It takes a certain fearlessness for a singer to make an album of songs that have been recorded by a legendary vocalist like Barbra Streisand.
Toronto musical theatre artist Cornelia Luna has stepped up to the challenge with her debut release, Starting Here, Starting Now. The critically acclaimed album features 10 early Streisand songs, some as far back as the early 1960s.
They’ve been refreshed by pianist Bill King and his trio, who gave the songs a jazz context. Luna’s warm, lustrous voice is a perfect fit with King’s exquisite playing, backed up by his swinging trio.
Not surprisingly, Luna is a fan of Streisand’s. At her first paid gig, in the Philippines where she grew up, Luna sang the Streisand hit, Memory, from the musical Cats. “At that time, I didn’t know it was a musical theatre piece, because I was introduced to the song by listening to Barbra Streisand,” Luna said.
She and King chose Streisand’s early songs instead of her more modern hits, because the older songs would be new to many listeners. “We wanted something fresh that could be reimagined,” Luna said. They also picked material that could easily be set to jazz.
The album opens with Harold Arlen’s When The Sun Comes Out, a bluesy tune that features the sweet trumpet of William Sperandei. Luna performs a lovely duet with Gavin Hope on Any Moment Now, a song written by Marvin Hamlisch. She also sings Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way? from the soundtrack of the movie Yentl.
Luna said she can relate to the album’s title track, Starting Here, Starting Now, because she finds herself at a new beginning with the album’s release. “I chose the song as I embark on this new path of being an independent artist. It’s a song that is full of hope, so I am hopeful,” she said.
Luna moved to Toronto from the Philippines in 1993 to play Kim in Miss Saigon at the Princess of Wales Theatre. When the show closed in 1995, she wasn’t sure making a living in musical theatre was realistic. She said she was relieved when she landed the role of Tuptim in a New York production of The King and I.
For the next 20 years, Luna performed on Broadway, in London’s West End and in touring productions. She’s played Fantine in Les Miserables and Grizabella in Cats, and she was the lead vocalist in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music Of The Night.
In 2015, Luna sold out Toronto’s Elgin Winter Garden Theatre, where she performed musical theatre fare, pop music and songs recorded by Streisand. King, her accompanist at the concert, was impressed with her voice – its pure and clear tones, her soaring notes and her excellent voice control. Looking forward to working together again, the two of them came up with the idea of recording Streisand’s early music.
Luna and the trio, including Dave Young on acoustic bass and Mark Kelso on drums, recorded the album live, rather than create separate tracks at a studio. “We decided to play the whole thing live, so it’s organic. It was absolutely exciting,” Luna said. Tracks by guest artists Hope and Sperandei were added later.
Recording with a jazz trio was a new experience for Luna, who, as a musical theatre artist, was used to being accompanied by an orchestra. “With a jazz trio, a lot of it is improvisation and you have to be open to anything that could happen any second. Very exciting and a little scary at times,” Luna said.
“I’m just so blown away by the musicians. I was in awe at the recording studio, but I was trying to play it cool. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was so excited.”
Luna will be performing at the 120 Diner in Toronto on Feb. 17 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro on March 14 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit cornelialuna.com.