Shades of Beautiful
The Tracy Stark Songbook
December 8, 2016
Reviewed by John Hoglund
Tracy Stark’s newest CD, Shades of Beautiful: The Tracy Stark Songbook, is proof that this multi-award-winning, busy lady is much more than a skilled piano partner who is a great arranger. She is an accomplished songwriter who deserves more recognition. In his liner notes, James Gavin quotes Stark: “… Cabaret used to be a genre: the Great American Songbook, show tunes, standards. In the present world, I see it as a giant umbrella of any genre, as long as you can create a sense of intimacy.” Mission accomplished. Those words describe a CD that is sure to make a mark. It’s an intimate album for sure and it touches several genres with intelligence and great style.
The new release on Miranda Music is proof of the scope of Stark’s songwriting talent. The songs, sung by various gifted artists—with the last cut performed solo by the songwriter (who also provides back-up vocals on a number of cuts)—should be rated on what they are and what they offer. They are sublime—some darn good stuff with terrific songs about the midnight hour and some longing pieces straight from the heart. Some have an optimistic, timeless quality. Others are reflective and come to life with pieces of a pop/soul craft that are pensive, echoing a likeness to ladies like the late Laura Nyro, as on “Walk with Me” (sung by Nona Hendryx), which repeats its message of believing, supported by a subtle backup chorus. This is carried through on a reflective ballad called “Life’s Been Kind” sung with passion by Tonya Pinkins.
With so many wonderful artists, it’s hard to single out one over the other. Ann Hampton Callaway kicks off the CD on a light, yet discreetly powerful nod with a cool reading of “Woman on the Stage” that makes a statement about ladies in the spotlight. “Fluffy World,” sung by frequent musical partner Marcus Simeone, is a personalized, melancholic, sleepy ballad about waking up next to her husband after a hard night’s work in a smoky, crowded place (a piano bar?): “… You are everything supreme and the reason I can truly love.” “Morning Light” has Stark in a bluesy, jazz-tinged duet with Johnny Rodgers that is a highlight. The great Lillias White offers a soulful “You Changed Me” that really cooks. It’s about a tough woman who admits to poor life choices, who gave up, and ultimately found someone. A strong cut. Jazz artist Jane Monheit flawlessly caresses “Mr. Moon” with a sexy reading that could melt butter: “… I lay myself down, but I’m gonna get up again… It’s all under wraps.” And so it goes.
All the cuts are so special and all reflect a songwriter who deserves a wider platform. There’s more to be said indeed. For now, Stark, whose songs often lean toward jazz stylings, are introspective and memorable with simple challenges. Most exemplify the relevance of how less is more. There are fifteen cuts by impressive artists that stand out for their interpretive and musical gifts. However, Tracy Stark is the real winner here on a haunting album that is worthy of attention.
The album is produced by Richard Barone. Other singing artists include the late Lesley Gore, Janis Siegel, Nicolas King, Tanya Holt, Barb Jungr, Janice Pendarvis and the late Karen Black.
In addition to Stark on piano for most tracks, the musicians including: guitarists Gene Bertoncini, Ronald Drayton; drummers Trevor Gale, Ratso Harris, Donna Kelly (percussion, too), Danny Mallon, David Silliman; bassists Warren McRae, Maryann McSweeney, Michael Visceglia, Skip Ward; keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk; and a special nod to Sean Harkness whose guitar brilliance is on almost every cut.