Songbook Summit: Harold Arlen

The Anderson Brothers home away from home, 59E59 Theaters, is currently host to their Songbook Summit paying tribute to four icons of the genre: Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers. Each program displays skill and finesse in jazz representations of a celebrated talent lead by the multi-faceted musicians. Each offers fetching vocals by Molly Ryan. Music is bridged with film and stills showing the celebrant and various artists as well as Will Anderson’s illuminating mini-biography.

Harold Arlen born Hyman Arluck (1905-1986) was one of the least visible and most respected composers in the industry. Irving Berlin said, “I respect Gershwin, but I envy Arlen.” George Gershwin observed, “He’s the best of all of us.” You know his work even if unfamiliar with his name.


Arlen began his career as a teenager, had his first hit “Get Happy” (lyric Ted Koehler) at 24, and went on to write over 500 songs. With Yip Harburg, he’s responsible for the beloved  score of The  Wizard of Oz. “Over the Rainbow” was voted the twentieth century’s No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. (We hear the origin story of this song which was disparaged by every film executive.) Ryan’s version is tender, ethereal. Peter’s clarinet and Will’s flute sound like backstroking birds. Piano buoys.

“As Long As I Live” finds Peter executing seamless, quick-fingered transitions as he slides, skates and briefly lifts off on sax. Where his brother’s interpretation rounds corners, Will comes in sharp, zigzagging, emphatic. Peter leans back almost looking up. Will leans forward sometimes. They watch one another perform with palpable pride.

Arlen and Gershwin, Will notes, were the two composers most responsible for integrating black musical influence i. e. jazz into The American Songbook. Ryan’s “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” (lyric Ted Koehler) emerges with signature control and shadowy source of that back throat vibrato. The vocalist doesn’t stress. She’s despairing not agonizing. Words don’t so much end as dissolve into the atmosphere.

Jeb Patton, Peter Anderson, Clovis Nicolas, Will Anderson, Phil Stewart

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” (lyric Yip Harburg/Billy Rose) begins with only piano, then veers up tempo. The highly lauded “Stormy Weather” (lyric Ted Koehler) was dismissed by its author as minimal. Here Ryan is silken while the Andersons play clarinets like whipping winds. “That Old Black Magic” (lyric Johnny Mercer) arrives as black and white film nightclub mambo. A bright, bouncy “Accentuate the Positive” i.e. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (lyric Johnny Mercer) strings phrases together like paper chains.

The piano sax duet of “One For My Baby” One More for the Road (lyric Johnny Mercer) is a highlight. Peter’s sax seems to sigh, shake its musical head and occasionally kick the bar. Nuanced piano strolls. Pianist Jeb Patton also renders a lovely, meandering “A Sleeping Bee”(lyric Harold Arlen/Truman Capote)

Film clips show Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, and Arlen himself on fine piano. Will conjectures that Arlen’s most prominent lyricists each brought something to his style: Ted Koehler-directness, Yip Harburg- wit and Johnny Mercer-cool.

A single non-Arlen composition, “The Royal Standard” by Peter Anderson is played in honor of the musicians’ teacher, Joe Temperly for whom two Julliard saxophone scholarships have been established.

We close with one of Harold Arlen’s early, Cotton Club songs, the breezy “I’ve Got the World On a String” (lyric Ted Koehler).                                                                                     The show is introduction, reminder, and salute; well put together, well performed.

Photos by Lynn Redmile
Opening: Jeb Patton, Molly Ryan, Peter Anderson, Clovis Nicolas, Will Anderson

Peter and Will Anderson present
Songbook Summit: Harold Arlen
Peter Anderson-Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax, Clarinet
Will Anderson- Alto Sax, Clarinet, Flute
Molly Ryan- Vocals
Jeb Patton- Piano; Clovis Nicolas-Bass, Phil Stewart-Drums
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through August 13, 2017
Coming Up: George Gershwin- August 15-20
Richard Rodgers August 22-27

About Alix Cohen (1190 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.