Review: 76 Trombones - Dan Zanes and Friends

76Trombones.jpgLet's stop for a moment to appreciate Dan Zanes' output over the past ten years -- 10 albums, 2 DVDs, a couple books, a ukulele, a Grammy, and the eternal gratitude of tens of thousands of families (not to mention dozens of musicians and reporters, who could always count on him for advice or a good quote). That's right -- in 1999, only a few folks around New York City had heard Zanes' "age-desegregated" music passed around on a home-recorded tape, but ten years later, his music's been heard Australia, the Middle East, off-Broadway, and, no doubt, a number of Starbucks locations.

Well, now with 76 Trombones, his tenth album for families, he's finally made it to Broadway, covering a wide variety of Broadway tunes owned by Sir Paul McCartney's music publishing company. He and his friends (both his regular band and a bunch of Broadway stars such as Carol Channing, Matthew Broderick, and Brian Stokes Mitchell) have given melodies from the Great White Way the house party treatment, sounding less like a formal musical and more like a local parade (a noun that Zanes himself uses to describe the album in the liner notes).

A key to any successful cover album is to find a kernel of truth in the song that the artist can then apply to their own style. Several songs here achieve that success -- the soulful rock of "I Won't Grow Up" from Annie Peter Pan, the parade of the title track (from The Music Man), or the jubilantly defiant "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles. And at other points, Zanes doesn't mess much with what's worked in the past, such as giving Frank Loesser's beautiful "The Inch Worm" a relatively untouched treatment.

It's all here, the elements from every other fine Dan Zanes album -- the guest stars in abundance, the song in Spanish (Zanes' and Sonia de los Santos' bilingual take on "Tomorrow" from Annie), the skit and duet with Father Goose. And, yet, the album didn't move me like Zanes' other albums have. I've been thinking about why for a long time, and I'm not sure I have a great answer. Some songs don't work great (the duet on "Tomorrow," Peter Pan's "I'm Flying"), and perhaps it's because although Zanes has some great singers with him, and while Zanes has many strengths as a performer, his vocals don't necessarily carry songs which were written to be sung by singers whose voices can be belted across a stage.

The best answer I could come up with relates to Zanes' own career and approach. When he released Sea Music and his Carl Sandburg cover album, those thematically and stylistically focused albums were interspersed between his five more standard "family" albums which culminated in the Grammy-winning Catch That Train!, which has to be on the short list for best kids music album of the decade. His concerts have been giant parties, melding cultures (musical and otherwise) and building communities. But his past three albums have been more narrowly focused -- a Spanish-language disk, a disk of ecunmenical religious tunes, and now this one. None of them have been bad, they're all worth just checking out. But it's been more than 3 1/2 years since the release of Catch That Train!, and I miss that potpourri.

Like with all Zanes disks, the idea of an age range is a little silly, but I think kids ages 5 and up will most appreciate the themes and lyrical sophistication here. You can hear the title track here or samples at all your favorite digital e-tailers.

I don't blame Dan Zanes for recording the album -- if Sir Paul McCartney's people asked me to narrate the phone book for an audiobook, it'd take me about 2 seconds before grabbing for the Yellow Pages. And I'm afraid that the tone of this review is more negative than the album merits, because it's filled with a number of really good songs, few duds, and is still better than 90% of the music being made for families today. I'm just used to Dan Zanes being better than 98% of the music being made for families today. 76 Trombones is recommended, though, and I expect Zanes' second decade recording music for families to be as joyful as the first.

Disclosure: Dan Zanes' Festival Five Records provided me with a copy of the album for possible review.