The story-driven songs of Kurt Weill provide some of theater’s most complex and compelling musical moments. With collaborators like Bertolt Brecht, and later the crème de la crème of Broadway—Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, and Maxwell Anderson—Weill aimed to raise musical theater’s artistic level by combining its commercial popularity with significant themes like psychology, racism and poverty. This may sound ponderous, but the result was some of our loveliest melodies and most haunting lyrics.
The Kurt Weill Project studied the songbook and chose a potpourri of Weill songs for an imaginative jazz take on a new CD, A Song About Forever, Songs by Kurt Weill. The versatile jazzmen of The Kurt Weill Project include pianist Frank Ponzio, drummer Vito Lesczak, bass player Peter Donovan with the additions of Leif Arntzen on trumpet and Aaron Heick on clarinet for this recording. Hilary Gardner, an engaging vocalist, steps out in front and the entire ensemble delivers the selections with creativity and imagery.
Soprano Gardner has a rich tone that comprises enough shadowing to texture the songs as the musicians behind her explore the melodies. Her vocal clarity does not camouflage the loneliness in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” with Donovan’s bass depth behind her. She lightly swings “Mack the Knife,” yet the arrangement, dissonant and spare, adds suitable dramatic darkness. The French lyrics of “Youkali” (by Roger Vernay) harken back to Weill’s days in Paris, and clarinetist Aaron Heick supports Gardner’s delivery with gentle romanticism. Behind them are Ponzio’s piano chords and Donovan’'s moody bass. “Speak Low” is deliberate with Gardner’s long, slow lines, a subtle dive into the noir stories. Arranged by drummer Lesczak and pianist Ponzio, “September Song” has a mellow swing that picks up the song’s spirit as well as twinges of nostalgia.
There is a pleasing mix of familiar tunes and others seldom heard. The tracks are leisurely and give generous space for all the musicians to stretch and explore after stating the classic melody.
This is a project of blue-ribbon musicianship for a jazz audience. A Song About Forever does not offer the classic taste of Weill, but the interpretations search out the challenging thoughtfulness of Weill’s melodies, and Hilary Gardner’s vocals communicate the stories with effective authority.