Tift Merritt: voice / guitar
The collaborative album Night, which pairs classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein with rootsy singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, is a smorgasbord of songs cherry-picked from various corners of history and culture. Classical music, jazz, American traditional songs, and a smattering of brand new compositions are included on the recording. It is an interesting and revealing sonic journal of a musical partnership in which both artists embrace elements of risk and experimentation.
As might be expected, it is possible to hear somewhat of an inverse relationship between the artists’ comfort levels, depending on what song is being performed. According to interviews with the two, Merritt, who learned her art by ear, was not accustomed to reading music when she and Dinnerstein began working together, while Dinnerstein had never really improvised before. So in Schubert’s “Night and Dreams,” “Dido’s Lament” by Purcell, and Bach’s Prelude in B minor from the Clavierbüchlein, Dinnerstein sounds as if she is very much in familiar territory, while Merritt seems less so. The singer substantially calms down the more pop/country-ish inflections in her voice for these songs, but the resulting delivery feels a little stiff. However, she effectively conveys the emotional content of those works, and it would be interesting to hear how her interpretations develop over repeated performances.
But put a guitar in Merritt’s hands, and she breaks out of that shell to let her voice fly free, most notably on the traditional song “Wayfaring Stranger” and on her own compositions “Still Not Home” and “Colors,” which incorporates a delightful, spare background of plucked piano strings, rendered by Dinnerstein.
Dinnerstein gets her moment—though I kind of wish there were more moments just for her on this disc—on Daniel Felsenfeld’s “The Cohen Variations.” Originally commissioned by Dinnerstein, the work is a poignant fantasy on Leonard Cohen’s iconic song, “Suzanne.”
The two artists seem best paired in the Nina Simone arrangement of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” and Brad Mehldau’s arresting “I Shall Weep at Night.” Each is a bit outside of her element, but together they power through any personally uncharted territories to make the songs work.
Especially notable about this CD is the recording quality, which is drop-dead gorgeous. The piano, Tift Merritt’s voice, and her guitar sound lush, full, and close at hand; a decadent massage for the ears of artfully captured acoustic sound. While some aspects of Night may not be completely effective, it nevertheless houses thoughtful arrangements and elegantly wrought performances, making it a rewarding listen.