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CD Review: Lessons Lyrical - Petra van Nuis and Andy Brown

Petra van Nuis – Vocals

Andy Brown – Guitar

String Damper Records SDR 2136

The very first song on Lessons Lyrical, “Speak Low” (Weill/Nash) is a truly remarkable example of the precision and balance that Brown and van Nuis have developed together over the years. The seamless integration of voice and strings can be expected from the mellow sound of a James Taylor or Paulinho Garcia singing while playing guitar solo. But to achieve that as a duo is far more rare and calls to mind truly great pairings like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in pop. On this song, even jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass would be hard pressed to match the sheer symmetry and syncopation of van Nuis and Brown’s performance together.

Bright, upbeat, and optimistic the lyrics of “Save Your Sorrow For Tomorrow” (DeSylvia/Sherman), “I ‘ve Got A Pocketful Of Dreams” (J. Monson/J. Burke), and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (Rogers/Hammerstein) are perfectly suited for the tonal qualities of van Nuis’ voice. The latter came from the Broadway show Oklahoma in 1943 and quickly became one of the most popular American songs to emerge from the war years. Brooks Atkinson, while reviewing the original production of Oklahoma in The New York Times, wrote this number and changed the very direction of musical theatre. After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable. Brown...keeps the pace lively and evolving, allowing van Nuis to display her inherent charm and appeal to maximum advantage with these cheerful selections.

Another show tune, “Bali Hai” (Rogers and Hammerstein) is from South Pacific in 1949. Bali Hai is the name of a mysterious volcanic island visible from the isle where most of the action takes place. Brown and van Nuis are remarkably able to capture the mystery, majesty and beauty of the elaborately, haunting orchestral arrangements that the song is best remembered for, using only voice and guitar.

“Slow Poke” (King/Stewart/Price) was intended to be a country and western song that successfully crossed over to pop and enjoyed a run on both billboards: country and western and pop charts. Van Nuis and Brown manage to impart some uncomplicated homespun charm into their rendition of the tune where it is most appropriate.

Told from the view point of an aging courtesan reflecting on her exciting and eventful past life (while lamenting her own loss of innocence), “When The World Was Young” (Phillippe Gerard/Vannier/Mercer) offers the duo an opportunity to put their versatility on display. Using tone and texture to signal both the passage of time, and the sadness that sometimes accompanies developing maturity, van Nuis and Brown tell a complete story that goes beyond the mere scope of the lyrics.

Almost every syllable of “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” (Arlen/Mercer) is elongated and stretched for maximum effect as van Nuis attempts to emphasize the yearning to wander in search of new experiences, all the while making each new place a new home. This often recorded tune originated in the musical St. Louis Woman in 1946. Brown’s guitar is a virtual mirror to van Nuis’ very deliberate tone and enunciation.

The next two songs help illustrate both the duo’s large range and their instinctive ability to choose the correct tone for the moment. Brown begins “A Time For Love” (Mandel/Webster) with a kind of gentle, almost harp like introduction that sets the mood for the wistful, dreamy lyrics van Nuis will follow with. In stark contrast is the quick paced, New Orleans jazz style, counterpoint and mood that Doctor Jazz (Oliver/Melrose) delivers. Playing them both with honesty, emotion and their signature synchronization sets a high bar for others to follow.

Starting off is Brown’s guitar introduction, almost two minutes in length, “You’re Blasé” (Hamilton /Siever) may have you wondering briefly when and if van Nuis is going to finally enter to complain of her partner’s lack of emotion causing her to have a feeling of anxiousness. The duo is successful in conveying this message through virtually every moment of this tune.

“Who Cares” (Gershwin/Gershwin) carries a message of strong optimism in the face of terrible economic upheaval. Love conquers all and in particular, a bad economy seems to be the message here. Even while she is reciting some lyrics that are pretty horrific, if taken out of context (who cares if the sky should fall into the sea?), van Nuis manages to maintain her bright and cheery demeanor. Brown’s lively string work carries forth both the positive vibes and optimism.

Recorded by a plethora of vocalists in a wide variety of musical styles, particularly in the mid-sixties when it was first released, “Try To Remember” (Schmidt/Jones) from the show The Fantasticks aroused my curiosity more than any other song when I first viewed the track list to this album. The unusual rhyming scheme of the lyrics, offers van Nuis her chance to shine brightly, and shine brightly she does. Her clear, simple, engaging, vibrato-less voice and presentation seem to be made for this song. Brown gives her the room to operate by not taking an extended solo and skillfully supporting her from the background. Until now, Andy Williams had done my favorite version of this song, but now he has to sit farther back in the bus.

A trio of uncomplicated tunes, with words and music written entirely by bassist Red Mitchell, “Simple Isn’t Easy,” delivers the exact message that the title implies. A bit of a mystery, “Peter Had A Wolf” (unknown) is a kind of a musical nursery rhyme, and was given to van Nuis by friend and mentor, Chicago jazz legend Judy Roberts. Roberts had picked the song up from a musical revue she had been part of early in her career. With no idea who had written the song, and not successfully able to research its origins, Roberts carried it in her mind for many years before meeting van Nuis and deciding that she was the right vocalist to sing it. “C’est La Vie” (White/Wolfson) has the simple message of accepting what life brings, delivered with stoicism yet sympathetically by van Nuis and Brown.

Full of the beautiful melody and lush, descriptive lyrics that Michael Legrand songs are known for, “You Must Believe In Spring” (Legrand/Bergman/Bergman/Demy) is perhaps a tad too slow to show off van Nuis’ voice to best advantage. Fortunately, she has the consummate partner in Brown, whose rich chord work can create the perfect framework for a musical background that best showcases her voice, even when the inherent speed and tone of the song does not.

Lessons Lyrical is a memorable and enjoyable CD and the latest chapter in a continually unfolding success story that Petra van Nuis and Andy Brown who have been telling with their lives and music since their arrival in Chicago. All of their fans, friends and musical colleagues, including myself, eagerly await the next chapter.

Andy Brown at Petra van Nuis at

About Randy Freedman

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.


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