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Perry Beekman geeks out to Rodgers & Hart songbook

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“Bewitched | Perry Beekman Sings And Plays Rodgers & Hart” album [May 6, 2014 self-produced]

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Bewitched” by Perry Beekman covers the Great American Songbook of Rodgers & Hart appropriately, reverently, and lightly (sometimes too lightly). It’s the second in a line of tributes from the Great American Songbook.

The New York-based guitarist and vocalist started off his fascination with the timeless classics a year ago with the debut CD, “So In Love – Perry Beekman Sings And Plays Cole Porter.” He next comes out with personalized look at the music of Rodgers and Hart May 6, 2014 in the self-produced “Bewitched.”

Once again, Beekman relies on his trio, with pianist Peter Tomlinson and bassist Lou Pappas, for 15 of Rodgers and Hart’s most memorable classics, from the title track, “The Lady Is A Tramp,” and “Mountain Greenery,” to “This Funny World” and “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” Their intent wasn’t to reinvent the wheel entirely, but to approach the classic material as true fans — minus the karaoke overtones of course. “Let there be no mistake; our goals here are to share the bountiful riches of the extraordinary Rodgers and Hart, swing hard, and to get you tapping your feet and smiling,” Beekman said.

Beekman’s trio does play as if they’re smiling through every song. The vocals and the instrumentals go easy on the interpretative styling, very laidback — more as background music than a driving force on some featured act amongst the denizens of a Blue Note.

The instrumentals fare better than the vocals, unfortunately. Beekman’s known for using the upper part of his guitar fingerboard percussively, a technique Herb Ellis and Ray Crawford were famous for in the 1950s. “Falling In Love With Love” benefits from the musicianship of Beekman’s trio, as each instrumentalist falls in line with a light and lively give-and-take. Nothing’s mind-blowing, but nothing’s out of place, either. They’re true to every note in the chart.

“Have You Met Miss Jones” and “Blue Room” stand out as the only instrumentals in the album, giving Beekman a chance to show what he can do on the guitar. In “Have You Met Miss Jones,” he gives the strings gentle brush strokes that cater always to the sweet melody with very little variation to the double-time other than a warm, stereophonic tone in places serene. His pianist improves on the gentle line with a few furtive sharp angles in a skipping, not too jarring solo, followed by bassist Pappas trying to lope his way out.

“Blue Room” is Beekman’s nod to his classical upbringing, a kind of “collaboration between Richard Rodgers and J.S. Bach!” Is that Pappas turning his bass upside-down into a groaning cello? Beekman again steeps the piece with his light and lively, tart guitar upshot in a jazz-Baroque mix.

The music’s not so much the problem. It’s the vocals. They’re earnest, sufficient, and melodic enough. But Beekman tends to matte the shiny parts with a voice that’s less torture-textured, and more schoolboy-breathy. “Bewitched” needs a darkness that, quite frankly, Beekman’s not qualified to give. He continues on the same light and lively slant that takes away from emotional depths required in the phrasing of this song.

Compare his version to that of Heather Masse’s in her album “Lock My Heart,” with veteran pianist Dick Hyman. Masse imbues “Bewitched” with a tormented dark force that’s utterly believable. The choice of Beekman to repeat the shaky warble, “Am I, Am I,” for no real reason at the end lends nothing to that dark, devastation of a thwarted love. When Masse hesitates, she does it convincingly, as a woman who doesn’t know what’s happening to her, reconstructing the entire movement of this utterly malleable torch ballad to her own plausible pace. When Beekman does it, he’s hesitating as if he doesn’t know what this song’s really supposed to be about, but it sounds nice. It’s the difference between an artist who’s lived through a song like this, and an artist who just admires the view from afar.

It doesn’t matter what Beekman sings, he sings Rodgers and Hart as a fan who knows every word and every melodic contour, yet the nuances escape him. He acts out “The Lady Is A Tramp” like an uber-fan going to an off-off-Broadway rave on its last legs (note the dramatic flourish with which he elaborates, “thea-tah!”), totally offsetting the gangsta cool this song’s all about. Way to date a Rodgers and Hart classic more than it already is.

The opening track, “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” is almost too painful to listen to. Beekman’s schoolboy vocals minces about, in an attempt to vamp it up, trying to hit all the right notes on all the clever turns of phrase, but the feel is missing. Beekman described the recording of this song: “The enormously clever lyrical phrases of ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’ come one after another at an alarming rate. They have a percussive quality that led me to the vamp style introduction and accompaniment of the arrangement. In the instrumental break, I tried to mimic the phrasing musically with the guitar and piano.” Aha! At least he didn’t try to rap.

Beekman sings Rodgers and Hart as a furtively sighing fan rather than a featured artist with something to say, enhancing the experience with a deeply personal comp.

Strict fans of Rodgers and Hart will find Perry Beekman’s tribute cursory. Swinging hard, tapping your feet? Not so much.

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