It must have been a remarkable sight. Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim making an extremely rare appearance inside a studio, at the piano, ready to record. He walked into the empty room, sat down at the piano, propped up a piece of music on the stand and nodded at the control booth.
"He looked pretty relaxed, but he really hates performing," said Miles Goodman, co-producer of "Color and Light" (Sony Classical), a new album of Sondheim tunes performed by such jazz artists as Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and Nancy Wilson, with a brief appearance by the composer. "I think he promised to do it in a weak moment, and then he was just too good a sport to back out."
The recording of the one short track Sondheim had agreed to do took only a few minutes. The reclusive composer had wrestled with which piece of music to select, starting out with five choices before finally settling on the almost completely unknown "They Ask Me Why I Believe in You," a tune written for a never-produced television special in the 1950s.
Goodman kept the event as simple as possible--no photographers, no guests, just the producer, the engineer and Sondheim.
"I just had an intuitive feeling that it was the only way he'd do it," Goodman said. "And that was it. He showed up on time, with the music in his hands, sat down at the piano and played it."
On the recording, Sondheim's spare but keenly focused reading is joined to an improvisation on the same tune by pianist Herbie Hancock. The coupling was assembled with an eye toward establishing a high level of immediacy between the two versions.
It worked for Sondheim.
"I was stunned that Herbie could find so much to take off from," he said in a recent telephone conversation from his New York home. "And because it was piano, and because it's the one instrument I know something about, I really was trying to get into his head and figure out what prompted him to go from Point A to Point B to Point C. I still haven't gotten it, and maybe it's because I don't have an improvisatory head. But just trying to follow his musical mind is fascinating to me."
The album's other co-producer, guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, agreed.
"When we brought Herbie in," he said, "he hadn't heard the song and, of course, didn't know it at all. We played Sondheim's tape for him. Herbie listened closely, scratched out a few chords, decided he'd modulate into a new key and went at it. It was totally spontaneous, which is exactly what we wanted to capture--his first, sudden impression of the song."
The result is a perfect symbol of the album itself, a strikingly expressive creative linkage of Sondheim and jazz--the kind of linkage that many observers felt could never be effective. But there can be little doubt that this entertaining, breakthrough recording by an impressive lineup of performers opens the door to further examination of the wealth of material in his catalogue.
Sondheim, who celebrated his 65th birthday on March 22, has been for the last 2 1/2 decades (via such shows as "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods") the most persistently creative--not to mention one of the most persistently criticized--force in the Broadway musical theater. (His "Assassins" is currently being staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.)
Yet, with the exception of "Send in the Clowns"--recorded with great intensity by Sarah Vaughan in 1981--and isolated instances such as a Sondheim recording in the '80s by the vocal duo of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, his music has rarely been performed by jazz artists. But neither he nor the producers buy the often-expressed premise that his music is somehow inappropriate for examination by jazz players because his tunes depart too far from standard song form or because they integrate lyric and melody too concisely to allow for free-ranging improvisations.
"I welcome the attention," Sondheim said. "And I'm frankly surprised that others haven't picked up on some of this music before. I guess I can understand why for freely improvising musicians--jazz people, let's say--the music is maybe too structured and doesn't give them enough freedom to just take off. At least I've heard that comment.
"But maybe it has something to do with unfamiliarity. I've written a number of standard-form works with very simple lyrics--ballads, mostly. And a couple of singers have picked up on them. So I think part of it is exposure. If people could hear the tunes it might be different."
If the reception to "Color and Light" is any indication, Sondheim is correct about the importance of exposure. The album has been an almost instant hit, arriving on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart at No. 10 and later climbing to the No. 2 position.