After years of exhaustively mining the late singer's catalogue for a series of definitive releases, the Matt Monro estate has turned up a new chest of buried treasure - and it's a collection that's both required listening for longtime fans and an ideal introduction for new ones. Stranger in Paradise: The Lost New York Sessions from Capitol Records/UMC takes listeners back to the Big Apple circa 1966 when the British singer joined with a quintet of jazz pros to record a different kind of album. The fruits of those sessions had never been released as originally intended, until now.
A great deal was riding on Matt Monro's signing to the U.S. Capitol label. A mainstay on its U.K. sister label Parlophone, Monro was enticed to join the American roster following the death of Nat "King" Cole in February 1965. Capitol had already withstood the loss of Frank Sinatra in 1960; Bobby Darin was poached by the label from Atlantic in 1962 but returned there less than four years later. There was a gap for a first-tier traditional pop singer which Monro could clearly fill with his smooth, pristine, resonant, and pitch-perfect voice.
His first two Capitol platters had been recorded in Hollywood. But when the label took notice of Monro's upcoming engagement at Manhattan's Persian Room, the powers-that-be booked him into a studio for a quintessentially "New York" project that would consist almost entirely of contemporary showtunes. Helmed by staff producer Dave Cavanaugh, the November 1966 sessions featured music from a diverse roster of Broadway musicals including Man of La Mancha ("The Impossible Dream"), Hello, Dolly! (the title anthem, in a rare ballad version), Mame (the touching and wistful "If She Walked Into My Life"), Fiddler on the Roof ("Sunrise, Sunset"), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ("Come Back to Me"), and lesser-known but no less worthy shows like The Apple Tree (the slinky, Latin-tinged title song and fun, loose "Beautiful, Beautiful World"), Ben Franklin in Paris (the warm and tender "Look for Small Pleasures"), and two from songwriters Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, Skyscraper ("I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her") and Walking Happy (yet another title song, this one a bouncy delight, and the lovely "What Makes It Happen"). What set these apart from Monro's traditional repertoire - and from typical treatments of these songs - was that he was accompanied only by piano, bass, drums, and two guitars. Arrangements were crafted spontaneously rather than pre-written, allowing both singer and musicians a great deal of musical freedom. A couple of non-showtunes including one by German composer-bandleader Bert Kaempfert were also cut, possibly for single release.
Capitol didn't immediately release the album; unbeknownst to Monro, the label instead sent the tapes to Hollywood where arrangers Sid Feller and Billy May added lush orchestrations to the unadorned tracks. Some tracks emerged on singles - including "The Impossible Dream" and Kaempfert's "The Lady Smiles" - before the Invitation to Broadway LP was finally released in November 1968, two years after the sessions took place. The original album is by no means a desecration; Monro's laid-back vocals were sublime and the orchestrations accomplished. But Stranger in Paradise offers, for the first time, the complete New York masters, and simply put, they're a revelation.
This is Matt Monro at his most intimate, in perfect sync with a small group of players tastefully and elegantly supporting him without ever becoming overpowering. These performances, wonderfully mixed and mastered by Richard Moore at Mint Audio from the original multitracks, conjures the sound of a small club in the wee small hours of the morning, with little separating the artist from the audience.
Monro's connection with the listener is palpable on the beautifully understated "If He Walked into My Life," the haunting "The Sweetest Sounds," playfully pleading "Come Back to Me," and languid yet rueful "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her." Even the majestic "The Impossible Dream" and "Stranger in Paradise" were rendered foremost with sensitivity and sans bombast. Here and throughout his repertoire, Monro evinced an authentic commitment to communicating lyrics and melody as the songwriters intended. In addition to the core recordings, a number of alternates have been included which open a window onto Monro's process during these improvisatory sessions. He wasn't a jazz singer, per se, but had the jazz singer's impeccable senses of phrasing, timing, and tone. It's impossible not to wish that he'd recorded more in such a close-up vein.
As if that all isn't enough, Stranger in Paradise includes an essential second disc. The Best of Matt Monro has a whopping 27 selections culled from Monro's tenures at Capitol, Parlophone, and EMI (the latter two labels through the courtesy of Warner Music Group). It's a fine overview of Monro's artistry with such timeless classics as "Portrait of My Love," "My Kind of Girl," "From Russia with Love," and "Born Free," and covers his fruitful creative partnerships with the likes of composer John Barry and producer George Martin.
Here, Matt's daughter Michele Monro and Richard Moore have given listeners a little something extra on three songs. "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Pretty Polly" have been remixed from the original multitracks; the former suffered on past issues from a faultily-set compressor while the latter had a stereo delay to the strings and everything else panned to the center. A new mix of "The Music Played" was impressively accomplished when Moore separated Monro's vocal from the mono master with the stereo backing track from the Spanish-language version of the song. (The original multitrack for the English recording no longer exists.)
Matt Monro's life was sadly curtailed by cancer in 1985 at the age of 54, but his discography continues to yield riches. Stranger in Paradise has been afforded a deluxe package. The 32-page full color, generously illustrated booklet features two new essays by Michele Monro (author of The Singer's Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro) as well as technical notes on both discs from Richard Moore and detailed credits with discographical annotation. (Want to read more about these recordings? Check out Moore's fascinating blog entry here.) This release has been supported by a major campaign in the U.K., even including television advertisements. But it deserves equal attention on the other side of the Atlantic as one of the year's finest traditional pop releases. Monro recorded nine albums for Capitol, many of which have never been released on CD in their original U.S. sequences, as well as fifteen singles. With any luck, Stranger in Paradise will open the doors for a complete Capitol collection in context. These are some of the sweetest sounds you'll ever hear...