We’re already a quarter of the way into 2013, but I can confidently say that one of the best albums of this year has to be the recently-released Night by Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt. It’s a unique record given the fact that Dinnerstein is a classical pianist from Brooklyn, and Merritt is an alt-country singer/songwriter out of North Carolina. Despite their seemingly opposite backgrounds, the two artists together manage to create a thematic work so stark and intimate that it transcends categorization.
In the classical music world Dinnerstein, who is based in Park Slope, is a star. An alum of the Julliard School, she achieved recognition in 2007 with the release of Bach: The Goldberg Variations, a self-financed recording that went to the top of the classical albums chart. (You can also catch Dinnerstein perform the Goldberg Variations on June 9 at (Le) Poisson Rouge). Since that success, Dinnerstein has released Bach: A Strange Beauty and Something Almost Being Said: Music of Bach and Schubert. She also started the Neighborhood Classics program at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 and Manhattan’s P.S. 142–family-oriented concerts that raise money for the schools.
I have to admit I was more familiar with Merritt’s works (admittedly, I am a fan of all her records, including her latest Traveling Alone) than I was with Dinnerstein’s, having interviewed Merritt a couple of times in the past. So I was very intrigued by the notion of this unlikely collaboration when I first heard about it a couple of months ago. And when I finally did listen the record, I was completely enthralled.
Drawing on the theme of night, the record is a mixture of classical, folk and pop styles, including works by Henry Purcell, Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, Patty Griffin and others. The fact that Dinnerstein and Merritt are the only two performers on the record definitely lends to the minimalist quality of the proceedings. The musical arrangements are quite interesting as well, as in the case of Merritt’s own work, “Only in Songs,” that transitions seamlessly into Schubert’s “Night and Dreams,” which has Merritt’s harmonica playing layered over Dinnerstein’s piano. That sense of juxtaposition of genres is also present with Dinnerstein’s take on Bach’s “Prelude in B Minor” that is immediately followed by Merritt’s rootsy “Still Not Home,” which originally appeared on her Traveling Alone record. And the artists’ interpretation of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” provides a sense of optimism amid the sometimes haunting and melancholic nature of the music that preceded it.
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Dinnerstein and Merritt play these songs live first at the Merkin Concert Hall on the Upper West Side, and then the following week at the Apple Store in Soho. With Dinnerstein’s graceful yet dynamic piano playing and Merritt’s passionate vocals, the music exudes a power that transcends the original recording. If they ever decide to perform this music again in the city, it’s highly recommended that you take the opportunity and experience Night in a live setting. The result is guaranteed to be something quite thoughtful and magnificent.