By Don Heckman
Bel Air, CA. Alan Bergman made one of his too-rare club appearances Wednesday night in an utterly captivating performance at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. It’s always a pleasure to hear songwriters do their own music. And even more fascinating when the songwriter is as fine a performing artist as Bergman. In his mid eighties, his voice is still young and warm, his phrasing alive with interpretive expressiveness.
Of course it helps that Bergman and his wife Marilyn have written some of the most extraordinary song lyrics of the past few decades. Working with such stellar composers as Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch, Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin and others, the couple has produced Academy Award and Golden Globe Award songs. In 1983 three of their songs were included among the five Academy Award nominees.
Performing before a packed house crowd sprinkled with music and film world celebrities, Bergman presented the same relaxed demeanor he usually displays in his occasional live appearances. Backed by the superb accompaniment of pianist Bill Cantos and bassist Kevin Axt, he led an intriguing musical tour through the far-reaching Bergman songbook (as well as the offbeat addition of a hilarious Cantos song, “Everybody’s on the Phone,” sung by its composer.)
Starting the set, Bergman noted that it would be an evening of love songs – of love in all its many manifestations. And he delivered on the promise — not surprisingly, since love is the primary topic of so many of the Bergman songs. But there was more, too – much more.
The first two songs, the jaunty “Nice and Easy,” followed by the poignant intimacy of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?, ” immediately revealed the creative depths of the Bergman’s love lyrics.
Other, equally far ranging tunes included the cri de coeur of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” the stunning sequence of images in “The Windmills of Your Mind” and the unabashed expressiveness of “That Face” (actually written by Alan Bergman as a love song to Marilyn Bergman).
Add to that such breakout hits as “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “Memories (The Way We Were).”
And there was some new material as well, including the whimsical description of the Bergmans’ working relationship – “One Washes, One Dries” – the rap style of “The Lord Made Woman,” and a gorgeously melodic partnership with composer Roger Kellaway on “A Place That You Want To Call Home.”
Mentioning some of the gifted composers he and Marilyn have worked with, Alan offered a brief but illuminating thought about their process, as lyricists. “The words are on the tips of the notes,” he said. “And we have to find them.”
That they’ve done precisely that was amply clear in the program of songs he sang. While each of those songs is fully capable of standing on its own, his readings – for this listener – are the definitive versions. I’ve heard Alan do a similar program several times in the past. But on this night his performance was exquisite, lovingly grasping the fullness of each song, finding the magic linkages between the words and “the tips of the notes.”
Photos by Bobby Colomby.