Although the qualities of refined elegance and raw, aching emotion might not seem like natural partners, Ricky Ian Gordon makes the mixed marriage miraculous. On two CDs in a new series where he is the sole singer and sole instrumentalist (as a skillful, un-showy pianist), he presents his own melodies matched most often with pre-existing poems, but sometimes his own lyrics or those by collaborators on theatre projects.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s first solo CD, A Horse With Wings, opens with his fingers on the piano, very simply playing the notes of the basic melody of a song that’s been on my short list of should-be standards of the last 15 years, "Finding Home." It is a tender tune from the musical Dream True with a philosophy economically and elegantly expressed by Tina Landau, the show’s lyricist and director. When Ricky sings it, we hear the aspects of his singing voice and persona that will be notable throughout the recording: seriousness of approach, a sense of wonder, pure and nonhomogenized emotion, an occasionally odd mix of formal singing voice and flashes of the sound of his less supported, unguarded speaking voice on some words. Also instantly evident and representative of the tone of the album’s tracks to come: vulnerability, openness, a sense of being fully present moment to moment, seeming to be either newly realizing a feeling or methodically building a case in point. The soothing mood of "Finding Home," however, is not very typical of the moods to come: a sense of peace is less easily won on many tracks, though there is serenity amidst some sorrow. The battles of the cloud and the silver lining make for intriguing listening. The mantle of "art song" is comfortably worn and won in the settings of quite a few of the poems. The non-commercial, sophisticated melody lines swim around terse or turbulent clutches of words as accommodating co-stars to them: accenting them, giving miniature instrumental respite to allow a listener to absorb an image or thought before moving on, reining in their gushes or playing subtext and foreshadowing when emotion in words may be veiled or tentative.
Only five of the 16 pieces feature Gordon lyrics, but each of those is uniquely interesting and accomplished and may strike some listeners as the most immediately accessible, with more repetitions of key lines. Three directly deal with death, a subject that comes up elsewhere. The powerful and palpably painful "Home of the Brave" was written on the day word came of the death of Matthew Shepard, the young victim of a horrific gay bashing. It serves as an indictment and raging and unsettling catharsis, plea and prayer. It is the longest track, clocking in at well over six minutes. "Janet Underneath the Roses" was written after (and describes) the funeral of a friend’s sister. "White Haired Woman" is a story of a homeless person’s day-to-day existence and then her final day. His "What Shall We Remember?" swirls with longing and the foreboding, but a stated acceptance that "some things have to end." And the CD’s title song has a more traditional structure with its repetition of the anchoring phrase ,"I wanna … ." followed by various verbs expressing determination to fully experience and enjoy life ("I wanna cry … "; "I wanna feel … "; and, finally, "I wanna fly!"). Most telling is the the admission that "I wanna lie/ I wanna think that things are better/ Than they are … "
Among the poets represented are a favorite from the composer’s youth, Edna St. Vincent Millay ("If I Should Learn, in Some Casual Way," another meditation on possible death, tempered with resolve and the battling goals of denial and acceptance) and Langston Hughes, whose work inspired a full theatre piece with Gordon settings, Only Heaven, in 1995. Here we have "Heaven" from its second mounting, which will be familiar to those who know that piece or the satisfying Bright Eyed Joy album of Gordon work sung by various theatre singers. Its brief burst of bliss (the poem/song consists of just 28 words and is timed here at 1:27), the CD’s second track is a ray of sunshine before the skies darken later. Poet Frank O’Hara is the only one represented by more than one work: "The Light Comes On by Itself" has an effective restlessness and the album-ending "Autobiographia Literaria," a brief full-circle look at someone with an "all alone" childhood who revels in surviving that to become a poet. Although searing sentiments, sorrow, scars and searching make for some heavy going, it is cathartic. If these passages seem to dominate, it’s partly because the strong presence of hope and reflections on pleasurable times are clustered mostly in the early tracks. In a class all its own is the quirky "Drivers of Diaper Service Trucks Are So Sad" by X.J. Kennedy which has its own odd sensibility and imagined reality, a nagging semi-disguised gloom and pessimism as a detouring reaction.
The singing is always committed, though here and there some effort is noticeable on challenging melodies with leaps to high notes or accelerating speed. I wondered if Gordon the singer occasionally was cursing Gordon the composerâ€”and remember, he is accompanying himself, too, with nowhere to hide. Some sweeter, more relaxed head tones appear and I wish that method/aspect had been exploited more. Still, it all feels real and connected, a relatively small price of unpolished rough spots is paid for the bounty of rivetingly exposed nerves and involvement. With a playing time of just under an hour, this is a rich banquet of beauty and integrity: sometimes dramatic and dark and draining, sometimes radiant and rhapsodic, always of interest. A booklet contains all the texts and a few lines of introduction to each piece, noting the attraction to a particular poem and poet and a bit of background information. In the cases of those songs with his own words, he explains how each song was inspired by a personal experience.
The second in the series of Gordon singing Gordon, Bric-A-Brac, is, overall, even more variedâ€”with fewer tracks that play the heavy tragedy card. This time, there are 19 selections, and again it’s mostly poems set to music, with a couple of the poets from the earlier CD again turning up: Edna St. Vincent Millay (three times) and one more sample each of Langston Hughes (the spare, enchanting "Kid in the Park" with its dignified loneliness) and X.J. Kennedy. Kennedy’s is "Pont Mirabeau" wherein the movement wordsâ€”"flowing" and "running" for the River Seine or time’s passage, contrasting with the stationery "I stand here"â€”are matched to brief but effective musical undercurrents or tensions, reinforcing those things without overdoing the idea to become obvious clichÃ©. Dorothy Parker’s words present four treats sampling his settings for a project called Autumn Valentine; her tart and sometimes arch, polished words given new subtext and suggestion of more emotion under the masks by the composer’s more probing and emotional choices.
Gordon the wordsmith is again not heavily sampled, and, with the exception of "Fewer Words," a reaction to an unnamed other lyricist’s work, the choices are from his musicals rather than separate songs. From My Life with Albertine, lyrics co-written with Richard Nelson (a score which was recorded), we have "The Different Albertines." This six-minute track becomes a lovely kind of mood painting, with just piano for two full minutes before the vocal comes in, with the specific images of Albertine sung adoringly and with wonder. From the longtime workin- progress Sycamore Trees, produced recently at Signature Theatre in Virginia, comes "My Mother Is a Singer," a hypnotic piece that swells musically and emotionally; it’s dedicated to his own mother, a Borscht Belt singer.
Even though this life is such a mess, Mama
Just to hear your voice is a caress, Mama
Sing of how it’s not what you expected
Sing, and disappointment is directed.
And in his promise of eternal connection written for his lover at the end of his life, "We Will Always Walk Together" is intense. This song, which became part of the score to the musical Dream True, remains strongly persuasive and comforting, ending here with the melody hummed. "Fried Dough," with words by Michael Korie, from the opera of The Grapes of Wrath, is evocative of the Steinbeck saga’s slice of struggling life where the family has nothing to cook and the opinion that "Ya’ got the right to feel blue, but don’t let it show," matched to a haunting but appropriately unpretentious melody.
As far as the singing, there are a few spots and tricky notes where the effort shows and it’s not quite ultra-smooth sailing. "The Spring and the Fall," one of the Millay settings, evidences signs of struggle and he pushes in "Three Leaving" (Leon Katz, based on Gertrude Stein) and in the Parker "Lullaby" on a few notes which might logically have been sung in a more literally lullaby-like, easygoing way. However, as his explanatory notes state, it’s meant to be "a disjointed lullaby for the unbalanced insomniac." The piano playing knows no such problems: full of strength tempered with pensiveness, whether serving as basic structure, adornment, punctuation, emphasis, or suggestive moods and emotional counterpoint to more literal statements in the verbiage, this aspect should not be underrated. As a performer singing or on piano, Ricky also knows the dramatic power of the pause.
The album ends with a major highlight, a sweet and satisfyingly lilting piece that lets us come full circle with these two Gordon CDs, as the track "Home Is There" has the same theme as the first song on the first CD ("Finding Home"). "And when you’ve got somebody to care/ Home is there" goes this lyric by Bill Solly to a children’s musical from Gordon’s career, a musicalization of the novel Toby Tyler. And as for Ricky Ian Gordon, he clearly seems at home with all kinds of material and subject matter.