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Album Review: What Survives
Tobin Mueller
Cover image of the album What Survives by Tobin Mueller
What Survives
Tobin Mueller
2020 / Tobin Mueller
144 minutes
Review by Kathy Parsons
What Survives is a collection of twenty-six original jazz recordings inspired by Tobin Mueller’s Broadway show, Creature, which he wrote in 1995. The two-volume work has a running time of almost 2 1/2 hours and presents the listener with a veritable smorgasbord of instrumentals, vocals, solos, duets, larger ensemble pieces and more. If anyone has any doubts about Tobin Mueller’s extraordinary versatility as both a composer and a performer, What Survives should take care of it. From smooth, sweet ballads to funky bravado to straight-ahead jazz, there is literally something for everyone here. Vibrant and full of life to heartbreakingly sad, What Survives will rock your world - in a good way! It is available to stream and/or download, and there is extensive information about the musical and the music on Mueller’s website.

Creature is based on a one-act musical called Frankenspell Superstar and was originally a progressive rock opera. Later versions incorporated jazz, fusion and R&B elements. This recording is the first time that all of the vocal jazz tracks have been included with the full ensemble recordings; Volume 2 also includes some composer demos. Earlier versions of ten of the tracks also appeared on Mueller’s 2008 release, Rain Bather, but all of the music was remastered for this album. In addition to composing the music, Tobin Mueller appears on B3 organ, electric pianos, synths, acoustic piano and vocals. Guest artists include Mueller’s frequent collaborator, Woody Mankowski (soprano sax and soulful vocals), his nephew Chris Mueller (acoustic piano), Doug Schneider and Tom Washatka (tenor sax), Dane Richeson (drums and percussion), Ron Carter (bass) and Emily Rohm (vocals).

With so many tracks, I can’t mention all of them, but I can tell you about a few favorites. “Cliff’s Edge” starts things off with the full ensemble. An upbeat jazz instrumental, there is lots of sax, organ and percussion for a contemporary Big Band sound. “Secret of Life” is also a jazz instrumental, but much “cooler” and arranged for a quintet this time out. “A Promise” is a poignant and heartfelt soliloquy sung by Woody Mankowski as the young Dr. Frankenstein at his mother’s grave. “Dreams” is Mueller’s most-recorded tune and has appeared on a dozen albums with different artists singing the song in a variety of styles. Mankowski brings deep emotion to this tender lullaby. “Waltzing Night Into Day” is a slow, beautiful jazz waltz (instrumental) performed by the quintet (organ, sax, piano, acoustic bass and drums). “What Survives” is a new version of the finale to the Broadway version of Creature, written especially for Woody Mankowski (vocals and sax). Impassioned performances run throughout the 9 1/2 minute piece, making this one a real stand-out.

Volume 2 begins with the funky/bluesy improvised piano duet, “One Body of Man,” performed by Mueller and Doug Schneider. The stage version features the spirits of body parts celebrating their resurrection, which must be quite a sight! The dramatic, high-energy “Finding No Path” incorporates a variety of jazz styles to create a driving quartet for drums/percussion, acoustic bass, B3 organ and synths, and piano. This is the third album “Windowshade” has been on (remastered for each), and it is still one of my favorites of Tobin’s pieces. Technically a duet (two performers), it goes above and beyond with Mueller playing all keyboards and percussion and Mankowski playing a variety of saxes (no vocals on this one). Funky and fun, I dare you to keep your feet from tapping! “Frankenspell Superstar,” from the original one-act prog-rock opera, is performed by The CenterStage Players - a fascinating look at how the music started! The closing track, “Denouement,” is a new piano solo composed by Mueller in 2020, twenty-five years after Creature came alive, and is a great way to end this spectacular album!

There is also a “Radio Edits” version of What Survives available on CD as well as downloads and streaming. I’ll be reviewing that album very soon. This full version of the album is available from TobinMueller.com, Amazon, Spotify, HearNow, and GooglePlay. There are several videos from the album on YouTube as well. What Survives is a listening experience you won’t soon forget!
August 7, 2020
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Contributing artists:
Woody Mankowski