Best Is Yet to Come: The Songs of Cy Coleman

Various Artists

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Best Is Yet to Come: The Songs of Cy Coleman Review

by William Ruhlmann

Pop and Broadway composer Cy Coleman (1929-2004) was a major figure who not only wrote hits like "Witchcraft" for Frank Sinatra, but also the scores for successful stage musicals across five decades, his hit shows including Sweet Charity, I Love My Wife, Barnum, City of Angels, and The Will Rogers Follies. Producer/arranger/pianist Dave Palmer's version of a tribute album does not include "Witchcraft" (or "Big Spender" or "If My Friends Could See Me Now"), so it isn't exactly a Coleman best-of, but it does feature some of his better-known songs, so it isn't quite a "Revisited"-style treatment, either (as in Ben Bagley's series of albums of musical theater writers' obscurities such as Cole Porter Revisited). The closest approximation to Palmer's approach may be the tribute albums Hal Willner produced, such as Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, in which he allowed for radically rearranged renditions of the songs performed by edgy contemporary artists in an attempt to make the songwriters hip again. Palmer is wise to have limited himself to female singers since Coleman, who did not have a single major lyric partner, nevertheless did some of his best work with two female lyricists, Carolyn Leigh and Dorothy Fields, who specialized in writing from the woman's point of view. It takes nothing away from the talented singers, however, to say that Palmer's arrangements dominate the disc. And those arrangements take a decidedly revisionist tack. The composer came out of a jazz background, and Leigh especially had a melancholy side, but Coleman's music tends to be upbeat and empowering -- think of "Hey Look Me Over" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Palmer is having none of that. He wants things to be downbeat, low key, and even a little strange. So, for example, "Then Was Then and Now Is Now" (lyrics by Peggy Lee) is positively mournful. "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" is now a samba, which gives it some verve, but no laughs. Songs like the reflective "Where Am I Going?" and the rueful "The Rules of the Road" are right up Palmer's alley, although Sarabeth Tucek nearly throws the former away with a perfunctory reading and Nikka Costa can't help coming far behind Tony Bennett's definitive recording of the latter (not to mention some awfully good ones by Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, and Lena Horne). No doubt Coleman's publisher is delighted with this album, since it suggests a different way to hear the songs and thus, possibly, to exploit them; probably Coleman himself would have been pleased. But just because interpretations are different doesn't make them better or even valid. Often, this album demonstrates the quality of Coleman's writing not because it finds new ways to hear the music, but because the songs survive the wrongheaded versions so well.

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