THE SILVER LINING: THE SONGS OF JEROME KERN
Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap
In the “it’s about time” category, Tony Bennett and pianist Bill Charlap, who have worked together on occasion over the years, have convened for a full album. And, also in the “it’s about time” category, the album celebrates the art of a songwriter Bennett credits with creating “the Great American Songbook,” a Bennett-coined term for the jazz-influenced American popular music emerging in the early 20th Century and thriving through most of the 1950s.
The body of work in question here is by a giant named Jerome Kern, who did nothing less than change the course of American popular music while also creating the musical theater as we know it by embracing new ideas largely drawn from the jazz music of his youth (a New York native, Kern was born in 1885 and died in 1945)—unusual progressions and dynamic rhythmic innovations that brought a distinctly American sensibility to popular music that had theretofore been indebted to European operatic and lyrical traditions. Kern, it could rightly be said, helped put some glide in the American stride while blending the narrative style of an earlier age with less formal, more conversational and sometimes bluntly confessional lyrics to create a catalog of intimate tunes addressing listeners’ inner lives, embracing despair, disappointments, exultations and triumphs in equal measure, no matter the cultural shifts over time. Why? Simply put, because his words speak a common language of the heart. In fact, it is a Kern tune, 1914’s “They Didn’t Believe Me,” along with Irving Berlin’s smash hit of 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” that ushered out the flowery sentimentalism of an age that would soon be gone with the wind. Some of his early, then-groundbreaking musicals are forgotten today, but one lives on in legend and in fact. If you’re going to write one musical that will be remembered, let it be remembered as a towering achievement that was remarkable both for its potent music and for daring to have a social conscience, as 1927’s Show Boat did in giving us “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” “Why Do I Love You” and also breaking from established theater traditions and light entertainments (revues, operettas, musical comedies) by tackling themes such as racial prejudice. In the end, Kern not only left a catalogue of timeless songs with which singers are still reckoning—as in this album, for instance—but also inspired all the great songwriters following in his wake, e.g. the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer…it goes on. Rodgers’s biographer, Meryle Secrest (Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers) found that the turning point in her subject’s life came when he was only fourteen and saw Kern’s Broadway musical Very Good Eddie. Here was a production, with music by Kern and lyrics primarily by Schuyler Greene and Herbert Reynolds, that “was something new in American musical theater. Its songs were fitted into a romantic comedy of errors in which the participants were neither one-dimensional nor clichéd; these were human failings and aspirations, told with amused tolerance. Very Good Eddie, theater historian Gerald Bordman wrote, was ‘the model out of which poured a half-century of American Musical Comedy.’ Sensing the transforming nature of what he was seeing and hearing, Rodgers went back again and again. If he was weaned on Viennese operetta, his finishing school was the work of Jerome Kern.” As Bill Charlap puts it in Will Friedwald’s liner notes here, “Kern is really the angel at the top of the tree.”
‘All the Things You Are,’ Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap from The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
Working with accompanists as sensitive as Bill Charlap, solo and with his trio (bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, unrelated, who have been playing with Charlap for almost two decades), and, on three ballads, with a twin-piano setup featuring Charlap with his wife, Renee Rosnes, Bennett assays 14 Kern tunes in a manner as casual as it is deeply felt. And at 89 going on 90, save for some wavering on long, ascending lines, his voice remains an affecting instrument, his phrasing impeccably nuanced, his involvement in the lyrics so complete as to add gravitas to his savvy deployment of silences and pauses. The singing is technically accomplished, rising to a majestic level, but also overflowing with understanding of the humanity informing the Kern canon.
‘Long Ago and Far Away,’ Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, from The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
In all configurations—solo piano, piano duet, trio—Bennett sounds refined, relaxed and reflective. The vocal-and-piano pieces are especially gratifying, both for the intimacy drawing out special warmth in Bennett’s readings as he reacts to or encourages Charlap and for the way the singer and pianist evoke memories of Bennett’s two breathtaking album projects with the late, great Bill Evans (The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, from 1975; Together Again, from 1977, which followed two successive Bennett albums of Rodgers and Hart songs). It’s telling, or seems to be, that the duo chose “All The Things You Are” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) to open the album. Bennett turns it into a mission statement for this project, delivering the opening lyric—“time and again I’ve longed for adventure…”—with a bright, eager delivery over Charlap’s minimal flourishes, which sound like Charlap simply staying out of the way as a strategy to let the vocal stand out in bold relief, especially when the personal challenge articulated at the outset becomes a soft, poignant prayer—“all I want in all of this world….is you”—in which the silent pause between “world” and “you” contains an entire universe of heartache. It has taken Bennett and Charlap all of about 42 seconds into the album to tear your heart out even as they illustrate the exquisite beauty and complexity of Kern’s art. “Long Ago and Far Away” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) sustains an upbeat mood throughout, as Bennett and Charlap turn it into a companion piece to “All The Things You Are,” this time with the singer, his voice rising ever so slightly as if in surprise, confides, over Charlap’s delicate underpinning, “…the dream I dreamed was not denied me/just one look and then I knew/that all I longed for long ago was you,” a setup for an extended Charlap solo tentatively stated before building to an understated swing mirroring the lyrics’ joyful assertions of all-consuming love. Hard to pick out a clear winner among all these stellar tracks, but one of Kern’s most-covered compositions, “The Way You Look Tonight,” is something special. Lighthearted, romantic, buoyant, it’s Bennett exulting in true love, with Charlap staying cool on piano, choosing his moment when to make a telling right-hand run across the keys or when to lay back and give his partner more room—Bennett gets so caught up in the beauty of the lyrics’ adoring images that he breaks into a chuckle as he sings of “that laugh that wrinkles your nose.” Needless to say, following the horrific events of November 13, the wistful romanticism infusing Bennett’s rendition of “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” coupled to Charlap’s austere reflections, now comes with an elegiac strain. It will be a long time before we hear this evergreen any other way.
‘The Last Time I Saw Paris,’ Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, from The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
‘Look for the Silver Lining,’ Tony Bennett with Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, from The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
With the trio Bennett swings into a cool, measured swing on the love song “Dearly Beloved” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), with Bennett stretching lyric lines in the verses, then clipping the title sentiment (“dearly beloved, be mine”) to add extra emphasis to the conversational feel; delivers “I Won’t Dance” with attitude in—surprise!—waltz time as he plays with the rhythmic line from verse to verse to clue you in that he’s not the reluctant partner his words make him out to be, especially when he bites off the phrase that might well serve as a review of this project–“I know that music leads the way to romance—as a setup to the clever closing twist he then delivers with a soft, tender caress: “So when I hold you in my arms…I won’t dance.” On the piano duet selections, Ms. Rosnes and hubby Bill enhance the soundscape while maintaining a light touch on the keys common to Charlap’s approach on the piano-and-vocal selections. She kicks off a measured reading of “The Song Is You” with a lyrical solo and later, when the song struts a bit, she and Bill engage in a frisky, playful dialogue; and midway through Bennett’s engaging take on the philosophical “Look for the Silver Lining,” her solo—now spare, now delightfully skittering—enhances both the temperate mood and the uplifting message.
‘I Won’t Dance,’ Tony Bennett with the Bill Charlap trio (Kenny Washington, drums; Peter Washington, bass), from The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
I’m not sure there are any other recordings on which an 89-year-old singer has stopped time. Bennett’s voice is in great shape, as the man himself appears to be. Throughout his now-64-year-career he’s “longed for adventure.” Of late he’s had some quite successful ones with a surprisingly adept stylist in Lady Gaga; but however fetching those recordings be, his adventures on The Silver Lining find him flexing his muscles on familiar turf, in command, engaging with great songs in intimate artistic fashion with spare, empathetic backing, fully immersed in the moment, right where he belongs. I wasn’t even born when Jerome Kern died, but I’ve lived with and loved his songs long enough to believe he would approve wholeheartedly of the unpretentious grandeur Tony Bennett brings to these works of art. If nothing else, as fortunate as we are to have had a Jerome Kern pave the way for a new era in American song, we are equally fortunate to have a Tony Bennett to show us how these texts should be interpreted, and thereby explain what truths lie hidden in the human heart.