Reviewed here: Noir: Volume 1 and Quietly, both by Singapore jazz combo Noir
I have no idea what Melissa Tham’s personal opinion is of love, but her voice is a hopeless romantic.
Ms. Tham (pronounced “Tam”) provides the vocals for Noir, a Singapore jazz combo that relies practically exclusively on the Great American Songbook. The songs they perform, you’ve heard thousands of times in hundreds of versions. It is a major accomplishment in itself that they make the songs worth hearing all over again.
We can start with Ms. Tham’s voice. This is a woman who was born to sing romantic jazz. Unusually clear and pure and delicate in the upper half of her range, she develops sufficient timbre in the lower registers to remind the listener of Diana Krall, though no one will ever mistake Ms. Tham for Toni Braxton. It is, I would say, an innocent voice without being a childish or girlish one – clearly the voice of an adult, but of one seemingly accustomed neither to giving pain nor to being hurt. When she sings “Do I Love You,” it’s impossible not to believe she is deeply and happily and permanently in love; when she sings, “I’m Old-Fashioned,” it almost seems as though she were taking the trouble to inform you that the sun usually rises in the east. But it would be a hard sell for her to take on, say, “You’re Making Me High” – this is the voice of “America’s sweetheart,” not “America’s sultry sex vixen.” (Well, she’s from Singapore, but you see what I mean.) And her voice has little capacity to express pain; I enjoy her “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” very much, but it’s impossible to believe her heart is really broken no matter what the lyrics say, and I can’t help but wish she would give us her take on Landesman’s “Photographs.” In a way she is the polar opposite of Edith Piaf — “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is one of those songs that should have been written in French so that Edith Piaf could have sung it; while the only way an American can listen to the apparently melancholy Piaf “La Vie en Rose” and not cry is to have been required to translate it in high school French, and to have discovered to one’s astonishment that, per the lyrics, the singer is actually apparently supposed to be happy. But I’d love to hear Ms. Tham sing “La Vie en Rose” – by the time she and pianist/arranger Joshua Wan were through with it, it would be a lilting, infectious song of pure joy. I imagine that if you were lucky enough to have your best girl at your side to hear a Tham/Wan “La Vie en Rose,” five’ll getcha ten you’d find yourselves on your feet and waltzing around the room before they were through the first verse.
Ms. Tham clearly understands her instrument; she consistently plays to its strengths, and her technique is thoroughly professional. For example, she knows how to make her voice smile – a much more difficult task than it would appear, and employed to great effect in, for example, “Time after Time.” A masculine voice like Sinatra, or a brassy rockabilly voice like Gretchen Wilson, can put edge and emotion into a song by pounding away at the consonants without remorse; but that would be disastrous with Ms. Tham’s delicate purity of tone, and so she keeps her enunciation crisp and clear and light and delicate, only allowing herself to lean on sustained final nasals (m’s and n’s and ng’s) from time to time. Otherwise she communicates emotion through controlling her vocal shading, varying her vibrato across sustained notes, bending the notes within phrases – it’s all jazz technique you’ve heard before, but always skillfully and tastefully executed. In live performances she loves to sing a first verse straight and then reprise the same verse in a sort of half-scat, though on the two Noir albums she only really gives that full treatment to “I’m Old-Fashioned.” And any doubts as to her level of technical musical sophistication (she originally trained as a classical pianist and fell into singing jazz almost by accident in college) are erased by the seeming effortlessness with which she performs “Close Your Eyes” (which for practical purposes is in a ten-beat metre) and “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which in the Noir take happily bounces back and forth (à laBrad Meldhau) between 7:8 and standard 4:4 time, and which Ms. Tham sings with about as much apparent grim concentration as a child playing hopscotch on a sunny spring Saturday.
The result of this combination of natural vocal character and diligent technical mastery is romantic love sungs sung about as effectively as they’ve ever been sung. I’ll put Noir’s “In the Wee Small Hours” up against just about anybody’s for pure simple listening pleasure, and – I say this advisedly – even Ella herself could step aside when Ms. Tham sings “Do I Love You.” I don’t make Ella step aside for anybody but that song can’t be sung more convincingly and movingly than Ms. Tham sings it.
Now, I started with Ms. Tham’s voice, because that’s obviously the first thing you notice when you make your acquaintance with Noir. But I suspect that the true foundation of the Noir albums is actually pianist and arranger Joshua Wan. “Do I Love You” wouldn’t be what it is without Ms. Tham’s voice, but Mr. Wan’s arrangement is the perfect setting for her perfect gem (if memory serves, it’s the only song on both albums that features a key change, and if they were only going to change keys once in two albums, that was the place to choose). I doubt there’s any jazz lick Mr. Wan can’t play; but it is one thing to have skills, and another thing entirely to know exactly when to employ them. Mr. Wan never makes a misstep (and, having seen Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham perform live several times, that holds almost literally true even when doing madcap jazz improvisation).
Mr. Wan particularly enjoys playing around with metre; if he has Dave Grusin’s Gershwin album (and I presume he does), I’m betting “Fascinating Rhythm” is his favorite cut. I’ve already mentioned the 7:8 / 8:8 version Noir does of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and I will only add here that (a) it takes a confident man to say, “I think I’ll go improvise a while in 7:8,” and (b) his confidence is fully justified. And I’ve mentioned in passing that they perform “Close Your Eyes” in what amounts to a 10:4 (though they probably score it 4:4, 4:4, 2:4); but Wan’s arrangement is heavy on syncopation and drag triplets to cloud the rhythm even further, with its feel veering at times almost into a momentary waltz. Yet with all the hesitations and lulls, the underlying flow is never interrupted. The total effect is almost druglike; the song (despite its lyrics) could hardly be described as a lullaby, but when listening to it you can’t help but feel that it’s midnight even if you’re standing outside under a noonday sun.
If I were going to look for a single song that was particularly characteristic of Noir, I’d probably point to their treatment of Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love,” a song into which Hart (a painfully unattractive man whose love live was as miserably nonexistent as anybody’s you can readily think of) poured all his bitterness about the experience he knew would always be beyond his reach. Here, in case you don’t know the words, are the lyrics that Ms. Tham sings over Mr. Wan’s arrangement:
Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe
Falling in love with love is playing the fool
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy
Learning to trust is just for children in school.
I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full
I was unwise with eyes unable to see
I fell in love with love, with love everlasting
But love fell out with me.
And the thing is, Hart meant it. Rodgers set the words to a string-heavy, melancholy Viennese waltz; you can see Sierra Boggess doing a fairly traditional take on the number here.
Noir uses it as the last number on their first CD, following a richly, dark-chocolate-silkily effective “Where or When” that is right in Ms. Tham’s romantic wheelhouse, and I was quite curious to hear Ms. Tham take a shot at bitter disillusion. But Mr. Wan knows her instrument probably about as well as she does, and so the song opens in a 6:8 that, rather than being Viennese and melancholy, is in the spirit of une jeune fille insouciante de Paris, complete with accordion – insouciantly, infectiously, unrepentantly cheerful. It is clear from the beginning that Mr. Wan has just said to the gang, “Heck with it, let’s just have fun with this.” As I have mentioned before, when Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham decide to just have fun with something, the listener’s pretty much bound to have fun right along with them. And however incongruous the tone might be to the words, by the end of the song you can’t help but feel they’ve made the right choice.
Having made the choice to turn “Falling in Love with Love” into a light-hearted feel-good number, however, Mr. Wan then proceeds to play some sophisticated games with the meter; and it’s worth looking in detail at the skill with which he goes about it. He opens in a lilting little 6:8 at a pace of about 66 or so, with accordion and string base both playing on the dotted-quarter beats to make sure tempo and meter are unmistakable. He brings Ms. Tham in to sing wearing her smiling-voice hat and (though you might not notice it at first) no improvisation at all – she’s just singing a cheerful melody with her clear and pleasant and happy voice. Then the first verse comes to a close and they transition into an instrumental section – and suddenly the accordion is gone, the string base swings into a playing even eights in 4:4, and the cymbalist kicks in a eighth/swing-sixteenths, dum dum-de rythym that puts us firmly into 4:4 swing.
Now, it feels like the song has suddenly speeded up. But in fact, the eighth notes are moving at exactly the same pace as they were before – only, since now there are only two eight notes per beat instead of three, in effect the tempo has jumped up to 100 or so. And the entire instrumental break is executed in this 4:4 swing. Not only that, when Ms. Tham rejoins the party to reprise the first verse, they stay in the 4:4, and she improvises freely with the vocal rhythm throughout the first half of the reprise – but then they do something very interesting. The bass and the cymbalist keep playing exactly as they were before: even eighth-notes for the bass, eighth plus swing-sixteenths for the cymbals, at exactly the same tempo. But Ms. Tham switches back to the original 6:8 and stops improvising, and the accordion comes back in with steady dotted-quarters to reinforce her. So the tempo of the song as a whole has slowed back down from 100 to 66 – even though the bass and cymbal are still playing at the same speed. And when the reprise ends, Ms. Tham and the accordion drop back out to allow the bass and cymbal and piano to reassert the 4:4 swing for the last few bars.
It’s not my favorite song from the two CD’s; you could give me an iPod with nothing on it but “In the Wee Small Hours” and “Do I Love You” and I’d be good for a couple of hours on perpetual repeat. But in its taking advantage of Ms. Tham’s naturally light-hearted voice and Mr. Wan’s metrical skill and musical taste to turn one of the century’s more anti-romantic songs into a thoroughly successful, and musically interesting, piece of bottled happiness, it is quintessentially Noir.
I’ll close with what may seem a totally unrelated anecdote; but bear with me as I do have a point. I was an interested spectator in the debates between the people who loved the movie version of Les Misérables and those who complained that the singing wasn’t very good – a debate which (setting aside the unfortunate limitations of the sadly miscast Russell Crowe, who I think we can all agree was painfully out of place) was largely a disagreement between people who like acting and wanted the emotion to come through powerfully and realistically, and the people who like singing and found the acting histrionics destructive of perfect tone and pitch. And my own take usually involved bringing up “My Fair Lady,” and the difference between the two love songs “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “On the Street Where You Live.”
When Lerner and Loewe were constructing “My Fair Lady,” they decided at the very beginning of the creative process that the role of Professor Higgins simply demanded great acting and would have to be cast almost exclusively on the basis of acting chops, and they resigned themselves to having a male lead who probably wouldn’t be able to sing at a professional level. So Loewe deliberately wrote every one of the Higgins character’s songs so that the musical line would be as much like ordinary speech in cadence and pitch and rhythm as possible – everything about the Higgins songs was designed to allow them to be acted as much as sung, and to disguise vocal limitations. As a result they could get away with casting Rex Harrison in the role, despite the fact that he was so intimidated by the idea of singing (to use the term loosely) on stage that he had a panic attack on opening night and almost kept the curtain from ever coming up on the play by literally refusing to leave his dressing room in sheer terror. Reviewers later raved about Harrison’s magical ability to talk his way through a song and make it work, most of them not having the musical sophistication to realize that it was Loewe’s skill in composing, more than Harrison’s skill in performing, that made it possible for such a technique to work.
By contrast, the character Freddy is a deliberately cardboard character, made, on purpose, as two-dimensional as a sheet of paper. Practically anybody young and male can play that role on stage adequately – as long as he can sing like an angel in blandly traditional oratorical style. So “On the Street Where You Live” is gorgeous but technically demanding, a pure show-off piece for aspiring tenors. Meanwhile “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” veers wildly from mood to mood from moment to moment, reprising half the songs in the musical and a raging imbroglio of emotions right from the starting “Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! – I’ve grown accustomed to her face,” and managing to include, successfully, both the caressingly wistful “I’ve grown accustomed to the scent of something in the air” and the despairingly enraged “Let the hellcat freeze!” The two songs contrast as much as do the two characters (if Freddy can even be called a “character”), and deliberately so.
So I have used those two songs in the past to say that the people who loved Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” probably like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” while the people who complained that it was histrionic and musically impure probably prefer “On the Street Where You Live.” (Personally I like both, but then I liked both the stage and movie versions of Les Miz so I don’t suppose that proves anything.)
My point – and I do have one, Ellen — is that the first thing I saw when I looked at Noir’s first CD (having already made their acquaintance in live performance), is that they intended to lead off with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” and then follow it up immediately with “On the Street Where You Live.” Now this I had to hear.
Unsurprisingly, they made major alterations to both pieces in order to bring them into the Noir style. For “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” they stripped away everything except the first verse – even, sadly, the opening string of damnations, which would I think be rather amusing to hear in Ms. Tham’s voice. That verse, in isolation, is pure wistful romance, and with a little bit of reworking of the melody and a switch to chord progressions more at home in jazz than on Broadway, they had themselves an entirely successful love song – one which, I might even add, is easier to wander around the house singing to oneself than is the original. Chalk one up to Noir; well played.
At the end of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” I had a relatively clear idea of what they were going to do with “On the Street Where You Live” – something more or less similar to what I just heard, turning the two songs into a matched set. But they confounded those expectations – they transformed “On the Street Where You Live” into one of those look-how-fast-our-string-bassist-can-play, borderline-frenetic pieces without which no jazz set is complete. Ms. Tham was even assigned to sing an opening (and later closing) rapid-fire, way-harder-than-it-sounds instrumental line in perfect unison with the bass and guitar and piano. I’m not sure they could have come up with anything more unlike the original Broadway number without resorting to heavy metal. That happens to be my least favorite kind of jazz number, but I can appreciate things that are well-done even when I wouldn’t want to do them myself, and I’m quite sure they high-fived each other at the end of the recording session.
From all of the above it’s obvious that Noir has my unqualified recommendation and that, unless you personally despise jazz (in which case, you are a strange, sad little man, and you have my pity), you should certainly acquire these two CD’s. Alas, there’s the rub: if you’re American, you’re hosed, because as far as I can tell there’s no easy way to get your hands on this music without flying to Singapore. I can’t find them on iTunes or Amazon. My best suggestion, if you happen to know me personally, is that you contact “Joni or Ryan” (presumably their managers) at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them whether they take PayPal – and, if so, whether it would be all right if you paid them for a copy and then saved everybody time and shipping by just ripping a copy off of mine.
And that wraps up today’s review.
If you stumbled across this review somehow (highly unlikely) and enjoyed it (even more unlikely)…well, alas, I fear this post is not very representative of most of my blog posts, which are overwhelmingly composed of things that amused me and that I blogged here so that I could find them again, or else of journals of trips with the family, such as this one of a trip with some of my kids to West Virginia, or this one of the trip to Shanghai where I fell hopelessly in love with the girl I married three months later (and to whom I now happily sing “Do I Love You” at every opportunity)…interesting to me, naturally, but I don’t expect them to interest anybody else. Every so often, though, a song or book or work of art will move me deeply enough to draw a response. So here’s what I think is a more or less complete list of posts like this one that I’ve done over the last five or six years, so as to save you the trouble of having to hunt through mountains of silliness in order to find the six or seven serious pieces.
The last low-budget review I did was of Lydia Salnikova’s Hallway. That’s probably because that’s the last album I liked as much as I liked Noir Volume 1 and Quietly. (Though I have to admit that A-Mei’s 你再看我妈 has been giving them a run for their money lately.)
If you like Lydia, then you may find interesting my personal rankings of every Bering Strait song plus the songs from Cheap Escape, with a brief explanation of why each one is ranked the way it is.
I very briefly reviewed Pages here, but included the Russian lyrics to “Oy, Moroz, Moroz” and my own translation. The Russian lyrics are good.
I liked the Michael Buble / Ivan Lins reworking of “You Look Wonderful Tonight” enough to write about it at length here, then decided, “Well if they can rewrite those woeful original lyrics then so can I” and posted my own lyrics here.
I thought Andrea Bocelli’s Christmas album deserved its own low-budget review and low-budget-reviewed it accordingly. Then a commenter named “Iris” who knows WAY more about Andrea Bocelli than I ever will, showed up and corrected certain aspects of my unkind take on “I Believe,” and did so effectively enough for me to issue an apologetic correction.
I give a philosophical/musical/parental take on Sinatra’s version of “It Was a Very Good Year” here.
Here is what happened when I took my daughter Merry (now an excellent high-school alto) to her very first opera.
Hip-hop artist MOC got a thumbs-up from me, and as far as I can tell it didn’t do her a bit of good, as I don’t think she ever released another album, and may not have sold any copies of her first one other than the one I bought, which is a cryin’ shame as far as I’m concerned.
Luis Miguel’s Christmas album Navidades is my favorite Christmas album, but somehow I only got around to a brief note on “Noche de Paz,” which is my single all-time favorite version of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
As you might be reading this post because you’re specifically interested in Singapore, you might be interested in a redneck American’s takes on Singapore and Malaysia, in two travelogues from prior business trips, the first of which includes both Singapore and Malaysia and the second of which is almost all Malaysia, with a special focus on Frasers Hill.
I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. I will say, though, that my all-time favorite post — a reaction to a deeply moving incident in my life that demanded a rather radically different writing style in order to try to capture the intensity of the emotions and the overwhelming speed at which everything happened, and is quite unlike anything else I have ever written — is “An Incident on Good Friday.”