With the exception of West Side Story, I’ve never been able to stomach show tunes, musical theater, or Broadway shows. For me, music and theater work best apart. I know many people will find that idiotic or narrow-minded, and I don’t have a good response—I’ve simply never liked that sort of stuff, even though many songs written for musicals or shows have become staples of the jazz repertoire. (I have no beef with them in that context. In fact, I often love them—because no theater.)
I’m aware that composer Stephen Sondheim is a special case—by consensus, his music exists on a higher, more sophisticated plane—but I still don’t want to hear Barbra Streisand sing “Send in the Clowns.” Superb pianist Anthony de Mare doesn’t share my antipathy, though, and this acclaimed interpreter (he’s tackled material by the likes of Frederic Rzweski, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Meredith Monk, Morton Feldman, and Lou Harrison) decided to salute Sondheim’s compositions with a fascinating and ambitious project that recently culminated in the three-CD set Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano (ECM). Beginning in 2007, de Mare commissioned dozens of modern composers to reinvent pieces from Sondheim’s repertoire, transforming the songs with a multitude of approaches. Their essence remains, but in most cases they sound utterly new, allowing the listener to reconsider the originals in previously unimaginable ways. Most of the participants are composers working in contemporary classical music, but de Mare also recruited jazz figures (Wynton Marsalis, Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, Fred Hersch) and pop artists (Duncan Sheik, Gabriel Kahane). I don’t care for all 37 pieces, but the set is a striking and highly listenable collection.
Certain pieces leap right out, such as Steve Reich’s “Finishing the Hat—2 Pianos,” which leaves Sondheim’s original melody mostly untouched while pushing the rhythms toward his own ever-shifting drive. (Reich’s contribution is one of three you can hear at this ECM page—click “music.”) Rzweski’s “I’m Still Here” injects gorgeous melancholy and wild harmonies, while Marsalis adds bursts of gear-shifting stride, ragtime, and boogie-woogie to “That Old Piano Roll.” Akiho’s “Into the Woods” substitutes different prepared-piano timbres for the various characters singing in the original. Among the other participants: Nico Muhly, Eve Beglarian, Derek Bermel, Annie Gosfield, Phil Kline, Andy Akiho, Bernadette Speach, Mark Anthony-Turnage, and May Ellen Childs. On Saturday, de Mare will perform 11 pieces from the project, including those by Reich, Marsalis, Sheik, Hersh, Muhly, and Akiho, at the PianoForte Foundation.
Larry Young, Of Love and Peace (Blue Note)
György Ligeti, The Ligeti Project III (Teldec)
Lars Gullin, 1953-55: Danny’s Dream (Dragon)
Michael Chapman, Wrecked Again (Light in the Attic)
Bang on a Can, Bang on a Can Plays Louis Andriessen: Gigantic Dancing Human Machine (Cantaloupe)