There’s a generally accepted belief that the most illuminating way to hear a song is in a performance by its creator. And plenty of singer-songwriters – from Lennon & McCartney to Amy Winehouse – affirm the general accuracy of that belief. But when it comes down to plain old non-performing songwriters, things get a little more skewed. And there are (and have been) some songwriters whom -- trust me – you would not want to hear singing their own tunes, or anyone else’s.
All of which leads me to a Michael Feinstein appearance last night at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, in a performance devoted to songs with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. That’s a pretty inviting idea in itself – one of the contemporary music world’s gifted interpreters of song working with a superlative catalog of music.
But what gave the evening a quality that moved the songs beyond interpretation and into transformation was the guest artist presence of Alan Bergman, the sine qua non of non-performing songwriters. (Yes, I know that Bergman shows up from time to time to offer his inimitable take on his and other songs; but his gigs are few and far between.) And it would be hard to imagine anyone who could bring every phrase, every subtle nuance, every internal rhyme, every sly, inside joke, to life the way Bergman did.
He only sang a few songs, peaking with stunning readings of “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” Before the performance he whispered to me that he was going to have to use a cheat sheet to get all the lyrics of “Windmills” right. “It’s hard,” he said, “to remember an old song, when you’re working on a new one.” As he and Marilyn are now doing with composer Marvin Hamlisch. But no problem. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim’s rendering of his “Waters of March,” Bergman’s gorgeous musical narration of “Windmills” was a journey through the primal elements of life, itself.
Before he sang “What Are You Doing…” he explained the origin of the song, written for the film “The Happy Ending” (and nominated for an Academy Award). The instruction the Bergmans received from the director, Richard Brooks, was to write a song that would sound appropriate at the start of a relationship, and at its ending, without changing a word. And Bergman’s rendering found – in the same words -- both the tender romance of the former and the sardonic irony of the latter.
To Feinstein’s credit, his own versions of Bergman material – some of it less familiar – had its own special cachet, enhanced by his unique ability to find the inner heartbeat of everything he sings. And his capacity to defer to Alan Bergman and the Bergman songs, while doing his own thing, and enhancing the evening with wit and humor, was the action of a confident and skillful performer.
Feinstein and Bergman were accompanied, in this constantly entertaining evening, by the superb accompaniment of Alan Broadbent and his Quintet.
Feinstein and Bergman perform tonight (Thursday, August 22) through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-2210.