The Anderson Twins – reed players Peter and Will Anderson – specialize in charming concept-concerts paying tribute to great artists of the jazz age. What better way to kick off a monthlong series of composer tributes than with the songs of Irving Berlin?
We’ve previously covered the Andersons honoring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and the jazz greats of France. For their current residence at Symphony Space the twins have cooked up tributes to Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jimmy Van Heusen.
But first – and in some ways he is first among the greats – they brought us Irving Berlin. Born Israel Beilin in Russia in 1888, Berlin became the very face of American song through a six-decade career. The show included a lot of Berlin’s best-known songs and a few you may not have heard of, interspersed with nuggets of his life story and clips of his music as featured in popular culture – movies, TV, commercials, even war fundraising – over the decades.
Backed by pianist Steve Ash, bassist Clovis Nicholas, and drummer Phil Stewart, the Andersons opened the show with Berlin’s first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” from way back in 1911. Leading the parade with the piping sounds of clarinet and soprano sax, the Andersons established a polished, good-time vibe that carried into an energetically swinging “Cheek to Cheek” and persisted through the evening.
Will Anderson’s especially scintillating alto sax solo spiced up the perennial favorite “Blue Skies,” while “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” sailed on Molly Ryan’s silken vocals. The most somber and perhaps most touching number was a piano-clarinet duet of “What’ll I Do?,” a hit for Nat King Cole, which Berlin wrote (as Will explained) in response to his mother’s death. That confrontation with mortality, together with the public’s changing musical tastes (Berlin was always commercial-minded), helped push the songwriter away from old-fashioned ragtime and toward ballads of love and loss.
Love was the name of game in “Always,” which Berlin wrote for his wife Ellin. Peter delivered an especially facile tenor solo in this energetically swinging arrangement.
The brothers showed off Berlin’s fun side with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” animated by fluid sax and piano solos and Ryan’s bright, animated vocals, and with “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” one of the evening’s highlights with singer and saxes dueting cleverly. No one can be Ethel Merman, but Ryan’s nimble tonalities and rhythmic agility shone throughout the evening.
Another highlight was “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” in a jump swing arrangement with a clarinet-and-alto-sax attack and a fine melodic bass solo from Nicholas. Peter Anderson’s arrangements are concise enough to fit a good number of songs into the show’s 90-minute time slot, but inventive enough to open up for solos and moments of inventive big-band-style counterpoint.
In particular, the brothers have worked together for so long and have such a tight musical bond that there’s an easy flow to their trade-offs and interplay. Bebop aficionados seeking extended immersion in jazz virtuosity can look for it elsewhere (though the Andersons and their band have chops aplenty); these shows are designed to delight the general public.
In doing so, they give us not only great music but nuggets of biographical history. What was Berlin like? What made him tick? What were his weirdnesses? (He did have some, musically at least.) The great Jerome Kern, up next in the Andersons’ four-course meal at Symphony Space, said that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.” in fact, Berlin, who died in 1989 at age 101, had a key place – several places, in fact – in popular music for the better part of a century. Beginning their Songbook Summit with him makes perfect sense.
The Songbook Summit series continues with tributes to Jerome Kern (Aug. 14-19), Hoagy Carmichael (Aug. 21-26), and Jimmy Van Heusen (Aug. 28-Sept. 2). Visit the Symphony Space website for tickets to Jerome Kern week or the rest of the series.