September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill

Published September 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Teresa Stratas, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Kurt Weill's music after Lotte Lenya, once noted that the poet Langston Hughes had called Weill "a truly universal artist, who could with equal justice be claimed by Germany as German, France as a Frenchman, by America as an American, and by me, as a Negro." Maybe that's why Weill's music is such a delicious subject for producer Hal Wilner, who's built a solid career out of bringing together disparate artists to interpret the work of major figures like Thelonious Monk and lesser ones like Walt Disney.

"September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill," a selection of songs recorded by the likes of Elvis Costello, P.J. Harvey, Charlie Haden and Stratas herself, is Wilner's second go-round with Weill.
(The first was the album "Lost in the Stars.") If you're looking for the "definitive" way to interpret Weill, then only one singer -- Weill's wife, Lenya -- can wear the crown. But once you throw out the expectation that anyone could ever compare to Lenya (no one ever will), Weill's music begs to be covered by rock 'n' rollers, jazz dudes and opera singers alike: The Weill songbook isn't a one-dish meal, but a virtual banquet. Diverse and uncategorizable -- spanning his earliest, edgy collaborations with Bertolt Brecht and his later
Broadway compositions, with their breathtaking emotional depth -- Weill's work practically invites a brainy kind of playfulness.

Or, ideally, it should. One of the problems with "September Songs" -- which was conceived as an accompaniment to a forthcoming film project of the same name by director Larry Weinstein -- is that many of the artists featured tread too timidly around Weill's work. The disc's first three songs -- Nick Cave's "Mack the Knife," P.J. Harvey's "The
Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" and a version of "Alabama Song" anchored by David Johansen and Ellen Shipley -- are all weighed down by the artists' insistence on capturing that trademark Brechtian dank, cabaret-music feel. Of course, at the most basic level, the Weill-Brecht collaborations are dank cabaret music -- but if you're too adamant about grabbing for that kind of "authenticity" (and the plodding Cave is the worst offender), you can't get anywhere close to the subtle emotional undertones of the songs. Harvey's "The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" is particularly disappointing. With her smoky timbre and her intuitive grasp of the blues, she's the perfect choice for the song, but she sounds a little too sleepy to give it much gravity.

But, as with the other Wilner projects, half the fun for the listener is picking through the selections like a magpie and pulling out your own personal treasures. Once I disqualified the vintage recording of Lenya's unparalleled "Pirate Jenny" (it's too good -- no fair!), mine included Stratas' versions of "Youkali Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny." Stratas' vocals on the former, accompanied by plush
bandoneon, are like a dashing sweep of silk, all dancing light and delicious, rippling weightiness. And she gives the lyrics of "Surabaya Johnny," sung in German, so much resonance that you don't even need to know the English version to grasp their flintiness or their pathos. (And the sequencing of the album just might help you crystallize why you respond to some singers and not to others. Stratas' "Johnny" comes right on the heels of Betty Carter's facile, mannered "Lonely House." Carter, an accomplished jazz singer, does vocally zany stuff
because she can -- she's artistically, not emotionally, expressive. With Stratas you get the whole ball of wax.)

"September Songs" hits a few embarrassing low points -- the lowest being a version of "Don't Be Afraid" turned into an artsy joke by Mary Margaret O'Hara's flapdoodle phrasing. But the record's two standouts more than make up for its flubs. The first is a staggeringly bittersweet reading of "Lost in the Stars" by Elvis Costello and the
Brodsky Quartet. There's no pop singer working today who can touch Costello when it comes to innate passion, and his voice is more resonant, more pliable, more expressive than ever. He stares
fearlessly into the heartbreak at the center of the song. When his voice cracks on the line "And we're lost out here in the stars," it's as if he's standing on the edge of the universe himself.

Costello's "Lost in the Stars" and Charlie Haden's "Speak Low" are markedly different, but they support "September Songs" like bookends. "Speak Low" opens with Haden stating the melody on solo bass, mapping out its subtle, shadowy shape as if he were tracing the curve of a woman's neck. That melody is just a starting point. Suddenly, it opens up a magic corridor into a vintage piano and vocal recording by Weill himself. The sound sample comes complete with surface crackle and hiss -- it's a faraway, dreamy sound, as if Weill is singing to us from a distance, beyond the stars -- and Haden's pliant, dreamy bass slips back in quietly, making a cradle for the vocal. Haden's "Speak Low" is both lullaby and love letter, soothing and visceral at the same time. It's the best example of what a perceptive musician can do to pay tribute to a great composer: Take a few chances with the material, enough to carry it just to the edge of outer space -- and then bring it back, gently, to the surface of the earth, where it belongs.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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