All too often are the Christmas and winter charts filled with compilation albums of either songs from Hollywood or Broadway, most often performed by an artist in dire need of a paycheck. Personally, I, like many, have a soft spot for these albums because frankly, I enjoy the songs.
There’s something warming about the familiarity of hearing songs we all know or recognise and the inevitable link between silver-screen imagery and the Broadway magic we associate with it. On paper, Viktoria Tolstoy’s Meet Me At The Movies seems like the perfect imagining for this kind of compilation album. With producer Nils Landgren (a stalwart of the Swedish Jazz scene) at the helm and appearing on trombone, supported by Mattias Svennsson on bass, Rasmus Kihlberg on Drums, Krister Jonsson on guitar and Iiro Rantala on keys, all of whom have previously worked with Tolstoy, the album looks great on paper. One reason I became excited about this album was the rejection of orchestral arrangements. Tolstoy opted to retain that Jazz-trio sound, giving freedom and technicality to these new arrangements. Not only does this allow us to hear each player retain their individuality, but breathes new life into songs that we’ve all heard a thousand times over.
As a Jazz album, some might call it formulaic. Most of the tracks have the familiar standard construction of verse, chorus, verse broken up by an instrumental. Personally, in this context, I feel that this decision was a strong one, showcasing each player and element individually.
“mostly a near-perfect, eclectic album of songs from the movies”
As Time Goes By, the second track of the album, is a great example of how the standard structure works to Tolstoy’s -and her band’s- advantage. The song, from 1949’s Casablanca, is a standard in every sense of the word; having been covered by the likes of Tony Bennett, Andy Williams and Vera Lynn. It feels as though Tolstoy’s understanding of the canon of music with which she works is very much on show, opting to “not-fix what’s not broken” and instead focus on gorgeous vocals and clean playing from the band.
The choice of As Time Goes By might be seen as a safe bet, and would be so if the album were only filled with standards from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’. However, it is not. The repertoire of the album is eclectic and surprised me a little. It boasts songs from Fame, Batman Forever, Bagdad Cafe, Chaplin’s Modern Times and City of Angels. These are, clearly, not the films one would expect to see on an album of cinema-songs, and such daring choices put this album against the grain of how these collections often take shape. These selections are intelligent, in that listeners will be able to recognise them, and altered enough that Tolstoy and Landgren can create the dual sensation of novelty and recognition; although these songs have been transported into the jazz genre, they retain their familiarity – something that deserves credit and allows new audiences to access the genre. On compilation albums, there are always ballads chosen purely to show off a singer’s vocal range and power. Looking at the line up on Meet Me At The Movies, the obvious pick would be Out Here On My Own from the 1980 musical Fame. In the original, it is the cut-out piano ballad of the film- yet in Tolstoy’s framing, the song is finer and more restrained. It avoids the obvious choices to reach the upper register or to belt out the song, in favour of creating a more bittersweet track with grounded relationships between singer and band.
Whilst the album works on the whole and its choices well justified, there are a few tracks that do not quite match the sincerity found early in the album. Tolstoy’s more energetic cover of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel feels out of place, with its country-infused guitar and raised tempo. In this song, her vocal range is pushed- whilst her tone is still excellent, it feels a little strained in contest with the arrangement. The same can be said of A Kiss From A Rose, another heightened tempo arrangement of what was in its original incarnation a tender and powerful ballad performed originally by Seal, and featured in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. This new arrangement features electric guitars and a rock-infused vibe, which is a novel idea and not necessarily unsuccessful. However, it makes Tolstoy’s vocal performance seem hurried and removes any power the track might have had.
Tolstoy, Landgren and her band have produced what is mostly a near-perfect, eclectic album of songs from the movies, and is only let down by a section of the album that tries to push the album into unfamiliar territory, with tracks such as New World, A Kiss From A Rose and Angel. The album excels, however, in creating some stand-out new arrangements, such as the guitar and vocal combination on Chaplin’s Smile and Iiro Rentala’s refined piano on En Man (Marlowe’s Theme). To conclude, Meet Me at The Movies contains some excellent technicality but falls down slightly on its risk-taking.
Image: ACT Records