Sunday, October 7, 2012

More on the undertone of sadness in Jackie Evancho's art

Jackie Evancho faces a paradox. The interpretive genius that enables her to connect with her audience in such an emotionally powerful way at the same time isolates her. Maybe that's the real essence of the "darkness within her light."

Musically at least, she sees deeply into the human heart. Yet the more this ability ennobles her and makes her famous and successful...the less time she can spend with ordinary people, and, progressively, her extra insight into the human heart includes sensing how few people have her depth. 

She now has at least one foot into adolescence. I seriously doubt whether she's thought about this consciously yet, but who will she be able to even date when she's old enough to do that? She doesn't go to school. She know a few girls who are her childhood friends. Most of the boys she knows are siblings or cousins. 

So on both the practical and the philosophical level, she's coming to realize the degree to which her life of the heart separates her from other hearts. And there's not much she can do about it. She is who she is. Even if she stopped performing now, she'd still be herself, with the abilities she has, whether she uses them professionally or not. 

When she's 16--the age her mom identified as when she'd be willing to let her start dating--most boys her age will be too intimidated to ask her out, and unwilling to be identified as someone's boyfriend instead of the girl being identified as his girlfriend.

At her current age of 12, the dating stuff is well over her horizon. But she's insightful. Surely in some way she sees it coming, and she already experiences it. Who are the fans cheering her from those expensive front row seats? Old coots mostly, who will never be in her dating pool. And boys her age are mostly listen to Rihanna and Pink and Fergie and Selena Gomez and Beyonce and Lady Gaga and Kei$ha etc....not her. 

She will find love, eventually, to be sure. But it will be a challenge. And even outside of the world of's always lonely at the top. Whether it's as a CEO or as a prima ballerina or as a potter on the crafts fair circuit or as the top cop in your precinct. Being the best at anything isolates you.

Hence, perhaps, the undertone of sadness in much of her music. Her way of seeking the consolations of philosophy...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New CD "Songs from the Silver Screen" by Jackie Evancho

Executive summary:

This CD perfectly expresses the paradox that is Jackie Evancho-the most beautiful voice of any singer whose voice has been recorded, coupled with intuitive mastery of the art of singing--immaculate phrasing, use of portamento, seamless passagio, and above all the ability to connect the listener emotionally to the music--all contained, however improbably, within the small-for-her-age frame of a cheerful 12 year old suburban American girl whose talents were as much of a surprise to her parents as they were to the rest of us.

And of all her CDs, "Songs from the silver screen" most embodies this paradox, applying her formidable musical skills to musical piffle like "Pure Imagination," the theme song from the children's film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." There are more serious songs on the CD-most notably Ennio Morricone's theme from "Cinema Paradiso" and Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Music of the Night " from "Phantom of the opera," written for its antihero.

That is, the musical interpretive genius who is Jacqueline Marie Evancho is at the same time Jackie Evancho, a child who still loves Disney cartoons. And in this CD you see the confluence of the genius and the child.

As such, I doubt she'll ever do such an album again-even now, you see her looking forward towards her adult life in a way that she hasn't in the past. And about half the songs here embody that looking-forward-ness. So this CD's collection of songs combines a fond farewell to her childhood with a wide-eyed first step into the hormonal hurricane of adolescence.

I also doubt that the children's film songs here will ever again get such remarkable renditions. Because Jackie is the rising tide that lifts all musical boats. This CD answers the question of how important execution is vs. the original material that emerged from the composer's pen (or keyboard or virtual input). Even the piffliest of the songs here-"Pure Imagination" is worth listening to because Jackie Pygmalioned it, lifting it out of the musical gutter just as Professor Henry Higgins turned Eliza Doolittle into something like a real lady.

So even if you disdain many of these songs (at least as originally sung) and their cinematic sources, don't let that turn you away from this unique, evanescent testament to Jackie Evancho's 12th year on this lucky planet. And anyone who aspires to be a singer needs to get his, regardless of their own chosen genre-because this CD could be the musical text for a master class in the art of singing so that you carry the audience away with you to whatever emotional destination you choose.

Not that even Jackie could explain what she does. She can't. It's up to you to pay attention to what she's doing when she's doing it-and the more attention you pay, the more your efforts are rewarded, as you swim into the shimmering depths of her voice.

Buy this CD and bring some beauty into your life, whether it's just for a gentle background sound or for intense scrutiny-either way you'll find what you seek. A bit like those chilcren's films that are made to entertain both their intended audience and their parents.


The details:

There's an undertone of sadness in much of Jackie Evancho's music. I doubt anyone-even her parents-know where that comes from. It's as if the singer is a veteran chanteuse in her late 60s, looking back on a sunny youth with both fondness for how wonderful it was and regret that it's long past, never to return.

All of us adults were once 12 years old, but not one of us was the 12 year old that Jackie Evancho is. Not that it's obvious in interviews. I've known kids that age who presented themselves as well as she does, and spoke about as well as she does, with the kinds of charming grammatical boo-boos typical of thoroughly middle class children. She doesn't exude the gravitas Scarlett Johansson did at the same age. Until Jackie sings, that is.

Some other kids even display the kinds of lofty goals she expresses, such as "I'd like to sing for the President of the United States"...the difference being that she has sung for the President-more than once even.

And some also express some of that sadness, but it's usually over personal stuff-drunken parents, acne, whatever. Jackie's isn't for herself. It's for all of us, all of us embraced by her loving concern for all of our griefs large and small, and the mortality that overshadows this life.

I'm doing a little mindreading here, to be sure. As I said, she isn't particularly articulate about her art. Not need she be. You can see how intensely she's concentrating when she performs-rarely smiling, her brow often furrowed as she shapes every note, every phrase, every verse, precisely as she wants it to be. I think I'm right but there's no way to prove it. Just regard her art and see if what I say resonates with you.

You can expect to see hundreds of reviews for any Jackie Evancho album, all of them gushing over her voice, her songs, her character, her family, her nascent beauty, her fashion sense, etc. etc., all concluding that you'd have to be nuts not to buy this CD.

Personally I agree. However, I can understand why some would not. Musically speaking, Ms. Evancho dwells far from the world Rolling Stone Magazine covers-and equally far from the pure classical world for that matter.

So if you only like pop, or jazz, or field recordings of Tuareg musicians, Jackie Evancho isn't for you. Her music doesn't rock and it doesn't roll. It's irony-free. It's generally aspirational, slow to medium-tempo'd, usually with ornate orchestral accompaniment. It hearkens back to Linda Ronstadt's "Lush Life" album with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. I long for her first "unplugged" album, but that's probably a long ways off.

Meanwhile we have "Songs from the Silver Screen," and even if you aren't a fan of Classical Crossover-her nominal genre-you may still want to get this CD, because she possesses, arguably, the most beautiful singing voice of anyone in the history of recorded music. It soars over accompaniments normally found on "Easy Listening" albums and song choices that would be pedestrian in anyone else's hands. When she sings songs that have been done to death by others-or which we think of as being "owned" by another artist-she sweeps all that history aside, singing it as if it's the first time it's ever been sung. She never references other singers musically, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something she's imitating. She doesn't read music, so she learns songs by listening to others' renditions, but she seems to shed those renditions in the process of absorbing the songs, until all that's left is what's uniquely hers.

Consequently, though I wouldn't buy the collection of movie theme songs that comprises "Songs from the silver screen" if anyone else were the singer, Jackie Evancho can and does pull these songs out of their cinematic boxes, dusts them off, and sets them going in a new direction. You might say they get Jackified. High-Jackied? (This is where my wife tells me to stop messing around and get down to business.)

I'll add some thought to the individual songs, in the order in which they appear on the CD. I won't talk about the movies they come from by & large because Jackie recontextualizes them-her approach is so original it really only makes sense to consider them afresh.

1. Pure Imagination

The intro-a lush assemblage of celeste, flute, veils of strings, echo-reflects the Pretty Serious Treatment this song gets. After Jackie starts singing, a drumset pulls it into a midtempo piece marked by discreet rimshots and flurries of orchestration that create a kind of musical dialogue with Jackie's singing.

This is the kind of arrangement that David Foster has parlayed into a small fortune, so it's popular, and it's well-executed here by seasoned studio musicians.

The question for me is how would it compare with the singer doing the song acapella? Not that acapella is necessarily better-just that it's my starting point. The equivalent of zero-based budgeting in economics. Here my impression is that the arrangement sets a mood clearly. It intends to wrap you in a kind of Wall O' Sound that generates its own little universe-one which embodies the concept of "aesthetic distance" I learned about in college philosophy classes. The goal with this arrangement is, I believe, to make you feel something about that song that's neither intense nor pallid-that is, definitely engaged, but not weeping or laughing either. Fairly calm.

This is the metier of so-called "easy listening" music found in elevators and supermarkets. "Pure Imagination" is a definite step up from string arrangements of Beatles songs (which can drive me out of a market). And the arrangement may be appropriate for the song, whose lyrics talk about the joys of imagination, but not of the imagination found in, say, Goya's terrifying tributes to the brutal Napoleanic invasion of his country early in the 19th century. This is more like the imagination of lying on your back with your sweetie on a calm summer's day and imagining what animals the little puffy clouds in the sky look like.

So if this song, then this arrangement may be most appropriate for the Jackie classical crossover treatment. I hope Jackie never picks a song as musically lackluster as this again, but as I said earlier, I see this CD as her farewell to childhood, and I guess she enjoyed the movie. The song may not deserve her love, but her loving, sincere treatment certainly makes it all it can be/

2. The Music of the Night

Here's a song more worthy of Ms. Evancho's art. It shows off her passion, her rich lower range, her soaring high notes, her attention to the meaning of the lyrics-in this case a song sung by a criminal psychopath attempting to seduce a young female singer by appealing to a modicum of darkness swirling around inside her.

In her TV special Jackie sang this wearing a tuxedo with ruffled sleeves and high heels, and the outfit combined with her absolute authority as regards this song, made for a commanding presence and presentation. I tell you this because when you hear her sing it I want you to visualize Jackie singing it in a tux-and doing so convincingly. It's pretty stunning to hear how Jackie phrases this song perfectly. Listen to it five times in a row, as I just did, and you'll just marvel more and more at what an awe-inspiring singer this girl is, and how she brings her "old soul" to a song I wouldn't have dreamed a 12 year old child from a near-idyllic background could grasp a very adult song like this so well, leaving not a moment of her performance to chance. And she does it just about as well in live performance-so this doesn't represent a tribute to the producer's art. It's a tribute to Jackie's-her art and her emotional intensity.

I said she recontextualizes everything she does. This is one of the best examples. She first heard this when she saw the movie at age 7, and by all accounts it had an electric effect on her. My guess is that she felt something inside made her different from every other kid she knew. Not consciously, nor to anyone else either. She hadn't known anyone could make a sound like what she heard before this, as far as I know.

She was different, she felt it, and within a year or so everyone around her knew it as well. Not just the ability to sing well-but also the passion to become world-famous for what she does, and the drive and discipline to make that happen. You can't tell what she is by looking at her playing with her family and friends, or even from seeing her in concert. It's the in-between times that make her different-the concentration it takes to learn a song the way she learns a song, the acceptance of a life less ordinary-a life spent on airplanes and in hotel rooms and strange cities (from St. Petersburg to Tokyo so far), and through it all never to waver from her goals.

Greatness isolates. That's the "darkness" inside her. Not evil. But, in a deep sense, solitary. And at odds with the friendly, bubbly, social kid who is also Jackie Evancho. There's a price for fame, and she's already paying it-and accepts that price.

And in her last, sustained note of this song, if you listen to subtly disturbing chord progression underneath it, you can hear that darkness in a way that isn't obvious musically in the rest of the song. Actually it starts out, musically, rather innocuously. It's the very end that puts into music what the words have been saying all along. The chord progression finally resolves, but it leaves a dark residue behind in your mind.

3. Can You Feel the Love

I think Elton John did an admirable job with this song, elevating it above the normal forgettable Disney fare. And Jackie does it more than justice, down to the smallest detail. Such as the way she sings "moment" the first time in the song, lingering on the "n" before adding the "t' instead of making it one sound as we mostly do. This kind of thing isn't an affectation the way she does it-listen to the moment she sings "moment" and see if it doesn't make perfect musical/lyrical sense to do it as she does it.

This is also a good example of Jackie's "aspirational" mode. She does a lot of aspirational songs, and this is largely devoid of that sad undercurrent you can sense in some other songs she does. It's uplifting. Makes you want to go out and accomplish something-something worthy.

4. Reflection

This too is aspirational, and Jackie has said how close to her heart it is. It's about living behind a mask, struggling to break free. Most of us first encountered Jackie on America's Got Talent at the age of 10. But she'd been competing-and mostly losing-in local and regional competitions for 2 ½ years by that point, trying to get somewhere, sending in audition tapes to talk shows (that were never answered). Meanwhile you have to imagine how most people-peers and adults-treated her. She's small (even for her age) and cute and friendly. It's a miracle her mom took her seriously, but most people around her-and it was reasonable, really-just saw a little kid whose big dreams were what most little kids' big dreams are-talk.

You can hear all that remembered struggle in the impassioned way she sings this song. Yes, it's a kid's song, a Disney cartoon song, only slightly more memorable than most of its ilk. But even if Jackie gives it more TLC than it deserves, when she sings it you believe it and her. She means every word. You can't buy that sort of conviction at any price, and her rendition makes the song into something it didn't start out being.

5. The Summer Knows

How does a 12 year old kid from the `burbs who wears a Promise Ring sing a song like this, and sing it with such conviction, double entendres and all? This is a bittersweet pop standard that's an inch away from being the blues. I'm sure if you put the question to Jackie, she'd just shrug and say "I dunno." This is serious right-brain stuff, so it's not surprising her 12 year old left brain can't wrap words around what she does here.

And to some extent she's leveraging your own understanding of summer flings recalled with a mixture of pleasure and regret-the literary convention of "ubi sunt" ("those were the days"). She know exactly how to make the music. You know how to use the music she made to trigger and contextualize your own recollections to make up your total experience.

The true artist doesn't have to have had all the exact experiences he puts in his art. He just has to understand joy and sorrow, attraction and repulsion, regret and's up to you to fill in the details specific to each of our lives.

That said, I'm impressed by her tackling this song in this album. It becomes progressively harder to think that there's any kind of song she can't do, and do exceptionally well.

I'm sure some Concerned Parent types will have fits over songs like this. I would direct their attention to the many, many thousands of abused and neglected children leading tragic and often brief existences in America and abroad. Just because Jackie sings about adult topics doesn't mean she's in a hurry to experience them personally-but neither is she interested in avoiding knowing about the world as it is, warts and all. This is a very clear-eyed child whose mother has said she doesn't wall her four kids off from reality. And Jackie strikes me as having a lot of personal discipline-and judgment. Her campaigning on behalf of animal welfare is part and parcel of this. I wouldn't be surprised if as an adult she didn't get involved in the sorts of human welfare activities that responsible celebrities like Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie pursue.

6. I See the Light

A sort of love song from a charming Disney movie becomes a tribute to freedom and brotherly-sisterly affect in this duet with Jackie's older brother Jacob. Jacob has a pleasant, clear young teenage boy's voice-any church choir would be delighted to have him. And he shows the pitch sense his celebrity sister is known for. I don't think singing will be his direction, but the occasional duet with Jackie will be very, very sweet. Jackie has a special bond with Jacob because after leaving her primary school to travel the world performing, Jacob left too and has been her constant companion on the road. You can see how much he means to her when they perform together.

I wouldn't want more than one song on an album to be a Jackie-Jacob duet, but one is great-and shows how Jackie can harmonize and blend beautifully, even with a weaker singer (no insult to Jacob-very few human beings aren't "weaker singers" than Jackie). Josh Groban is a great duetter, and I think Jackie will be one too.

7. What a wonderful world

A simple song can be a great song when it's done straightforwardly with great sincerity and the shaping Jackie does, so subtly you might not even notice the touches she's using to deliver the emotional content into your heart-unless you listen to it repeatedly. Her rendition of this could be the "required listening" for a master class in portamento-that's the note-bending that's usually not in the sheet music, but which keeps a song from sounding mechanical. I also appreciated the restraint of the arrangement here.

Listen to how she sings "for me and you" in the first verse, just for one example. She turns "and" into a multinoted piece of musical perfection that expresses the emotional import of that simple conjunction, tying her and the loved one she's singing to in something that's more of an embrace than an association. All those pitiful American Idol singers thrusting gospel licks into every bar should listen to what portamento can accomplish when it's used with refinement, in the service of the lyrics, and not just for showing off one's vocal agility.

Because Jackie never shows off. Everything she does musically, she does in the service of the song. This is a key element of her musical genius. She never gives in to the sort of diva-yodeling that has made Christina Aguilera much less of a singer than she could be.

8. Se

This is another of her trademark aspirational-yet-poignant songs. I don't speak Italian and haven't looked up the lyrics. Instead I treat it as a gorgeous vocalise, filling in the content with visual associations, of which I have many, having traveled in 17 countries (not including Italy however).

I think this uses Morricone's own arrangement, and it complements Jackie's power and subtlety nicely. I hope the maestro hears it and appreciates what a wonderful gift Jackie has given him. And musically I think many would agree that it's the best song on the CD, exploiting her range, expressiveness, tenderness, compassion, hope, love....I have no idea whether Jackie can express any emotion that isn't admirable. She's never done so. I'm thinking something heartless and heartbreaking like the love duet from Die Dreigroschenoper " (Kurt Weill/Bartolt Brecht) ( But admirable-emotionwise, she Da Man.

9. My Heart Will Go On

Most pop music fans think Celine Dion owns this song. No more. I predicted a couple of years ago that when Jackie tackles a song it becomes her property from then on. This rendition, accompanied by Joshua Bell (one of the most famous violinists alive), is so ineluctable I now hear it even when remembering the memorable images from Jim Cameron's movie. And her amazingly long, delicate, held note at the end shows that she's rapidly outgrowing the breathing challenges her tiny body imposed on her at age 10.

When songs have been out there as much as this one has they often/usually become a cliche, a hackneyed shadow of themselves, even when done well. But on this CD "My heart will go on" have been given a second life. Jackie ace with songs like this is her evident sincerity. Can't fake that. She makes you believe her and the song. Package deal. I hope she never sings a jingle for a junk food restaurant. That would be the death of me, I fear.

10. Come What May

Here Jackie transforms the impassioned love duet from "Moulin Rouge" into a duet with The Tenors-formerly known as The Canadian Tenors. It would be hard to overstate just how well she does pitting her voice, coming out of her 4'9" frame or whatever it is now, against three grown men who are all professional singers. She holds her own and then some, not to mention producing some of the spine-tingling harmonies I've heard in a long, long time.

And it's fascinating to hear how she negotiates this emotional territory. I doubt she's been in love yet, and this is anything but steamy, but as with "Nessun Dorma," what she puts out is utterly convincing.

Note that she isn't just singing the melody-she sings a descant for much of it, showing that there are sopranos out there who can sing something besides the melody.

This song is an anthem-big sound, big passions, big orchestral accompaniment, four big voices-honestly it's kind of stunning. I sure hope she does more work with these guys-the four of them are a powerhouse combination.

Playing it for this review, I had to stop the playback for a minute before going on to the next song, just to let its reverberations die down in my head, and to mentally replay bits of it, like the first place she shifts into a descant and one of the tenors goes onto the melody. Ay caramba.

I pity the people who are too tragically hip to hear what's here. I absolutely love Miles Davis' "So what" which is still so hip it's almost too hip to exist on this planet. But there's room in my heart for that and for this, and there should be in yours too.

11. Some Enchanted Evening

In concert Jackie has said this song embodies what she imagines her first love might feel like. And she's taken a song written for an operatic bass-and a male character, naturally-in one of the most iconic musicals ever. No problemo. Change a few pronouns and she's off to the races.

Off to the races against what I'd call a revisionist orchestration. It's fully in keeping with the other original arrangements on this CD-lush, lots of strings, unrhythmed intro followed by a rhythmed body of the song, marked mostly by rim shots (hitting the wooden frame of a drum with a drumstick).

I'm a little ambivalent about the arrangement, which seeks that "aesthetic distance" I talked about earlier, while Jackie's own singing is anything but mannered, as the accompaniment seems-to me-to call for. Personally I'd love to have heard her singing this to the original Rogers & Hammerstein arrangement, which I think is better suited to Jackie's sincerity.

Just speculating but I wonder if the arranger tried to "lighten the mood" in view of Jackie's age? If so I disapprove. Jackie can take care of herself musically, and "Come what may" shows what Jackie can do when she's given the opportunity to go straight ahead into the passionate depths of a song instead of floating around in an inner tube. This arrangement would be great for a Perry Como. Not for someone like Jackie.

Doesn't mean I won't listen to this song, but I may fiddle with my home theater settings to try to foreground-ize her voice more and push the accompaniment into the background more.

12. When I fall in love

Same kind of arrangement here, again somewhat undercutting Jackie's approach. I look forward to the day she takes charge of every aspect of her CDs' production, as I'm sure she will.

The song itself is both romantic and clear-eyed. It's a song by someone who's been around the block-rode hard and put away wet, as a cowboy might say-so it's kind of minor keyed, which you don't expect in the average love long. Of course it's a song about falling in love rather than a love song per se, but still...the lyrics say that these things often don't work out, while at the same time saying that the person singing is ready to go all in with the right person-100%-which I'm guessing is also how Jackie sees things and will continue to see things.

This song choice is more proof that Jackie's an Old Soul. This is very sober romanticism-no blinders on at all. No effort to make the world any different than it is, while still maintaining her own lofty goals in life.

It puts her mark on the ground. As does the whole album.


Jackie did a movie theme song on her last album-"Lovers" from the Chinese epic "House of Flying Daggers." Makes you think she'd like to do movie theme songs. I hope Hollywood is paying attention (and Paris and Rome for that matter, since she sings well in French, Italian, and Latin, as well as in English).

The only problem is that a song that fully exploited her range and other capabilities couldn't be sung by most pop singers. But what an instrument for a movie composer to exploit.

Meanwhile you can do your bit by buying this CD. For Jackie's hardcore fans that's a no-brainer. But even if you aren't partial to the Classical Crossover genre-and I'm not myself, actually, apart from Jackie-there's a lot here that you won't find elsewhere.

Because no one sings like Jackie, regardless of age. People say "one of a kind" just as hyperbole, and then it sounds hackneyed when it's actually true.

As is the case here.

Now go buy the thing. I'm going to go and play the album again.