Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cy Coleman at the Piano

At his last recording session for Columbia in 1952, Frank Sinatra cut a beautiful, self-mocking ballad entitled "Why Try to Change Me Now." Seven years later, when he made his Capitol album No One Cares, Sinatra recorded it again, this time using a lovely arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. The song had been written by Cy Coleman, and these two wonderful versions by Sinatra were my introduction to the work of this prolific, though often somewhat neglected songwriter, who also provided Ol' Blue Eyes with other classics such as "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come" and wrote other memorable songs like "It Amazes Me" and "Hey, Look Me Over." Born in New York City in 1929, Coleman was a child prodigy who impressed audiences with his piano recitals at highly respected venues like Carnegie Hall and Town Hall at a very early age. His first love being jazz, it didn't take him long to form a jazz trio, and he began playing the clubs in and around New York and writing songs in his spare time. Although he was much in demand as a musician, he decided to concentrate on songwriting, and by the 1960s he was composing very successful Broadway musicals such as Wildcat (in 1960, with Carolyn Leigh) and Sweet Charity (in 1966, with Dorothy Fields). Over the years, Coleman would collaborate with other popular songwriters and playwrights, like Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Neil Simon, and he would create several celebrated Broadway shows and TV specials, remaining active until his death in New York in 2004 at age 75.

In order to fully appreciate Coleman's legacy, it becomes necessary to listen to some of the few albums he cut, mostly in a trio setting, and one of the best is Comin' Home: The Jazz Album. Don't be fooled by its dubious cover: this is Cy Coleman at his finest, ably accompanied by bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Grady Tate, with producer Dave Cavanaugh overseeing the sessions. The 13 tracks were recorded over the course of two separate sessions at the Capitol Studio in Los Angeles in March and April 1963, and from the very beginning, a gently swinging rendition of George and Ira Gershwin's "But Not for Me," we know we're in for quite a treat. Surprisingly, Coleman stays away from his own compositions here ("I've Got Your Number" is the only one of his songs that he includes), much preferring to concentrate on standards by other songwriters such as Harry Warren and Mack Gordon ("There Will Never Be Another You"), Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn ("Time After Time"), Bart Howard ("Fly Me to the Moon"), and Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk ("Mean to Me"). Ben Tucker contributes a bouncy, bluesy original entitled "Blue Grass Groove," and the trio turn in an extremely hip version of "Comin' Home Baby." Coleman proves to be a very inventive improviser, constantly reinventing the melodies and mostly eschewing ballads in favor of mid-tempo and uptempo numbers that suit his elegant playing style perfectly. And yet, when he decides to attempt a ballad, as he does on "For Heaven's Sake," he shows that he can also be sensitive and romantic. This is the perfect introduction to Cy Coleman the jazz pianist, and I have no doubt that anyone who listens to it will want to seek out the rest of the few albums by Coleman that are currently available on CD. They're all well worth the time and the money!

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