Experiments in Dissonance: That wasn't the title of the program of popular standards produced by Hal Willner for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series at the Allen Room on Wednesday evening. But it would have been a more accurate description of the concert somewhat misleadingly called "Hal Willner's I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues? Music and Readings from 'A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.'" (Note the question mark in the title.)
One of the more celebrity-heavy shows in the history of the Songbook series, the concert lured to the stage guests like Sting, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and Van Dyke Parks, performing standards with a 14-member orchestra. Standout players who defined an orchestral style that might be described as Hawaiian-flavored swing, with shimmering vibes and guitar, included the guitarist Bill Frisell and the percussionist Bill Ware. The reed player Roy Nathanson was the overall music director.
The dissonance was not only harmonic but also cognitive. The concert purported to explore the social and musical ramifications of the Jewish origins of the major composers of pre-rock American standards, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer being the great exceptions. "A Fine Romance" by David Lehman (Schocken Books, 2009) is an appreciative, scholarly study of traditional popular song that goes into considerable and enlightening detail about the intermingling of black and Jewish popular music, primarily from the first half of the 20th century.
But instead of the promised readings from Mr. Lehman's book, there was only a program note excerpt. To explore the history examined in the book, Steve Cuiffo delivered an astoundingly accurate impersonation of Lenny Bruce mouthing off in his hot-wired hipster argot about the black-Jewish connection. You could say that Mr. Cuiffo, who made you feel the sense of danger crackling around Bruce, sideswiped the themes in Mr. Lehman's book with a very sharp elbow.
There was also a narrator, Ken Nordine, who played a supercilious cosmic D.J. dispensing unctuous nothings about the golden age of songwriting. Underneath the oily words of love he lavished on the songs lurked an unmistakable note of contempt.
A hyperbolic reverence masking an attitude of hip condescension also characterized some of the performances. Mr. Parks, one of pop music's notable eccentrics, got the concert off to a shaky start with a chaotic arrangement of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" that sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Mr. Wainwright gamely tried to make sense of that Berlin standard above the noise. Mr. Parks later returned to sing the worst version I've ever heard of "September Song," similarly arranged.
Among the 12 songs on the program, Mr. Nathanson had a hand in arranging six. Several toyed with varying degrees of bitonality and polyrhythmic tension, with the horns and strings and the rhythm section proceeding at different paces.
The strongest performances were the most traditional ones, which allowed the performers to interpret the lyrics. By far the best was Mr. Wainwright's version of George Gershwin and B. G. DeSylva's "Do It Again!," crooned very slowly in a half-falsetto. Here was a singer entering a song and turning it into his own personal dream world.
Sting's performances of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Love Is Here to Stay" were respectable, straightforward, no-frills interpretations. The other singers included Shannon McNally ("Yesterdays," "Troubled Mind"); Mark Anthony Thompson ("Spanish Harlem" and a wonderful, sultry blues version of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues"); Jenni Muldaur ("I Should Care"); Christine Ohlman ("Stormy Weather" and "Ill Wind"); and Mr. Reed ("One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," done as a droning, one-note put-on with his own rolling-thunder guitar).
Whatever else you could say about the concert, the songs survived this ambitious postmodern experiment in nostalgia.
Lincoln Center's American Songbook 2010 series continues through March 6 at the Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway and 60th Street; (212) 721-6500, americansongbook.org.
© New York Times by Stephen Holden