Live Music: Alan Bergman at Vibrato Grill Jazz…Etc.

March 1, 2011
By Don Heckman

Hearing Alan Bergman perform a program of his songs Tuesday night at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. was like hearing Johnny Mercer sing “One For My Baby” or Antonio Carlos Jobim do “Aguas de Marzo.”  I say “his” songs inclusively, since they really were songs with lyrics written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, with music by the likes of Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin and others.

When one considers what that list of songs includes – “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” and “The Way We Were” and more – there was enough hit power in the program to make for an intriguing performance on that basis alone.

But that wasn’t what this evening was about.  The real center of attention was the slender, smiling figure of 85 year old Bergman, perched on a stool, singing with the sole backing of pianist Bill Cantos and bassist Trey Henry.  His singing, his way with a song, his utterly convincing ability to tell a story, were enough to mesmerize his listeners.  Add to that the extraordinary lyrics by the Bergmans, combined with the soaring melodies by their world class composer partners, and the result was that too-rare experience, a musical evening to remember.

Every song, in its own way, was a highlight.  But there were pieces that had additionally captivating moments: the jaunty swing (perfectly enhanced by Cantos and Henry) of “Nice ‘n’ Easy” and “It Might Be You”; the less familiar, but no less engaging “The Trouble With Hello Is Goodbye” and “What Matters Most,” both written with Grusin; a whimsical break in the Bergman part of the program for Cantos to sing “Everybody’s On the Phone” – his version, not the Jimmy Buffett tune.  As well as the most touching moment – Bergman’s tender rendition of his “That Face,” originally written in the late ‘50s as a gift to his then soon to be wife – topped off with a gentle smile in the direction of Marilyn Bergman, seated in the audience.

As I said, a memorable evening.  Bergman recorded most of these songs with full orchestra in the 2007 album, Lyrically Alan Bergman, his debut as a singer.  It’s a CD that should be owned by anyone with a love for American song.

But as the Tuesday night performance concluded, I found myself wishing for a Bergman recording of the same songs, perhaps via a DVD video, with just a rhythm section, preferably Cantos and Henry with a sensitive drummer – say Peter Erskine.  Why?  Because the musical airiness of the sound, the intimacy of the setting and the spontaneous empathy between singer and players brought these remarkable songs alive in way that warrants re-hearing and re-seeing.