A work of art and heart

If you’re a fan of the great American songbook, you’re familiar with at least two or three compositions by Matt Dennis. “Angel Eyes” is one of the highlights of Frank Sinatra’s great “Only the Lonely” album. Sinatra’s “unusual performance” — beginning with the release instead of the first verse — “served to remind us that Dennis was an unusual songwriter,” according to Alec Wilder in the last chapter of his influential American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. “With its tension between driving music and restrained lyrics,” Philip Furia writes in Poets of Tin Pan Alley, “‘Angel Eyes’ is in the tradition of the greatest of all torch songs — Mercer and Arlen’s ‘One for My Baby’ (1941).”

Ella Fitzgerald also recorded “Angel Eyes” two or three times. Among many others who have given it a beautiful ride are Chet Baker, Nancy Wilson, June Christy, and Mel Torme and Cleo Laine in duet. Most recently, the late bluesman Johnny Adams made it a highlight of his “One Foot in the Blues.” Two or three more of Dennis’s compositions — “Violets for Your Furs,” “The Night We Called It a Day,” “Let’s Get Away From It All” — have attracted a similar panoply of performers. Dennis’s work is otherwise more or less forgotten or unknown.

“What else should I know about Matt Dennis?” cabaret/jazz singer Mary Foster Conklin wondered when she discovered June Christy’s version of “Angel Eyes” courtesy of her accompanist, John di Martino. Conklin discovered that Dennis had first taught his songs to Sinatra when they both worked in Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra and Conklin lit out for — where else? — the Library of Congress to take a look for more of Dennis’s work.

On “Blues for Breakfast: Remembering Matt Dennis,” Conklin shares the fruit of her research — only there is absolutely nothing archival or musty about the results. Conklin brings the fourteen Dennis compositions on “Blues for Breakfast” to glorious life in superb arrangements anchored mostly by di Martino’s piano and Sean Smith’s bass. Listen to clips of five songs from “Blues for Breakfast” by clicking on the image of the disc on Conklin’s site (linked above on her name).

Judging by “Blues for Breakfast,” Mary Foster Conklin is an artist of great talent perfectly suited to bring out the life in the buried treasures she discovered along with the well-known highlights of Dennis’s career. “I’m convinced that these tunes wanted to be found,” she writes in the recording notes on her site. Having spent the weekend listening to the disc, I would add that these tunes wanted to be found by Mary Foster Conklin.

In his characteristically excellent September 2, 2001 New York Times profile of Conklin, Terry Teachout wrote:

“I don’t do all-Gershwin shows, or little stories about wanting to come to New York and be an actress,” Ms. Conklin said in a recent interview. “I sing ballads for grownups — ballads about reality, about now. I mean, I lived in the East Village during the crack years. One of my first gigs was with a punk-rock garage band, with me dressed up in full Cyndi Lauper regalia.”

Just as important, she is constantly on the lookout for newer material that meshes with her postmodern approach. “I got frustrated with standard cabaret because my perspective didn’t really contain a shred of what you’d call old-movie romance,” she said. “One of my acting teachers told me: ‘You’re playing the part of a cabaret singer. You’re dressing up like your mother. Wear pants. Do material that fits your age, your story, your life.’ So I started singing songs that were more about sex than romance. Songs about anger. More contemporary stuff, by people like Tom Waits and Dave Cantor. And that was when I started to become myself.”

Conklin seems fully to have become herself on “Blues for Breakfast,” a labor of love that she has turned into a work of art and heart. Thanks to Conklin’s husband, Glenn Bowen, a Power Line reader who sent me the disc on the condition that I promise not to write about it (he relented), and to Chet Baker biographer James Gavin, who wrote the liner notes on which I have drawn for my comments here.

UPDATE: In the post above, I originally credited Ron Vincent with the bass work on the recording. Mary Foster Conklin has written to correct me and give credit where credit is due:

My husband woke me this morning to read me the kind words you posted about “Blues for Breakfast – Remembering Matt Dennis.” I thank you for the review – it’s clear you are a Matt Dennis fan and I’m so glad you enjoyed the recording.

I need to offer one gentle correction – especially since my musicians deserve credit where credit is due. In your post, you stated: “Conklin brings the fourteen Dennis compositions on ‘Blues for Breakfast’ to glorious life in superb arrangements anchored mostly by di Martino’s piano and Ron Vincent’s bass.” Ron Vincent is, in fact, my drummer who brings close to 30 years of experience to his chair and is one of my favorite players in New York. My bassist is Sean Smith, also a terrific musician and composer. Without them, along with John di Martino, Tony Romano [on electric guitar] and the rest, I would not have succeeded in bringing Matt’s music back to life.

Many thanks again.

Best regards, Mary

I’ve made the correction and would like to add that the contribution of Joel Frohm on sax on three numbers is also stellar.

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