CD: “Get Happy” (Jenny Lin, 18 tracks, Steinway & Sons, 2012)
Frances and Iggy are celebrating their 50th anniversary in our local restaurant. They are both good, solid characters who worked their entire lives, Life probably beat up on them at some point along the way. Frances paints her purplish-red lipstick on with an angular sash and trim brush, Her smile has grown lop-sided over the years. Iggy’s rugged hands are bent and arthritic from decades of heavy work, with which he cups Frances’ hand over the table. They are still both deeply in love. They share decanters of a modest house red. The dining area sound system is playing a melange of old traditional favorites like “Begin the Beguine” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
Frances rolls her eyes in ecstasy. “Oh, Iggy, ain’t it lovely ta hear these again after all these years?”
Iggy concurs. “Frannie my love, it’s like we was back again at the old high school dance where we was first introduced at.”
Well, no, not really. It isn’t like that at all.
Jenny Lin was born in Taiwan, educated in the United States and Europe, and is an internationally known pianist of considerable talent and some renown. Amazon lists a number of her classical CD’s and “MP3 albums” promenading works of several obscure composers and three I have heard of: Liszt, Schumann and Shostakovitch. I sampled a couple of those. I’d rate her performance as noticeably talented if not enchanting. Sometimes in her keyboard work I hear traces of Debussy. Her published listings also include a number of attempts at popular and movie tunes.
The problem with “Get Happy” is it’s part music and part metaphor: not quite like anything you want to hear again.
It isn’t quite traditional. It’s not trad jazz. It’s not jazz improv, I don’t believe music needs to conform to strictly enforced centuries-old standards. Most of all, music of any genre needs to have integrity, and here “Get Happy” doesn’t quite have what it takes.
In the signature song track “Get Happy,” we keep expecting Lin to segue into “What’s It All About Alfie.” There are too many skipped and rushed notes, too many transitions for transition’s sake, and, worst of all, enough unwarranted show-off embellishments, frills and irrelevant musical lace to make Liberace blush.
One of many problems with this album is that occasionally Lin gets it right, as In the best-remembered bars of the title old favorite “Get Happy,” Lin makes you want to shout “YES!” as she re-creates the core feeling you remember even if you had not heard that song for forty years. But then Lin shatters it with mindless “look at me, I can play good, huh?” riffs that broadcast how she just doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. She doesn’t know when to play and when to quit.
In that wonderful old Gershwin favorite “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess, Lin’s keyboard work is so good that you really want to believe she’s going to make it work! Here is an incredible love story that listeners of all ages know and depend on for a memorable emotional experience. Lin turns it into sanitized piano lounge music, showing off the pianist’s skill, not the heart and soul of the composer’s gift to us, It’s just music that never distracts the attention of patrons sharing house wine in their own private worlds.
Those of us lucky enough to remember Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful musical “The King and I,” or the Yul Brynner movie of the same name, can immediately recall the dramatic contest of wills between the King of Siam and his children’s British tutor, Anna. The story line develops into an electrifying romance. Lin almost turns this song into a “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”
The delightful “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound Of Music, prompts us all to remember Julie Andrews teaching the Von Trapp children the disciplines and joys of harmonized song. Here in particular, in my opinion, Lin ruins that magic with a Niagara of trills, frills, and randomly improvised little embellishments. In monitoring this track I had to re-check iTunes to make sure Lin was still playing the same song I’d selected.
For me, Lin’s “Get Happy” release rarely augments the personal listening experience. It invariably muddies and distracts. It annoys in the same manner as when your sweetheart says “they say it’s going to rain tomorrow” but you have just said “I love you.” Where did that come from?
For all her talents, Lin plays most of her 18 track selections like one of those brilliant autistic kids who has never heard a composition before, but can play it – in metronome perfection with a few off-the-wall frills – after hearing a few bars..
For my money, I believe I’m right on about Lin’s overall performance, but I’m baffled about the rationale behind this release. Perhaps the fact the CD was produced and released by a leading piano manufacturer, rather than by normal recording labels, should have been a tip-off. This NASCAR special has been brought to you by Castrol. Only $15.63 for 18 laps.
Not everyone likes the same kid of music, or asks the same kinds of things from it. So, if perhaps you disagree with me, I hope you’ll buy Iggy and Frances a drink. They’re going to have hangovers tomorrow anyway, so the house red would probably still be a welcome choice.
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