits until the last track, a whirling dervish version of "Lover Man," to accompany Mennie with his rapid-fire technique now associated exclusively with him.
Though Carol Mennie has been performing around New York for quite a while now, finally, with the release of I’m Not A Sometime Thing,
listeners beyond the Hudson River can appreciate what she has to say...and to sing.