CD Review: NEW WORLDS (Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends on Decca Gold)

by Tony Frankel on October 31, 2017

in CD-DVD,Music

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WORLDS APART

This is easily one of the most jaw-dropping CDs to come my way in a while. Not just in some of its amazing selections, but in the disparity between tracks: most cuts are revelational (Bill Murray’s interpretation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest readings I have ever heard) while a few are head-scratchers (unless you think that Bill Murray singing off-key like an inebriated uncle at a wedding party is all the rage).

New Worlds is a collaboration between actor and comedian Murray and German cellist Jan Vogler. The two met at an airport and shared a similar taste in great American culture, so they put together a recital. The goal was to converge the worlds of legendary American literature with European classical music and a bit of American theater music to create an entertainment for both recording (this was taped April 2017 in NYC) and a live show, which was first seen on June 4 in Dresden, Germany (Vogler used to be principal cellist at the Staatskapelle Dresden before moving to New York). New Worlds than had a short tour this month in the states, including a stop at Carnegie Hall, and will continue touring.

Murray is truly stunning in his versatility: He interprets Lucille Clifton’s poem “Blessing the Boats” almost as a father-to-son conversation. The boats are an allusion to people who venture into the unknown and the piece gently suggests to loved ones: let them go. Murray cements that sentiment while he gets a wistful complement from Vogler’s expressive interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ lushly romantic “The Swan.”

In solo recitation, Murray continues that paternal quality, but now he’s consolingly soothing in selections from Walt Whitman’s poems “Song of the Open Road” and “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. And although it ends rather abruptly, the authoritative reading about virginal nature from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer”—backed by the Andante from Schubert’s Trio No. 1—is nearly like transcendental meditation (the “and friends” in the CD’s title refers to Mira Wang, violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano).

Later is the aforementioned section of Huck Finn, Chapter 16, in which Huck has a moral crisis regarding the slave Jim’s freedom as they float towards Cairo, and the interaction with runaway slave hunters who believe Huck’s lies. Bookended by Manfred Grafe’s arrangement of Mancini’s “Moon River” (remember the lyric “my huckleberry friend”?), these 16 minutes can and should be replayed over and over and over. The variance in Murray’s voices staggers; indeed, the innocent snark familiar from Ghostbusters is completely vanished. It’s a remarkable feat of storytelling, and truly transportive.

Murray surprises again with James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” an enduring gem of an alternative-history parody (it first appeared in The New Yorker in 1930)—it’s shocking that the growly voice of Grant is emanating from Murray, whose charm and wit is on full display. Ravel’s “Blues” from the Sonata for Violin and Piano offers a harsh, jazzy, pizzicato, humorous accompaniment throughout.

But then there’s Murray’s singing, which goes all over the map: He’s reminiscent of the schmaltzy, hammy Nick the Lounge Singer on Saturday Night Live, but much more accessible on an entertaining “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; there’s a throaty Dylan-esque folky parlando (sung as though reciting) as he interprets with passion Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God”; and, after a short historical introduction, he offers the Stephen Foster parlor song, “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”—but now his parlando is weak and weird, like the guy who’s had too much stout in an Irish pub (Perez’s piano work here is sublimely sweet).

The final 3 tracks (out of 13) are Stephen Buck’s beautifully arranged selections from West Side Story, and this is where you may take umbrage at the horrifying interpretation by the trademark Murray, who at 67 continues straddling the line between goofball and sophisticate. Is he trying to be tongue-in-cheek with those insulting notes and lack of melody..? Whatever the intentions here, he does sound like an awful lounge singer. Sure, he’s having fun, but what about us? It’s pushy when we get “America,” silly when he plays Maria in “I Feel Pretty,” but it’s an Andy Kaufman type of joke when he ruins “Somewhere,” the greatest ballad ever written about the quest for forgiveness and peace. (Oddly, composer Leonard Bernstein is credited, but not lyricist Stephen Sondheim.)

The players, however, are always on fire. On Piazzolla’s “Muerte del Ángel,” the trio is so precise that they sound like a singular bandoneón; and the flavors are rich from Vogel on his 1707 Stradivari cello for the overplayed but always welcome solo, the Bach “Prelude.”

Aside from the jarring song inconsistencies, this CD is a keeper. This smorgasbord of classical music, American standards, and literary reading celebrates a rich culture that often seems to be melting away (remember that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned in many schools, and Murray’s passage is the reason why). New Worlds may even inspire you to start an old-fashioned salon.

photos by Peter Rigaud

New Worlds
Decca Gold
1 disc | 13 tracks | 64:55
released October, 2017
available at Amazon and iTunes
for tour dates, visit Dorn Music

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