“Fabulously written and performed!” says Acoustic Nation. “With a velvety voice reminiscent of Mel Torme and an ability to deliver like Sammy Davis, Jr, Fleisher’s performance abilities play as much of a star role as his songwriting,” says Guitar World. “If you love James Taylor and The Carpenters, we think you’ll enjoy this,” agrees Out.com.
Indeed, after many years away from the recording studio, Julian Fleisher returns with Finally — a sweetly rendered jewel box of mostly original tunes, lovingly performed with his longtime collaborators Tedd Firth, Nick Mancini, Pete Smith, Matt Clohesy, Chris Michael and Tom Murray. A carefully curated selection of the songs that live audiences have come to love and request, Finally is the recording that couldn’t be sold before its time. A departure from the barn-burning sound for which he became known and with which he’s become so well identified, this set takes listeners on a more intimate, bespoke and personal journey on which the writing is the thing. Eschewing the brainy covers, knowing mashups and full-tilt horn arrangements that so characterized Rather Big (his last CD), Finally puts the focus squarely on the writerly craft that Julian has been developing in recent years. To be sure, the recording is not without the occasional nod to more well-worm material — his blistering version of the classic Tomorrow from Annie, for example — but overall the hope here is to reach into the more deeply felt moments for which Julian-the-songwriter has become well-loved.
“No question, it feels like a risk to me,” says Fleisher about appearing without the gleaming horn arrangements and stylish covers of the first part of his career. “Naturally, I wonder what folks will make of a recording that’s more intimate and less showy than my old stuff. But, the truth is, people have always responded intensely to my own tunes and many of them were written without my Rather Big Band in mind. I’ve kept my rhythm section, of course. I mean, you would too if yours could play like mine does. But I asked them to tone down their insane virtuosity and to turn their talents to simpler gestures and more direct statements. The results, I think, are amazing. As is often the case, when you put restrictions on talent like that, you discover a world of new ideas that are as compelling as they are surprising.”
Take, for example, Leaving the Leaving (to You), a ballad about letting one’s partner do the heavy lifting of ending a relationship. “I asked the guys to pretend they were each a different gear in a clock or a music box and see what we could do if we built on simple, repeating musical ideas…interlocking and reversing them. Because they’re each so refined and sophisticated, they were able to short-circuit their usual impulse to add notes, to fill in the blanks (these are professional side men after all!) and instead build an arrangement that tells the story in a more restrained and, I think, more emotional way. The result is definitely more “pop” than “jazz”, frankly. But for me that’s truly an exciting leap to make. It’s certainly harder to do!”
Finally isn’t without its more traditional moments, however. “For sure, a high-point for me” says Fleisher, “is our version of I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good), the classic Ellington tune with an opening verse that’s practically as long as the song itself. Our exploration is as simple and unadorned as possible. But we challenged ourselves to record it at a tempo that might fairly be called “leisurely”. But we all agreed that the song fairly demands it and so we opened up the mics and really took our time. My sister Leah came up from DC to play the harp part which orchestrator/wizard Bruce Coughlin brilliantly rendered in just one afternoon.” As the lyrics suggest, the song begins in Church and opens up from there and the session is “a master class in listening. The band just outdid themselves. Keeping it aloft at that tempo seemed unlikely, but I’m completely convinced. It’s the only tune on the CD which is presented essentially as it was recorded: No editing, minimal mixing, full bleed. All live all the time. I love it.”
There are many other gems on Finally. Not Again, Again is burlesque-inspired look at the somehow absurd way that lovers can have of orbiting back around. Carly Simon’s deep cut The Girl You Think You See gets a treatment as does When We Grow Up from the classic children’s album of the 70s, Free to Be You and Me — which he sings with Melissa Haizlip, an old chum from college. While the herky-jerky tempo of his own What You Need suggests a skeleton up for the last dance of the night, All They Need to Know is a surprisingly tuneful take on calling someone’s emotional bluff. “A TV writer friend of mine once said that my happy songs sound sad and my sad songs sound happy. I think it was a compliment and I think she was right.”
“But no song on the recording means more to me than the title song,” says Fleisher. “I think I wrote Finally when a friend was over for lunch when I was sick. While we chatted, I had the guitar under my arm and I was absentmindedly picking away as we talked. I couldn’t begin to tell you what we discussed, but by the time lunch was over, the song was halfway done.” It wasn’t Fleisher’s first original, but it was the song that got people interested in his ability to capture a big emotional moment in just a few words. From that song came the opportunity to compose the music for John Cariani’s play Almost, Maine (which has gone on to become the single-most produced play in America for several years running) and an offer to write a musical which is on its way to its first production this Fall. More music for film, TV and theater has all followed in time, much of it in different styles and idioms, but virtually all stemming from that one tune “which I wrote while flying on Robitussin, espresso, chicken soup and Advil.”
“My writing partner and I joke that my songs — which are admittedly pretty simple — are “nursery rhymes for adults,” he concludes. “And at first it was a characterization that I wasn’t too happy about. But given the reaction to Finally, and to the other songs that are similarly, shall we say, “uncomplicated”, I have to concede (and lets face it, I’m just not really able to get too complex) that there’s an undeniable value to keeping things simple. My ego wishes I could concoct the sorts of towering tunes that my heroes do, but this is what I can offer and I have to believe that people’s reactions are sincere and the time to present them on a CD has finally arrived. My fingers are crossed.”