In this month’s cover story on Cyrille Aimée, Allen Morrison refers to a February 2019 show at Birdland on West 44th St. in New York—Aimée’s first public performance of the Stephen Sondheim interpretations that make up her latest album, Move On. It just so happens that I was at the show he mentions. I remember it well, not just because it was so great (although it was) but because of who my immediate neighbor was.
After taking my seat, I looked around the club and couldn’t help thinking that the white-grizzled man at the table in front of mine seemed awfully familiar. It took a minute—I’m a little slow sometimes—but then I realized he was in fact Stephen Sondheim. Because his back was mostly turned to me, I could take advantage of my proximity and observe the songwriter’s reactions during the set without being overly bothersome.
Reader, rarely have I seen a man more enthralled by a concert. He laughed. He cried. He moved his body back and forth in his chair with vigor. His hands tapped out joyful rhythms on the table. He applauded profusely after every song. The fact that all of the songs were his added a special charm to the whole affair. But his behavior was in no way egotistical; his responses were those of a great artist being tickled to bits by the creative possibilities another great artist heard in his work.
The Birdland set made it clear that Sondheim greatly appreciates it when jazz artists take on his music. We all ought to appreciate that too. As Morrison points out, the man hasn’t had many opportunities to celebrate such events; his songs generally remain on the periphery of the jazz repertoire. Given the lofty status that Sondheim enjoys in the world of musical theater, and the important position that showtunes have traditionally occupied in jazz, this is a little surprising. Then again, the Broadway in which Sondheim made his reputation hasn’t had quite the same relationship to the pop marketplace as it once did during the so-called golden age of jazz—and it can be helpful, at least sometimes, when lots of people already know the melody you’re improvising on.
Still, Aimée’s album demonstrates that it’s worth getting acquainted with Sondheim’s melodies. Perhaps, with any luck, Move On will help open the door for others to investigate his catalog. Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers are all geniuses, of course, and will always remain so, but why not choose material a little closer to our own time and give it the kind of new life that only jazz can?
Sour Note: The title of Ben Monder’s latest album was misstated in our October feature; it is Day After Day, not Day by Day.