What do we talk about when we talk about the Great American Songbook?
Historians and critics have boiled the term down to mean, more or less, the warm, witty, sophisticated songs that were written and composed from the 1920s through the beginning of the rock and roll era in the 1960s — the well groomed, pulse-quickening music of Broadway, Hollywood musicals and Tin Pan Alley. This music has become part of our cultural DNA, and we know it on aural contact: the ringing and often soigné songs of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Rodgers and Hart, among many others. These composers and lyricists remind us that in music, like everything else in life, standards do matter.
For many listeners, however, the Great American Songbook can often seem most interesting at its fraying edges — those places where it bleeds into the music that both preceded and immediately followed it. At the historical back end, this means the work of Stephen Foster and other early American songwriters. At the front, it can mean the alternately pointed and soaring songs of performers ranging from Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Tom Waits to Sufjan Stevens, Nellie McKay and Rufus Wainwright.
The American Songbook series at Lincoln Center has, for a decade, worked both the center and the margins of American popular song with intelligence and élan. This year is, in fact, its 10th anniversary, and the series has its own idea about how to celebrate — namely, by presenting its best and most diverse series of concerts to date, shows that put forward everything from cabaret and show tunes to country, R&B, folk, bluegrass and stripped down and plugged-in rock and roll. It's a month of shows that, as Harold Arlen might put it, has the world on a string.
What gives this year's season, which runs from January 23 through March 1, its depth and resonance are its musical pairings. In week one, for example, Deborah Voigt, one of the world's leading sopranos, moves confidently out of her comfort range to tackle an evening of songs from Broadway. And on the next night, Lori McKenna performs, bringing songs of her own composing — songs that are full of intimate, kitchen-table epiphanies, the best moments of which resemble snatches of Raymond Carver or Jayne Anne Phillips short stories. Voigt and McKenna: these are concerts that, when placed together, stretch our notions about what songs in the American vernacular can be.
In week two, the musician and producer Joe Henry — a man some feel is the most underappreciated songwriter alive, whether working in the alt-country mode of his early albums or in his later, more eclectic work — performs back to back with the soul legend Bettye LaVette, whose breathtaking 2005 comeback album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise he produced. He brings achingly beautiful minor-chord nuance; she brings brio, worldliness and commitment.
Week three? Chris Thile, the mandolin player and singer from the maverick acoustic trio Nickel Creek appears with an inspired side project, Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile. That is followed by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, a young bluesy rock band out of Vermont whose lead singer is already drawing comparisons to Bonnie Raitt. And then arrives Jimmy Scott, the ethereally talented jazz singer whose career has spanned six decades. Thile, Potter and Scott: two young performers just finding their true voices, and one established American original.
In week four, there's something new for American Songbook: an unprecedented series of three concerts by one performer, k.d. lang. She will be performing songs from her own catalog, plus material from her forthcoming album Watershed. Then, the Broadway actress Christine Ebersole (she won a 2006 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance in Grey Gardens) will perform a set of Broadway songs, along with music director Billy Stritch. And finally, the 2008 series closes with Patti Smith, who will present a special show of her favorite songs from the female singers and songwriters who have inspired her.
And this list of pairings is so rich that it omits some of the season's most anticipated performances: Rob Fisher's celebration of the Leonard Bernstein songbook; an evening with the rising Broadway musical star Kelli O'Hara; Eric Comstock's salute to Charles Strouse at 80; a night of original works by The Full Monty composer David Yazbek and several of his friends; and a show by John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony Award for his exuberant performance in Jersey Boys.
Jon Nakagawa, who produces the series along with Charles Cermele, says the only thing he asks of the American Songbook performers is that they try to do something special, something they might not have done before.
"We're hoping to make plain the connections between Elvis Costello and Carousel, and between Stephen Foster and Stephen Merritt," Nakagawa says. "Those connections are real, and they're there if you know how to look for them."
Dwight Garner is Senior Editor at theNew York Times Book Review.