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Blue Jupiter

Twisted Broadway, Volume 1 (2017)

4.0

Reviews By Elie Landau, TeKay, and Kyle Yampiro

August 3, 2018

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 I Got the Sun in the Mornin' 4.0
2 Magic to Do 5.0
3 My Favorite Things 4.0
4 Over the Rainbow 3.7
5 Summertime 4.7
6 Defying Gravity 4.3
7 Close Every Door 5.0
8 All That Jazz 4.7
9 Whatever Lola Wants 4.0
10 Put on a Happy Face 4.7
11 Let It Go 4.0
12 Over the Rainbow (Reprise) 4.0

Recorded 2015 – 2017
Total time: 36:00, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I Got the Sun in the Mornin' 4
2 Magic to Do 5
3 My Favorite Things 4
4 Over the Rainbow 4
5 Summertime 4
6 Defying Gravity 4
7 Close Every Door 5
8 All That Jazz 5
9 Whatever Lola Wants 4
10 Put on a Happy Face 5
11 Let It Go 4
12 Over the Rainbow (Reprise) 3

If there is a sweet spot in the target demographic for Blue Jupiter's latest album, Twisted Broadway, Volume 1, I think it's reasonable to suggest that I'm it. Fan of Blue Jupiter since the group's first album, Ear Candy. Experienced and knowledgeable a cappella aficionado. Theatre professional, with a career spent mostly on Broadway. I was pre-disposed to like this release even after just hearing the title.

It's that natural affinity both for this group and this material that makes it more than a little disappointing to report that Twisted Broadway leaves me impressed, but not moved; admiring of the effort, but a bit underwhelmed by the results.

To be fair, as a calling card for the arranging skills of Marty Gasper, the album is a first-rate showcase of his talents for re-harmonizations and rhythmic re-imagining, as well as his skills as a solid producer/engineer. The jazz chords are crunchy, the beats are crisp and at times unexpected, and the whole enterprise has a professional polish to it that sounds terrific. If there is a quibble on this front, it's perhaps that the solo miking and/or processing feels a bit pinched and/or compressed at times. In truth, I can't say for certain if it's in the performance or in the production, but there are numerous solos featured here — most often by Diana Preisler — that feel like they warrant a bigger, more wide-open, full-throated, grab-you-by-the ears-and-shake-you-to-the-core sound (at least by the end of the song), and what we get is a more closed, more restrained sound that yields a less impactful and thus less satisfying result.

But the much more fundamental issue that prevents me from enjoying this work as much as I had hoped to is the combination of the overarching sameness of approach brought to most of the adaptations, and the subjugation of the intent, meaning, message, and journey of the song to the musical "gimmick" that is being applied in several cases.

To the first point, the group is straightforward in its liner notes that it was looking to re-imagine this material completely, infused with "pop style, rockin' leads, modern dance beats, and bold new harmonies". And these singers are true to their word, but with the exception of the harmonies (as described above), the "modernization" of this material feels — for lack of a better term — generic. Indeed, in several cases, the results feel like one of those clubby dance mixes where the vocal track has been lifted nearly intact from the original and layered on top of a computer-generated, infectious but somewhat incongruous beat. And that can be cute for the latest hit song from the latest hit musical, but it gets old pretty fast. Ditto for the various DJ effects that are employed sporadically. For one song, it's novel. For nearly a dozen, it becomes very repetitive. (It's also telling that very few of the songs featured here run much longer than three and a half minutes, even if the originals are quite a bit longer. It's almost as if the group realized that even with — or perhaps because of — the new approach, the style would only stay interesting for so long.)

More significantly for me, however, is that too often what the songs have to say seems utterly beside the point. Other than the starting point of the groove (bluesy for Summertime, jazzy for All That Jazz, as two examples), a relationship between the content of the song and the manner in which it is re-imagined and performed seems infrequent at best. Moments of true build (dynamic variation is almost entirely absent) and/or an emotional journey are few and far between — and perhaps even more than material originally conceived as pop, I want and expect that from a showtune. We do get a sense of what might have been in the fun and funky Magic to Do and the aforementioned All That Jazz, as well as the joyous Stevie Wonder-esque Put on a Happy Face. And even where the interpretation and adaptation are not especially to my liking, there is unquestionable creativity and originality on display in Close Every Door. But on a broader scale, there is a homogeneity of style and approach to most of the rest that renders the song choices almost irrelevant, as if the gimmick could have been applied to most any showtune and the end product wouldn't have sounded demonstrably different.

In closing, it's worth noting that this release is the group's first via Broadway Records. And inasmuch as Twisted Broadway may thus introduce more Broadway fans to contemporary a cappella, it's wonderful that Blue Jupiter undertook this project. But already being a devoted fan of both, I want more.


4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I Got the Sun in the Mornin' 4
2 Magic to Do 5
3 My Favorite Things 5
4 Over the Rainbow 3
5 Summertime 5
6 Defying Gravity 5
7 Close Every Door 5
8 All That Jazz 4
9 Whatever Lola Wants 4
10 Put on a Happy Face 4
11 Let It Go 5
12 Over the Rainbow (Reprise) 5

Full disclosure: Diana Preisler is my fraternity brother and Jonathan Minkoff is a fellow RARB reviewer.

If the only thing that the average reader of RARB knows about me after all these years is that I'm a super huge musical theatre nerd, then my life is an open book. I've now spent three decades studying the American Songbook, Golden Age musicals, concept musicals of the '60s and '70s, corporate musicals of the '80s and '90s, and the lives of Cole Porter, Stephen Schwartz, Barbra Streisand, Audra McDonald, Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim. My first masters thesis was an intimate critique of the musical Hair. The first class I took in my MFA program was the history of musical theatre. So yeah, kind of a fan(atic) of the genre. Pair songs from the theatre with my absolute love of a cappella art, and a dozen unicorns gallop across the rainbow bridge carrying me to Valhalla. And so Blue Jupiter's latest recording Twisted Broadway, Volume 1 seems like a gift made especially for me. Some of my favorite people in the world making some great music. What's not to love?

And for the most part, I do love it! There are breathtaking moments throughout the album. Marty Gasper is a brilliant arranger for four voices. Even with all of the studio tricks at his fingertips, the core of his arrangements on each of these tracks is the band members' individual voices working together effortlessly. Listen to any of the live versions of these songs on YouTube; the same energy and musicality is replicated on the recording.

That's where the "for the most part" comes into play. I wish that more of the tracks varied further from the original song and from the live recording than they do. And sometimes I just want more meat on the bones. Often we're given "One, singular sensation" when I want "Seventy-six trombones [leading] the hit parade". We aren't given a lot of output that defines the "twisted" aspect of the album. The liner notes state that the concept came first and foremost from making the songs a cappella. I guess that works for the general populace, but I definitely need something beyond that. On several of the songs like My Favorite Things, Close Every Door, Defying Gravity and Summertime, Gasper takes the well-known version and adds a little kick and spice to make it something new and exciting. More of those types of songs on volume 2, please. Blue Jupiter has a good Broadway pop-jazz sound going on, so I'm not denying that. But push the envelope even further; I want to hear the challenge you've set for yourselves as performers and musicians.

The album opens with the sparkly I Got the Sun in the Mornin'. It's peppy and bright and fun. Just the joy that reaches out from the speakers makes you look forward to hearing the rest of the disc. The group does a smart thing by following it with Magic to Do, probably my favorite track on the album. I'm a huge Pippin fan, having gotten the chance to sing the show on Broadway with Rosie O'Donnell, Ben Vereen, Billy Porter, Laura Benatti, Michael Arden et al, so the opening chords and "doo doot doo doo" rhythm took me there.  

Oh! This is where the twist comes in. My Favorite Things has a more electronic sound and a middle eastern dance element not apparent in the original. It works wonderfully, and then when special guest artist James Cannon adds a rap as the bridge, it just keeps soaring. The album does have this sort of treat with the other songs mentioned above, but overall, it's not enough.

The star of the album still is and will always be Defying Gravity. It's the song that seems to have really kickstarted the Broadway concept for the album, and Blue Jupiter's career in musical theatre songs. It's just as moving as it was when I first heard it in 2013, when it was selected it to be on sing 10: neon. This is the song that comes across as the heart and soul of both the group and the album — a statement based on the theme that the group is going to do whatever it wants with its music and no one is going to bring them dooooooooooooooooooooooown! Oo whoa-oh indeed.

I'm now a devoted fan of Jeff Washburn. Not only is he a fan of the musical Hair (he worked with the 2009 revival cast in concerts), his tenor is one to be envied, and his phrasing captures nuances in lyrics that I haven't heard in a while. He has a theatrical voice that seems just as comfortable in contemporary jazz and R&B. In general, listening to him makes me smile and Put on a Happy Face. And I'd forgotten what a crazy fantastic voice Jonathan Minkoff has. Though he gets a little pinched in his upper register on Summertime (I will forever be hypercritical as it's my favorite song on the planet and we share similar stories about singing leads in a cappella groups), his rendition is charismatic and enchanting. More more more like this. Just more. 

Twisted Broadway isn't for everyone. For those of you not keen on musicals, this album probably won't change your mind or your attitude towards the genre. Or if your tastes run towards the more somber or avant-garde shows, the selection here will come off more than a bit schmaltzy. But for those of us who wake up singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning or have memorized the words to LuPWNed! or danced rapturously to the disco version of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, there is more than enough here for you to enjoy.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I Got the Sun in the Mornin' 4
2 Magic to Do 5
3 My Favorite Things 3
4 Over the Rainbow 4
5 Summertime 5
6 Defying Gravity 4
7 Close Every Door 5
8 All That Jazz 5
9 Whatever Lola Wants 4
10 Put on a Happy Face 5
11 Let It Go 3
12 Over the Rainbow (Reprise) 4

Hey, you got a cappella in my Broadway album! Or... you got Broadway in my a cappella album! Either way, NYC powerhouse group Blue Jupiter delivers a unique blend of musical theatre with various pop styles with Twisted Broadway, Volume 1. It's kind of like The Hamilton Mixtape ... except with no Hamilton. While not every reimagined Broadway tune shines, Blue Jupiter's brilliance comes from its renditions that fully transcend the original into something entirely new and different.

The studio work on this album is extremely crisp with every sound meticulously selected. Timing and tuning are as near-perfect as one could desire from a studio-recorded a cappella album. Kudos to Marty Gasper for recording, editing, and mixing and Dave Hevalow for mastering, as well as the rest of the group for producing. The majority of this review, then, will speak to choices made.

The melding of genres is a tricky task in any sort of cover work, like how much of the original should be considered. Backgrounds are innovative and complex in fresh ways. There are engaging introductions, perhaps none more so than Summertime. Feel changes such as the ones in All That Jazz in which the story of jazz is told in straight 8ths rather than being swung (imagine that!) sound unreal on paper but work fantastically. Some of the stylistic choices seem a bit heavy-handed given the source material, such as My Favorite Things, which is a skip for me.

More than any other individual facet to each track, though, the solo is the key in transcending from the old into something totally new. The difficulty comes in tracks where the musical theatre stylistic presence is still strong in the solo, despite the background invention, but without the sort of personality that could make the text soar. Solo vocal music, especially musical theatre, is teeming with potential for storytelling. In a word, what separates enticing from blasé where storytelling is concerned is the intention. Some of the Broadway-like solos on this album lack a clear direction. While they are generally aurally pleasing and safe, the solos don't go far enough to either change the original style or convey enough emotion to make a strong impression. The result is a disconnect from the tapestry of the reimagined cover, particularly in Over the Rainbow and Let It Go. Additionally, the angular solo vocal rhythms in I Got the Sun in the Mornin' don’t allow the text to speak clearly and in Defying Gravity, the refrain is textually hampered by a consistently distracting breath in the middle of its title.

On the other hand, the solos that go the distance and transition stylistically are excellent. In Put on a Happy Face, in particular, Jeff Washburn's embellishments and his overall vibe are congruent with that of the Blue Jupiter rendition, modernizing the solo appropriately. Diana Preisler's varying vocal colors, intensity, and flexibility on All That Jazz are spot-on with the myriad feel changes. Jonathan Minkoff's Summertime is teeming with both smoothness and power where needed, fitting the cover like a glove.

Whether you're familiar with musical theatre, a fan of modern music, or an aca-person, there is undoubtedly something you can find to enjoy on Twisted Broadway, Volume 1. And if you're a fan of ambitiously creative covers of classics, this is certainly the album for you!

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Ordering Information

This albums is available now on iTunes and at bluejupiter.com.

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