The Essence of Collaboration
February 1, 2011
I attended what I thought was going to be a "crossover" concert last night: A performance at Yoshi's jazz club by Simone Dinnerstein, a classical pianist best known for her crystal clean yet emotionally deep interpretations of J S Bach's music, and Tift Merritt, a rock musician and singer-songwriter in the tradition of Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell.
Some of the concert -- the least compelling parts of it -- did indeed go into crossover terrain with Dinnerstein performing Daniel Felsenfeld's dense but ultimately tedious variations on the Leonard Cohen song "Suzanne" and Merritt performing truly tuneless renditions of Faure's art song "Apres un Reve" and - worst of all - "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.
Where the experience scored high marks for me was in the duo's attempt to find a middle ground between the worlds of classical and rock music. Merritt and Dinnerstein made beautiful music together when they played three works that they had commissioned from composers specially for their collaborative project -- Brad Mehldau, Patty Griffin and Stephen Lasser. The Lasser piece in particular was absolutely gorgeous, with careening piano lines that provided Dinnerstein with the perfect canvas to show off her technical and soulful musicianship and unexpected harmonies that gave an edge to Merritt's ambling, cutesy voice.
I realized while listening that the three composers had caught the essence of collaboration for these two very different artists. Instead of focusing on "crossover" projects, more artists should consider working in this way. It's less about showing how an artist can successfully or not so successfully transition into a genre with which they are less familiar (a feat, which even when well executed, often comes off as being gimmicky) and more about encouraging people from disparate traditions to meet at a musically-enriching crossroads.