Bolcom and Morris
Chestnuts and evergreens
by arwulf arwulf
From the December, 2016 issue
Like her accompanist, husband, and artistic collaborator William Bolcom, Joan Morris specializes in old-fashioned popular music. On December 16 her extraordinary stage presence will enliven Kerrytown Concert House with an intimate tribute to great American songwriters. While most will be represented by only one number, the duo plans to perform two by Johnny Mercer, who had a knack for fitting American lyrics to European ballads. The melody for "Autumn Leaves" was composed by the Hungarian Joseph Kosma with words by French surrealist poet Jacques Prevert. Mercer rewrote only part of the famous chorus--during which Bolcom promises not to replicate pop pianist Roger Williams' deciduous arpeggios. "When the World Was Young," introduced in 1950 by Edith Piaf as "Le Chevalier de Paris," was written by Philippe Gerard with lyrics by Angele Vannier. Mercer's English version describes a wintry nostalgia for "last July, when the world was young."
Irving Berlin's "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" and the Rodgers and Hart ballad "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" are also being considered for inclusion. "Larry Hart is my guy," says Morris. "I adore his lyrics, their ability to be heart-wrenching and funny at turns, sometimes in the same song." Nestled among the chestnuts and evergreens are rarely performed tunes of earlier vintage, including an all-but-forgotten air by legendary bandleader James Reese Europe. A towering figure in the African American musical landscape during the 1910s, he and his Society Orchestra backed exhibition ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle when they premiered the fox-trot in 1916. During WWI, Europe and his all-black 369th Infantry Hellfighters Band bolstered troop morale by performing perilously close to the front lines. Tragically, he was murdered by a deranged percussionist in 1919. Also on the program is a composition by Europe's disciple, ragtime pianist Eubie Blake.
Over the past forty years Morris has been writing a book, tentatively titled Singing the Words. She is working on a chapter devoted to poet Arnold Weinstein, who wrote
libretti for Bolcom's operas and collaborated with him on a set of twenty-four cabaret songs, mostly inspired by Morris. "Joan's influence is all over the songs in all sorts of ways," says Bolcom. "Her diction is impeccable because she acts every word in depth." They intend to honor Weinstein with the somber and hauntingly beautiful "Waitin'." Written by Weinstein and Bolcom, it is the last song Morris sang to him before he passed away in 2005.
Having time to refine the program for their soiree at Kerrytown, Morris says, is "a luxury we're not used to. I'm loving it! Memories of old friends, tunes all crowding in, wanting to be heard--as Arnold says in one song, 'Time, get out of my hair!'"
[Originally published in December, 2016.]
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