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Natalie Douglas BACK TO THE GARDEN Starts Club44 Pairing Well

For their maiden voyage, the classy label and classic crooner start out right.

Cabaret superstar (come on, now, you know she’s earned it) Natalie Douglas has made a heavenly alliance with Club44 Records, and the merry band of music makers has been teasing and tantalizing fans of Douglas and of great music, these last few months, with well-timed single releases of songs everyone knows (or should know), performed in the inimitable Douglas style, whetting the appetite for the feast for the ears that was to come.  Well, on February 23rd, the feast arrived and not only was it worth waiting for, it may, well, claim a spot as one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best albums of Natalie’s career.

That is a bold statement to make, I realize, when you consider the musical offerings Natalie Douglas has provided the industry in the past, including an entire album devoted to honoring the legendary Nina Simone.  The truth is that all of the albums that the many-times-over MAC Award-winning artist has released land somewhere in between sublime and perfection, but that’s pretty much the way Natalie Douglas does her art.  So let’s talk about why BACK TO THE GARDEN is so good.

First of all, the good people at Club44 Records have placed their faith, their trust, and all of their backbone into this new relationship, taking the time to make sure that every aspect of the album is carried out and presented with the utmost tender loving care and professionalism.  By simple virtue of listening to the recording, and considering the timing of the single releases, it is clear that Club44 is invested in creating a platinum setting for this jewel of an artist, as well as building a home where she will be free and nurtured into making the art that she wants to make, as she wants to make it.  This is one of those times when you can tell an artist has the backing of their label.  How else could the Fanalies be treated to so varied a collection of songs, each of them allowed to live in the era in which they were created, alongside other compositions from decades flanking them on two sides?   Natalie Douglas is showing in her curation of Back To The Garden, so much so that I found myself wondering if the title of the album (taken from the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock”) wasn’t the natural choice for Natalie Douglas because she is taking her listeners back in time to many musical gardens full of delight, gardens that delight her. 
The Big Band opener, Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine,” grabs you by the gullet, ever so gently but insistently, saying, “Are you ready to have some fun?” and the answer is YES.  Yes, you are ready to have fun visiting these vintage compositions that lean into the 30s (that classy Cole Porter tune ), the 70s (the Roberta Flack ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” performed at the highest level), the 20s (a deliciously jazzy “Who” by Kern, Hammerstein, and Harbach), the 60s (a long-lost song relating to the musical Oliver!), the 40s (a lush and romantic “You’ll Never Know”) and back up to the 80s with an appropriate album-ender, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”  The entire listening experience is like a history lesson in popular music from the last one hundred years, which should surprise nobody, since so much of Natalie Douglas’s career has been spent studying, presenting, honoring, and preserving that which has come before, and those who brought it to life.

But this is Natalie’s turn to bring it to life.  And even though there are respectful foundations in each track, based on original arrangements, performances, and treatments, Natalie Douglas is an artist, and she will tell these stories in the Natalie Douglas style.  And we are all the luckier for it.  You may find yourself shocked at the proficiency of Natalie Douglas’s vocal technique (although why would you, we’ve all become so used to it over the years).  And yet I did.  I’ve been a fan of the lady’s for years, and she can still surprise me, and I’m so glad.  Right off the top, with the Porter tune, the control she has over the first half of the song is mind blowing, and then, out of nowhere WHAM!, comes the belt and the high notes.  What a way to start!  But then comes the Roberta Flack number, and Flack is in the room, but this is all Douglas… and some breathtaking piano solos from Mark Hartman.  It’s like they were recording a show in the exact running order for a performance, only without the audience.  The story they are telling is very much in place, with the song providing the album title elegantly sliding into the third track… not the first, not final, the third track.  That’s style, and so is the choice to use all of the Douglas aesthetic, from the sighs of the voice to the size of the flirts, on a modern-day, sultry and seductive performance of the 1967 Disney classic “Trust In Me” from The Jungle Book.  It’s more than bold, it’s audacious - and it’s in line with what one can expect from Natalie Douglas, as is the presence of Nina Simone’s powerful “Work Song.”  Of course Natalie Douglas is going to do a Nina Simone Song, and of course it’s strong, intentional, and ferocious.  Of course.
But equally powerful is the feeling one gets while listening to Natalie Douglas meld into every moment, every emotion, every movement.  There is a fluidity to her singing that you don't hear with everyone.  Sometimes it feels like she is playing the song from start to finish on a minimum of breathing.   There is no staccato.  There are seemless transitions from one sentence to another, from one stanza to the next, as the words and lyrics all slide together, connected to each other, and connecting the listener.  You may have never noticed it before, that's how effortless it is - but you'll never miss it, now.  You're welcome.

There are 11 songs on this 46-minute album and it wouldn’t do, not a bit, to give away all the twists and turns, and the secrets and surprises, so I’m leaving some doors unopened, but it wouldn’t be right or fair to close this down without saying that Natalie Douglas has recorded a new song, a lovely new ballad written expressly for her by Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey. “Love Is The Power That Heals Me” is the track that grabbed me the most, as I listened to the album on Spotify while enjoying a walk around New York City.  Maybe it's because it's a new song and I was enjoying getting to know it, maybe it's because Haun and Lindsey have done a bang-on job, not just writing a great song, but writing a song just for Natalie Douglas.  And she owns it.  It fits her just like a pair of bejeweled glasses created just for her.  It also fits this album properly because there are influences in the song, musically and lyrically, that come straight out of the past.  This new composition has strains that will make you feel nostalgic for the 70s, the 90s, the radio, the pop singers, the songwriters, the artists who gave us the music that we have loved, the music that inspired Natalie Douglas to do this work, the music that surrounds this new entry on the album.  It's a classy composition and a new classic that many people will want to sing it.  But it was Natalie's first, and never should there ever be a concert or cabaret in which she does not sing it.  It’s a wonderful new song on an exceptional new album created by what may be a new musical family, today, but that should be one that stands the test of time.

For Singer Natalie Douglas, There Aren’t Enough Genres To Hold All Her Songs and Ideas

Douglas’s singing is equal parts pop, jazz, country, musical theater, cabaret, soul, … the list goes on. As with the Grateful Dead, her every show is unique.

An excellent podcast series, “99% Invisible,” recently devoted an episode to the history of the cassette tape, and concluded that the most rewarding use of that medium was made by legions of fans of the Grateful Dead, who went around taping that band’s concerts and exchanging copies of those tapes with each other. The jazz equivalents of those Deadheads were the followers of a pioneering Afro Futurist big band leader, Sun Ra, who likewise took it upon themselves to record every show.

The contemporary artist who most deserves to be documented in such a fashion is the singer Natalie Douglas. During her album-launch show on a recent evening, Ms. Douglas announced to the crowd that this was her 82nd appearance at Birdland over 20 years — and most have been unique, individual shows. 

Ms. Douglas is a master of that presentation format known as the songbook, with special regard for the musical catalogs of such larger-than-life Black icons as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, and Shirley Bassey. She also focuses on women who write their own songs and thus chart the course of their own musical destiny, like Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, and Nina Simone. I was present for most of these shows, at Birdland, 54 Below, and elsewhere, and I would love to have pro-quality soundboard tapes of all of them.

Now, Ms. Douglas has a new album — only her fourth — and rather than be overwhelmed with choices as to what specific show to record, she made the logical decision of offering a potpourri of songs without any obvious connection to each other, apart from that they’re all representative of her favorite artists and biggest influences. 

It’s an ambitious album, produced by Wayne Haun and Kris Crunk, with strings, horns, and full orchestras on many tracks, yet it doesn’t sound overproduced — or, worse, overprocessed. Natalie sounds like Natalie.

“Back to the Garden” contains a bit of everything, and reflects Ms. Douglas’s major strengths, showing how diversity and consistency can work hand in hand. Her singing is equal parts pop, jazz, country, musical theater, cabaret (whatever that might mean), soul, R&B … the list goes on. You run out of genres well before she runs out of songs and ideas.  

A number like Gilbert Bécaud’s “Let It Be Me” — a 1955 French song that became a hit for a rockabilly duo, the Everly Brothers, and later was taken up by Elvis Presley — is precisely her jam.

The album opens with a tidy, concise reading of “Begin the Beguine,” rendered as a straightforward swinger; Cole Porter’s longest ear worm, the melody is so extended that it only requires one chorus to fill up an entire track. She seamlessly intermingles what we would think of as Great American Songbook Standards, like Harry Warren’s “You’ll Never Know” delivered with disarming honesty, with gems from the singer-songwriter era, like Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” in which she was supported at Birdland by a unique, four-handed piano accompaniment.  

Jerome Kern’s blithely innocent “Who?” takes its place in the same line-up as Oscar Brown’s bitterly tinged protest number, “Work Song” — and it’s amazing that this elegant woman in a stylish gown can make us visualize convicts “breakin’ rocks out here on the chain gang” so vividly.

Even after decades of catching Ms. Douglas at Birdland as often as possible, she offers surprises. One major discovery is “He Lives in a World of His Own,” a highly James Bond-centric song, written by a Bond-centric composer, Lionel Bart, for a Bond-centric singer, Shirley Bassey, although never officially recorded by anyone until now. 

Appropriately, the arranging team dresses it up with the electric bass notes and swirling strings of a vintage Bond theme. This is as close as Ms. Douglas comes to belting, but she’s still a much more nuanced and subtle singer than those millennial pop stars recruited to blast away on recent spy epics.

At Birdland last Monday, Ms. Douglas performed the whole album from start to finish. She’s been dropping hints, previews, and advance singles for months. 

The first two that I heard were Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and the Sherman Brothers’s “Trust in Me” from “The Jungle Book.” Somehow those two songs suggested a narrative unto itself: One is about a snake seducing us to give in to temptation; Ms. Douglas makes it seem like a hipper precedent to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of the Night.” The other, which gave us the album’s title, is about the search for innocence, the notion of a new beginning for mankind by using the epic 1969 rock music festival as a return to a biblical Eden. 

Possibly here is yet another theme that Ms. Douglas could explore in a future show.

The studio album has charm galore, particularly in the orchestrations and arrangements by Mr. Haun and Joel Mott, but to get the full flavor of Ms. Douglas’s presence you need to catch the live shows — the wide-eyed greeting, “Hi kids,” her understated sense of humor, topped off with a Valley Girl-ish squeal of a laugh, her shtick revolving around the cabaret tradition of the not-very-spontaneous encore. Even her pitch for the crowd to buy her CDs is adorable: “Think of it as reparations.”
- Will Friedwald,

Back to the Garden – Natalie Douglas (Club44 Records)

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

The larger-than-life New York chanteuse Natalie Douglas and her infectious giggle have been welcome annual visitors to The Pheasantry, the renowned Chelsea cabaret nightspot, for many years but is still far better known in her home country – she’s a regular at that Manhattan landmark Birdland, her musical home – than here.

This new album, her first for Club44 Records, can only enhance her reputation as one of the great modern storytellers in song as it underscores a vocal range that can switch from powerhouse to soulful clarity in a heartbeat and demonstrates her versatility in handling in her own special way all manner of material.
From folk classics like ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and reimaginings of pop standards such as ‘True Colors’, a big-band arrangement of Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ and a rock-influenced version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ through to an Oscar-winning song ‘You’ll Never Know’ from the 1943 movie Hello, Frisco, Hello and a jazz-age take on ‘Who?’, written by the prolific Kern/Hammerstein/Harbach team for the 1925 Broadway musical Sunny, this lady holds you under her spell.

Of most interest to British musical theatre buffs will be ‘He Lives in a World of His Own’, a little-known Lionel Bart love song written in 1966 for Shirley Bassey’s audition for the movie version of Oliver! She didn’t get Nancy, the role going to Shani Wallis, and the song didn’t make it either, ending up on a rare acetate tape and largely forgotten until unearthed by Douglas when researching her Bassey tribute show. Sung so touchingly and with such yearning, it’s surprising nothing has been done with it for so long.

No surprise though to find a raw Nina Simone chain-gang number ‘Work Song’ in there as Simone was her “inspiration in all things” or to find a track from The Jungle Book – ‘Trust in Me’, known as The Python’s Song and composed by Walt Disney staffers Robert and Richard Sherman – as she’d been a Disney fan from an early age, as we all were.

Douglas wouldn’t have needed much persuading to include a gentle new ballad by her new Club44 colleagues Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey called ‘Love is the Power That Heals’ but the one that resonates most with me is ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ because its author, folkie and political activist Ewan MacColl, and his paramour (later third wife), Pete Seeger’s half-sister Peggy, sang it at my folk club in Buckinghamshire in the early 1960s before the big stars picked it up and covered it.

It was written for Peggy after MacColl had been challenged to write a love song, most of his previous work being about industrial unrest and coal miners. The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash and Elvis himself all recorded it before the extraordinarily beautiful Roberta Flack version turned into a mega-hit worldwide in 1971-72. MacColl, grumpy at the best of times, is reported to have hated them all.

The Douglas version is gently beautiful too and a standout on a rich collection that’s hard to resist. But this lady with the big personality and chatter that stops only when she bursts into glorious song is best seen. She returns to The Pheasantry from 9-11 May. Not to be missed.

Club44 Records 


Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" brightly begins the group of 11 songs titled Back to the Garden, the new release by singer Natalie Douglas. She's somewhat of a cabaret chameleon; her vocal sounds can be honeyed or husky, tender or torchy, and she shifts gears from cozy crooning to belting climaxes–sometimes within the same song. She can effectively seem fragile or forceful (with, respectively, the romance-besotted "You'll Never Know" and the point of view of a prisoner breaking rocks on a chain gang in "Work Song").

Back to the Garden is named for a line in Joni Mitchell's tale of "Woodstock," its lyric receiving an involved reading, while the music gets a driving rock beat. The set's oldest selection is the spry 99-year-old "Who?" (Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein & Otto Harbach, from the musical Sunny), which is bouncy and cheery, while the newest is the fervid declaration "Love Is the Power That Heals Me," written expressly for Natalie Douglas by the record label's founders Joel Lindsey and Wayne Haun, who are among the producers, the latter also providing orchestrations. Musicians include the singer's longtime music director/pianist, Mark Hartman.

The debut recording by Natalie Douglas was back in 1999 and until now there have only been two others, so fans of the popular performer will be gratified to know she got back to the recording studio for Back to the Garden.
- Rob Lester, Sound Advice Reviews Talkin' BROADWAY

Photo by Jeremy Ryan

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