What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap's "The Silver Lining"

If Whitney Balliett, the great New Yorker jazz critic, were alive today, I’m sure he’d be savoring Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap’s superb new album, The Silver Lining. Balliett, who died in 2007, was a fan of both Bennett and Charlap. In his classic profile of Bennett, “A Quality That Lets You In” (The New Yorker, January 7, 1974; included in Balliett’s 1979 collection American Singers), he wrote,

He [Bennett] drives a ballad as intensely and intimately as Sinatra. He can be a lilting, glancing jazz singer. He can be a low-key, searching supper-club performer. But Bennett’s voice binds all his vocal selves together. It is pitched slightly higher than Sinatra’s (it was once a tenor, but it has deepened over the years), and it has a rich, expanding quality that is immediately identifiable. It has a joyous quality, a pleased, shouting-within quality.

Bennett was forty-eight when Balliett wrote those words. Now he’s eighty-nine. Amazingly, Balliett’s description still applies. If anything, Bennett’s voice is even richer now than it was in 1974, when Balliett profiled him. And it still has that “joyous quality” that Balliett mentions. Listening to him sing Jerome Kern’s gorgeous songs on The Silver Lining, I’m struck by his expressiveness; he sounds like he really believes the lyrics he’s singing.

Bennett and Charlap’s singer-accompanist relationship seems perfect. To my knowledge this is the first time they’ve performed together. Charlap seems to intuit Bennett’s every melodic move, embracing them, celebrating them. He’s a great jazz pianist. Balliett thought so, too. Here’s some of what he said about him in his wonderful “The Natural” (The New Yorker, April 19, 1999):

His ballad numbers are unique. He may start with the verse of the song, played ad lib, then move into the melody chorus. He does not rhapsodize. Instead, he improvises immediately, rearranging the chords and the melody line, and using a relaxed, almost implied beat. He may pause for a split second at the end of this chorus and launch a nodding, swinging single-note solo chorus, made up of irregularly placed notes – some off the beat and some behind the beat – followed by connective runs, and note clusters. He closes with a brief, calming recap of the melody. His ballads are meditations on songs, homages to their composers and lyricists. He constantly reins in his up-tempo numbers. He has formidable technique, but he never shows off, even when he will let loose epic runs, massive staccato chords, racing upper-register tintinnabulations, and, once in a while, some dazzling counterpoint, his hands pitted against each other. His sound shines; each note is rounded. Best of all, in almost every number, regardless of its speed, he leaves us a phrase, a group of irregular notes, an ardent bridge that shakes us.

That “His sound shines; each note is rounded” is inspired. It exactly describes Charlap’s playing on The Silver Lining. The album is sublime.

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