Color and Light: Jazz Sketches On Sondheim
After attending the original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music, I walked – or, really, waltzed – out of the Shubert Theatre feeling wonderful, when someone behind me grumbled: “That’s what’s wrong with Sondheim’s shows. He doesn’t write songs anyone can whistle.” Not only was this complaint ironic – “Anyone Can Whistle” remains one of Sondheim’s prettiest tunes – but all the tunes I’d just heard were resounding in my head. I could’ve sung, note for note, word for word, “You Must Meet My Wife” after one hearing.
This performance of A Little Night Music occurred before that summer’s “Newport in New York” Jazz Festival – and, after hearing literally forty hours of its often great concerts, the soundtrack lingering in my head was “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Every Day a Little Death,” “The Sun Won’t Set,” and “Now/Later/Soon.” Sondheim’s music so enraptured me that I actually paid to attend a Broadway musical twice. (I’d not done that before, nor since!)
Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim, for me and for anyone else who’s ever whistled Sondheim’s tunes, is a natural – though, other than Sarah Vaughan’s frequent encore of “Send In the Clowns,” there hasn’t been more than a handful of jazz recordings of Sondheim’s songs. What’s even more disheartening: not many Broadway songwriters since the ’60s have inspired jazz musicians. Many of today’s musicians revitalize the same standards of Rodgers, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Arlen, and Gershwin that Sonny Rollins and Oscar Peterson played before them – and that Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum performed when the songs were new. Color and Light mines a whole mother lode of songs and, hopefully, will awaken other jazz artists to the wonders of Sondheim’s music.
“I’d heard all this prejudice about Sondheim,” says producer Miles Goodman. “That he’s all about the lyrics. That he’s cold.” Goodman and partner Oscar Castro-Neves were on a break from another project when they listened to the album of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. “Oscar wasn’t relating to the lyrics. Oscar was relating purely to the music. He said, ‘Listen to that modal progression! What a great tune to improvise on!’ That’s when I realized that, yes, Sondheim is a stunning lyricist, but the musical content is also superior.”
“I knew of Sondheim, his lyrics for West Side Story. ‘Send in the Clowns’ and his hits,” says Castro-Neves, “but the trip Into the Woods, into the subconscious, was incredible. I heard not just the lyrics and the melody, but all the stuff Sondheim built into the background. When you’re a musician, you hear it all, the interlinings, the counterpoint. And the idea for this album was born right there. Why don’t we give people a chance to hear his music out of the context of a play or soundtrack?”
What’s difficult about playing his songs divorced from their original surroundings is that their context is like a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, where everything is ideally connected – music, lyrics, characters, incidents.
And even Sondheim’s music alone is ideally created: “Sondheim does it so ‘right’ and so completely and it makes so much sense,” explains Castro-Neves, “that when changing it, you have to be careful to do justice to the music’s quality.”
“Working with his music is amazingly difficult,” says Goodman. “Johnny Mandel warned me to stay away from arranging Sondheim’s songs because they’re so specific. It’s as if he writes himself into a corner and the only solutions he comes up with are the only solutions left to him.”
That was all the more obvious to Goodman when the composer himself performed. According to Goodman: “I asked him to record, which he did generously but reluctantly. He brought in the music, saying that he can’t play any of his songs from memory because he remembers all the choices he made in writing the song – a very long process of editing and criticizing. When you sit down to perform, your musical self contains all the choices, and you can’t remember what you ended up with. So whenever he’s got to play anything he’s written, he’s got to read it.”
Miles Goodman is best known as a composer for films – House Sitter, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? – and his jazz experience includes arranging Terence Blanchard’s Billie Holiday Songbook. Goodman and Oscar Castro-Neves, a jazz guitarist of enduring stature, have together produced other projects of jazz and song (notably a Brazilian all-star tribute to harmonica master Toots Thielemans). They approached the music of Sondheim with admiration for his artistry and craftsmanship – and sought out musicians who shared their respect.
“Oscar and I wanted artists we thought would be capable of taking the material and re-inventing it, artists who could really make Sondheim’s music their own,” states Goodman – and the composer eagerly agreed. “I called him and said I wanted to avoid anything that would really make his skin crawl. He said, ‘I listen to some jazz and I know that the essence of it is to depart from what’s written. I’d love to hear the melody once as a tune, but, other than that, the further they take it away from its original context the better.”
Goodman and Castro-Neves suggested songs to each artist – although some of them selected their own songs. “Jim Hall bought everything and came up with his own choices,” relates Goodman. “He also requested the lyrics.” That’s not unusual for jazz musicians, who realize that what Hart wrote was essential to what Rodgers wrote.
They also allowed each of the artists to be uniquely creative. According to Castro-Neves, “Everyone provides so much that’s personal. Terence really gets the essence of the melody but also that little vamp that Sondheim creates in the background of ‘Poems’. Miles and I wrote charts for Peabo Bryson and Nancy Wilson. Or we’d provide a template, like the chord changes modified on ‘Every Day a Little Death,’ to give Grover room to take it from there and improvise. I would say that the theme of the album is to honor the songs, look at them individually, see how they stand up on their own, and how they lyrically, melodically, and harmonically convey beauty to you. You don’t have to know what precedes or comes after them in the play. Each song becomes a story in itself.”
“Color and Light” is the one song on the album that’s most (virtually) in context. Sunday in the Park with George envisions the Georges Seurat painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte come to life. Seurat’s technique created images from jillions of colorful dots that come together in the mind’s eye. Herbie Hancock’s piano recreated Seurat’s pointillism with music, as if notes were dots beautifully painting Sondheim’s song.
Also of note, “They Ask Me Why I Believe in You,” written in the ’50s for an unproduced television special, was lost until transcribed from a tape by Sondheim associate Paul McKibbins. Here we present a rare recording of Stephen Sondheim as pianist. His very touching performance comes first, then variations from Herbie Hancock. “He suggested about five songs and thought this song would have changes that would be good for Herbie to take off on,” says Goodman. “Sondheim really hates performing. He said yes in a weak moment and then respected his word and did it.”
Miles Goodman and Oscar Castro-Neves feel that Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim will encourage other jazz artists to perform Sondheim’s songs – and it’s only the beginning. “It’s inexhaustible, the material,” exclaims Castro-Neves. “All the musicals have something to offer. We could do five albums.”
Or, at least, Sketches on Sondheim … II?
– Michael Bourne
Bruce Barth, piano
Brian Blade, drums
Terence Blanchard, trumpet
Peabo Bryson, vocal
Oscar Castro-Neves, guitar
Holly Cole, vocal
Scott Colley, bass
Aaron Davis, piano
Troy Davis, drums
Jim Hall, guitar
Herbie Hancock, piano
Jeff Hirshfield, drums
Geoff Keezer, piano
Christian McBride, bass
Brad Mehldau, piano
David Piltch, bass
Joshua Redman, tenor sax
Wayne Shorter, soprano sax
Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums
Stephen Sondheim, piano
Chris Thomas, bass
Grover Washington, Jr., tenor sax
Nancy Wilson, vocal