Mark Nadler: Runnin’ Wild: Sin Songs from the Jazz Age

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Mark Nadler

Runnin’ Wild: Sin Songs from the Jazz Age

June 25, 2015

(Karen Lotman Productions)

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Mark-Nadler-Runnin-Wild-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212That the flamboyant, erudite, whip-smart Mark Nadler has an abiding interest in artful evocations of decadence should not be news. The era of bootleg booze, gangsters, swank, flappers, and high hats seems a natural genre for this performer.

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If you weren’t looking at the slipcase of this CD, however, you wouldn’t recognize Nadler until at least a third of the way through. Though the musical roller coaster is familiar, vocals have dropped an octave. They’re darker, breathier; phrases exaggerate legato. There’s a shush factor.

“Willie the Weeper” was, Nadler tells us, “a pretty big hit for Frankie Half Pint Jaxton in 1927, but nothing compared to the hit it became when Cab Callaway got his hands on it and reworked it in 1931.” Originally a hip-slapping, vaudeville song about a drug-addicted chimney sweep, it became “Minnie the Moocher,” which oozes and shimmies:She messed around with a bloke named Smokey/She loved him though he was cokie/He took her down to Chinatown/ and he showed her how to kick the gong around…” Nadler gives us both versions replete with a chorus echoing Ho-dee ho-dee ho… Hi-dee hi-dee hi-dee hi… Hey-dee hey…Whoah.” We move from up-tempo to slo-mo with a sashay out the door. Vocal is open-throated insidious fun despite the subject matter. The arrangement is great.

“Limehouse Nights” (George Gershwin/B.G. DeSylva/John Henry Mills) and “Limehouse Blues” (Philip Braham/John Henry Mills) popularized by Gertrude Lawrence describe, in tandem, a district in East London where sailors hung out—to drink, take drugs and buy sex— and about the lime juice they drank to ward off scurvy.

Vocal is low, tremulous and full of implication, building to dissonant horns. One can feel the fog (double entendre intended). Another wonderful arrangement, the classical and jazz elements of the song arc like a fully fleshed scenario.

“Say It with Liquor”“not music or flowers” (Halsey K. Mohr)—and “It’s the Smart Little Feller Who Stocked Up His Cellar”—“that’s getting’ the beautiful girls” (Milton Ager/Grant Clarke)—sound like Nadler executing a cinematic, saloon performance. Phrases are clipped, melody jaunty. “Just carry a bottle of scotch, rye or gin/There isn’t a flat where they won’t let you in…”

“That’s What’s the Matter with Me” (Gene Malin, an openly gay performer of the 1920s who also penned and performed “I’d Rather Be Spanish than Mannish”) segues organically into “Find Me a Primitive Man” (Cole Porter). Both arrive extremely stylized as if being presented as what was then called a “pansy act.” The first is amusing in context, but during the second, I drew the line at repeated “ugga buggas” and chorus call-back which oddly seem to cheapen something undoubtedly meant to sound cheap.

“‘Threepenny Opera Medley” is sheer Nadler—an entire show, fully cast. If you’ve ever seen the actual operetta, the artist will conjure visions. Beginning and ending in German, we’re taken on a kaleidoscopic journey. Just let it wash over you. Tone is provocative Weimar, enunciation blade sharp, phrasing adroit, transitions completely smooth. Nadler acts the hell out of this. And doesn’t get a bit hysterical! Horns are fabulous. Wowza.

We end with “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil”—“and you’ll never have to go to bed at all…”—(Irving Berlin) bubbling up a ragtime Charleston. Makes you want to move, though not during the quadruple speed section. Images of jerking, extended limbs, spilled martinis, cloche hats, swinging tails and pearls—illustrations by John Held. A growl rises then shoots out of a megaphone. This one’s ebullient. Leaves one wanting more.

Arrangements (by Nadler) are heady, vivacious, and filled with nuance that rises to the ear with repeated listening. Horn work by trumpeter Elaine Burt is the bees’ knees. Janelle Reichman is on clarinet, with Nadler on vocals and piano.

The new voice—time will tell if it was only employed here—takes getting used to.

Nadler clearly means to present the music as he feels it would have been originally performed.

By the second and third play (no hardship), I acclimated and had a good time. There’s no question Mark Nadler knows his onions.

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Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.