Jason Robert Brown took the musical-theater world by storm when his first Broadway show, Parade (1998 Original Broadway Cast), won the Tony for original score in 1999. The exquisitely talented composer-lyricist has already created an impressive identity among fellow "New School" composers for the music theater, such as Adam Guettel and Jeannine Tesori. Jason reveals another facet of his talent on his latest album, the solo effort Wearing Someone Elses Clothes. Jason shared his personal selections of music he'd like his fans to hear.
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Jason Robert Brown's List of Music You Should Hear
I went back and forth a million times trying to figure out what CDs I wanted to recommend here, but finally I decided I would just tell you the first ten CDs I dumped on to my iPod. Then I looked at that list and changed some things. But the point is, these are ten CDs that mean a lot to me and have undoubtedly influenced my writing, my playing, and my outlook on life.
I assume from the outset that anyone looking at this list already knows the theatrical writing of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. They are the two most important and obvious influences on my work, and it felt superfluous to mention them below. If you don't know their respective works, start with West Side Story (1957 Original Broadway Cast) and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979 Original Broadway Cast). Memorize them. Then come back to this list.
In no particular order:
Bug Music: Music Of The Raymond Scott Quintette, John Kirby & His Orchestra, And The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Don Byron
This is, quite simply, the most joyful album in the world. Byron, a spectacular clarinetist, recreates and reinterprets sixteen jazz charts from the '30s, originally by the likes of Ellington, Raymond Scott, and John Kirby (whose work was unknown to me before I heard this). The playing is extraterrestrial--I had to do a recording session a couple of years ago, and I decided to hire all the reed players from this album. Sensational.
52nd Street, Billy Joel
I've memorized every note of every Billy Joel album, but for some reason, '52nd Street' is special. The whole album feels like a deeply personal statement, as though putting that trumpet in Billy's hand on the front cover somehow freed him to admit what a cornball Tin Pan Alley writer he really was. The songwriting and the arrangements are out of this world, and obviously, he plays his a** off; no 15-year-old boy can hear "Stiletto" and not want to play it, even if he's never touched a piano before.
A Donny Hathaway Collection, Donny Hathaway
I'd heard about Hathaway for years before I finally decided to really check him out. Man, what I was missing! There's more musicality in one phrase of "A Song For You" than in most singers' entire catalogues.
Oranges & Lemons, XTC
It's complicated choosing just one album by a group that rings the bell all the time, but this is the record that turned me on to Andy Partridge, and one listen to "The Mayor of Simpleton" or "Scarecrow People" should do it for you too. Partridge is among the three writers whose work consistently surprises and thrills me, along with Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.
The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon
Again, impossible to choose one Paul Simon album, so I just sort of closed my eyes and dropped my finger on the computer screen, but this one might've won anyway, if only for "She Moves On," an absolutely transcendent piece of songwriting. Sometimes I just make a playlist out of every Paul Simon song and put it on shuffle, and then I sit and listen and learn.
Hejira, Joni Mitchell
What's especially hard about Mitchell is that her albums all have very different feels and energies, so that Don Juans Reckless Daughter sounds like it was created by an entirely different artist than Court and Spark, even though they were recorded only five years apart. 'Hejira' is probably one of the more hardcore albums, with many of the songs clocking in at over six minutes after a blizzard of verses, but the courage of the writing is absolutely inspirational to me. "Song for Sharon," an eight-and-a-half-minute letter to a friend that details Mitchell's growing ambivalence about love and marriage, is possibly the bravest song I've ever heard.
Two for the Road: Music of Henry Mancini, Dave Grusin
The music! The arrangements! The playing! This is a sensational album! Check out "Peter Gunn," then "Dreamsville," and while you're at it, just keep listening to the whole record. You've never heard "Baby Elephant Walk" until you've heardwhat Harvey Mason's drumming does to it.
Sextet / 6 Marimbas, Steve Reich
This music was very significant in my development as a writer. I spent a lot of time (probably too much) just aping Reich's gestures and then putting vocals on top of them, but that's how I found a way to my own voice. There's an intensity and a spirituality to this work that really rewards close listening. If you haven't heard "minimalist" composition, or if you've dismissed it, give this a shot. I had one friend who thought the whole Minimalist movement was a snow job until I sat him down one night and made him sit next to me and concentrate through all of Music for 18 Musicians, and now he's a complete convert.
Floyd Collins (1996 Original Off-Broadway Cast), Adam Guettel
I haven't included a lot of theater music on this list because, and I hate to write this, most contemporary theater music is derivative and trite, often by design. There was a time when wonderful composers with original voices were composing for Broadway, but that's rarely the case these days. Anyone going to the musical theater hoping to hear fresh and honest music will have a tough time finding it, but there are a few bright spots, and Guettel is the real thing: both 'Floyd Collins' and The Light in the Piazza (2005 Original Broadway Cast) are magnificent examples of a writer bringing his truth and his experience to the table in the service of a strong artistic vision. Anyone can have their quibbles with these shows, but this is serious and powerful and emotional music that serves a far higher purpose than virtually anything else written for the musical stage in the last 20 years.
Hommage A Piazzolla, Gidon Kremer
All I can say is, it's the greatest make-out record ever. That's probably not what Kremer had in mind, but the Law of Unintended Consequences is strong and beautiful.
Songs for a New World (1996 Original New York Cast)
Parade (1998 Original Broadway Cast)
Songs of Jason Robert Brown
The Last 5 Years (2002 Off-Broadway Cast)
13 (Double Disc Including Karaoke)