Todd McNeal
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Todd McNeal

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"Bridging the Gap Between Jazz and Pop"

Album Title: All My Good Intentions
Artist: Todd McNeal
Reviewer's Name: Heath Andrews
Review Score: 4.0 Stars

Title Of Review:

Review Summary:
Todd McNeal's songs, sung by Emma Lewendon effectively incorporate elements of jazz and pop genres forming a soothing album that falls a bit too squarely between the two music fields. McNeal's arrangements are wonderfully done, Lewendon's voice truly beautiful, but the songwriting doesn't do either enough justice. This by no means makes the album unenjoyable as some of the stand out tracks are pure gold, but as a whole, All My Good Intentions is haunted by a sense of locked away potential and slowness that causes it to just miss the mark of today's upper echelon of Adult Contemporary.

Review:
It's very rare that an album can expose so much talent an individual has whilst most of that said individual's work is not upfront on the album. Todd McNeal is responsible for all the writing and composition of his 2007 album All My Good Intentions; a consistent recording of pleasant jazz-pop music. For the most part, McNeal employs a standard jazz trio of piano, bass and drums with accompanying vocals. This formula varies at times with some songs being simply piano and voice while others adding flute and trumpet.

The core musicians here are McNeal himself on piano and keyboards and vocalist Emma Lewendon. Lewendon was recruited from a folk trio called Kai, and her background in folk adds a great element to the music. Lewendon has a fantastically elegant voice that soars through each song, but also arrests the listeners attention to each and every note she sings. McNeal's piano accompaniment is perfect for the songs. For the two tracks (three counting the bonus) which feature just piano and vocals, he plays enough to set the melody but allows Lewendon's voice to carry it. Similarly, in the trio format, McNeal forms the backbone and allows the music to intertwine itself into a cohesive unit.

Sydney jazz musicians Dave Ellis and Lawrie Thompson make up the rhythm section on bass and drums respectively. If anything defines the jazz sound of the album, it's their backing. Ellis's acoustic bass coupled with Thompson's light working of the cymbals instantly evokes the image of three jazz musicians jamming away on stage in a dimly lit club. The impeccable production lets the rhythm be heard clearly underneath the melodic duo of McNeal and Lewendon, allowing the songs to benefit from becoming the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, the album is dragged slightly down by McNeal's musical direction. By placing himself in the field between jazz and pop, the album won't completely satisfy fans of either genre. The soft jazz, which really is the basis of the album, can become a little monotonous around the middle of the album since the tempo is consistently slow around this part. The fastest this album gets is towards the tail end with "Ride The Waves". The 3/4 time signature pushes the track forward in a way that really starts to showcase the musicianship of the rhythm section, the rest of the album; it feels more as if they're just relegated to keeping conventional time in a pop sense.

Pop fans will likely balk at the heavy jazz influences like on "Bird With The Burning Wings." The jazzy beat and airy vocals carry on for a little over five minutes, during which the narrative of the song seems to lose focus. The band gels just as well as they do on every other song, but there's not enough drive to keep the song poppy. Tracks like "Black Dog" and "Star", both with flute and trumpet on the latter, help add a little something different to the music but it would've been nice to hear more of them throughout.

The only other factor that brings the album down at times is McNeal's lyrics. More in line with the jazz nature of the album the lyrics are more free from the confines of pop and have a wistful quality highlighted by Lewendon's rich voice. But on a track like "Count The Miles" where it's just Lewendon and McNeal, every word matters. Lryics like "So many miles away from here/if i walk without stopping for coffee/still it would take three years" and a seeming non-sequitir about "Santa and his reindeer..." don't fit wit the song itself. But then Lewendon sings a line like, "And I get so lonely I could count the nights...that lead me to your door" and suddenly McNeal's writing is heart wrenchingly beautiful.
The title track and its alternate version that closes the album also highlights this strength, "sometimes i can feel you in the silence/reaching out to gently touch my hand". The imagery is simple but engrossing. "Magnificent Mistake" - "What is left after all is said and done?/Just a hollow space where these words were sung." Sublime, absolutely sublime. "Black Dog" - "I'll throw a stick your way and shout hey, hey." Not so much. The scattershot beauty of the lyrics is frustrating.

All My Good Intentions has the problem of being good to the point of posing a tremendous, "What if?" What if this fantastic group went with a full out jazz format? What if they threw pop conventions to the wind, improvised, played off each other, and just went wild? Or, what if they went to pure pop, tightened up the structures, polished up the lyrics, and let Lewendon's voice really be the focal point? What McNeal delivers is good, but there's so much potential to be had here that it feels nearly criminal to hear them straddle the line between two genres. Still, for a pop-jazz hybrid recording, it probably doesn't get a heck of a lot better than this.

- Heath Andrews


"A Gem"

Todd McNeal
All My Good Intentions (independent)

British composer Todd McNeal has delivered a gem with All My Good Intentions. This timeless collection of ten songs is artfully written and perfectly sets the mood for reflection and relaxation. McNeal, with his classical training, lays the groundwork on the piano and keyboards injecting a cool, intellectual jazz vibe into each finely crafted tune. While some of his songs are rompy and fun, with a Jamie Cullum type appeal, as in the opener “Sunlight Up to the Sky,” McNeal can quickly change gears into a more serious setting. His more hushed piano playing in the quiet uplifting ballad “Let It Go, Brother” was recognized by the Indie International Songwriting Competition in the folk/acoustic category.

McNeal employs the beautifully talented Emma Lewendon on vocals whose crystalline voice easily blends with McNeal’s instrumentation and with herself. With a background in contemporary folk singing, Lewendon expertly controls her voice and creates seamless harmonies, as evident in the coda to the ballad “Count the Miles.” Her voice accompanied by McNeal exudes the warmth of Sarah McLachlan but also bodes a more ripened sage-like quality.

Joining these two Brits on the album are Sydney jazz musicians Dave Ellis on bass and Lawrie Thompson on drums. McNeal has put together a fabulous ensemble to showcase his works and the best part is that there are no spotlight stealers. Everyone plays together adding their own nuances with mature musicianship finesse. Adding flavor to the upbeat “Black Dog” on flute is Graham Jesse. His neat little embellishments blend nicely in this early Chick Corea style number. Jesse is heard again in “Star” along with trumpeter Peter Kartu. While the timbre of Jesse’s instrument mixes well with Lewendon’s vocals, Kartu unfortunately sticks out. Not to say that he does not play his part well, but the brass instrument draws too much attention to itself and may not be the best fit on this album.

In the title track, McNeal opens with a dramatic minor piano melody, closely followed by Thompson’s calm, pulsating entrance. Lewendon shares the fore with the organ as the song progresses, modulating to a major key and crescendos to the powerful climax where Lewendon sings “I will get up and try again.” McNeal should indeed keep trying his best to write more wonderful pieces of music and bringing together other stellar musicians to assist in his interpretations. All My Good Intentions is better than good; it is excellent and highly recommended.

-Kelly O’Neil

- Kelly O'Neil


Discography

All My Good Intentions (2007) - Songwriter's album featuring lush British vocalist Emma Lewendon on vocals

Photos

Bio

Sydney-based songwriter and composer Todd McNeal writes timeless, quality songs. McNeal has combined his classical training with his passion for popular music in a memorable body of work, showcased in his songwriter's album, 'All My Good intentions' (2007). The album features lush British vocalist Emma Lewendon and support from top Sydney jazz musicians. McNeal describes the songs as 'Jamie Cullum meets Joni Mitchell'. For cult Sydney songwriter Art Rush they are 'great songs, well-written, honest and beautiful'. Music critic Heath Andrew adds :"for a pop-jazz hybrid recording, it probably doesn't get a heck of a lot better than this."

Amongst many musical projects, Todd has recently completed the songs for 'Grace and Favour', a full-length stage musical with book and lyrics by British writer/actor Jane Scott. His set of choral pieces "Songs of the Sea & Sky" will be premiered by the National Boys Choir of Australia at the Melbourne Recital Hall in July 2010.