There are a pair of new CD releases from Omnivore Recordings that are as fun as they are frustrating. Both of them are related to the late great Fred Rogers a.k.a. the TV personality known as “Mr. Rogers.”
The first CD, It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers is a perfectly fine compilation of 23 of his often poignant piano and vocal songs from his legendary TV show. The CDs sound fine, clear and crisp yet warm and welcoming without hiss or distortion. Music Director and Pianist Johnny Costa’s accompaniment is sweetly supportive of Rogers’ music and that is an important point to note. More on that in a moment. Really, this CD sounds good and that is about all you need to know. I mean… This is Mr. Rogers’ music for gosh sake’s! So if you are interested in this you know you are buying it for the music and the memories. And that is a good thing!
The other album called Johnny Costa Plays Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is a bit more problematic. Noble in its intention, this 1984 release suffers from somewhat over enthusiastic performances. Now, I’m a big fan of piano interpretations of famous music from Broadway and Film. I have plenty of recordings by the likes of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum (who apparently gave young Costa his seal of approval back in the day), both artists known for their incredible speed and — ultimately — finesse. Especially for approaching a collection like this, a pianist like Oscar Peterson set the bar high for delivering the necessary balance: paying homage to the songwriters while also taking the opportunity to show off their dexterity and an ability to coax new ideas out of the music.
And this latter area where Mr. Costa fails here from my perspective as his performances are relentless in their showy display of keyboard fireworks. Don’t get me wrong, I love mad keyboard skills. But it also really important also to leave open some spaces for the underlying music to breath. This also gives the listener breathing room!.
Instead, the barrage of up-down-and-back-again runs grows quickly tiresome and almost becomes a bit of a parody of itself. Mind you it’s not like Don Pullen delivering wild Coltrane-esque sheets of sound. No, this is like what many heavy metal guitarists do: a speedy barrage of scales. Its a personal taste issue of course, but I grow tired of being hammered over the head with non-stop technical facility.
And Mr. Costa has a lot of that! His left hand is particularly impressive in its ability to mirror what his right hand is doing at incredible speed.
All that said, some of you, Dear Readers, might like Johnny Costa Plays Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as a pure audiophile demo because it is recorded in rather severe stereo. You’ll hear Mr. Costa’s notes skating up and down the keyboard and across across your hi-fi soundstage, left to right and back again. The impact of this is somewhat gimmicky like those RCA Stereo Action series of LPs from the early 60s.
So whether you need Johnny Costa Plays Mr. Rogers Neighborhood really comes down to your appreciation for pianistic pyrotechnics. If you prefer hearing the music in its purist form, stick with It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers. Neither of these albums are up yet on Tidal or Qobuz but as soon as they are we will post links in the comments section below.
Johnny Costa Plays Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a noble attempt. I would have loved to hear someone like the late great Vince Guaraldi approach this project. Maybe someday Brad Mehldau or Chick Corea might record an album like this for the ages. That would be, in Mr. Rogers words: “a very special day…”