Award-winning American composer and lyricist John Bucchino is not as well-known here as some songwriters who have journeyed to play in London, but his work is much beloved by the cabaret cognoscenti. He has written for both Broadway and film, and his compositions have been performed by pop, theatre and opera artists such as Art Garfunkel, Kristin Chenoweth and Yo-Yo Ma. Much of his material gets aired, though, on the concert and cabaret circuit – and for good reason. His songs often tell a whole story, are complex and rich, rather than glitzy, and are for the most part melodic with only selective moments of discord included for specific effect. Such fare is a gift for the cabaret singer.
Tonight, however, is a departure from his own compositions. Indeed, it is a departure from songs altogether – this is a solo piano show, and a very surprising one.
Between May 12th and May 30th 2003, during a series of eight recording sessions, Bucchino played (and, as he says, ‘played with’) the songs of Richard Rodgers on that great Broadway composer’s own piano, currently owned by Rodger’s grandson Adam Guettel, who has it in his New York flat.
Bucchino does not read music. He plays entirely ‘by ear and by instinct’, so his final arrangements of Rodgers’ work have not been written down, but were recorded as he played them, and what he considered the best of them appeared on his album On Richard Rodgers’ Piano (voted Best Instrumental CD by Show Business Weekly). Bucchino played simply ‘whatever popped into my fingers’, as the spirit (probably residing in that seasoned piano) moved him.
Such was the success of that extraordinary venture, he decided to follow the same procedure with the music of The Beatles, culminating in a new album BEATLES Reimagined.
The evening presented at Crazy Coqs is the second performance of a selection from both those albums, together with anecdotes about the songs’ history and insights into his pianistic process. These anecdotes are by no means dry or academic, but are delivered with humour and enthusiasm, and give helpful pointers for us to listen out for, such as he likes to use his right hand to play counterpoint as well as melody, most especially in the music of Rodgers.
The arrangements are inventive, engaging and exceptionally beautiful. The programme itself is well-balanced with a good mix of ballads and up-tempo. Most of the songs he plays are very familiar to the audience, but although we have never heard them played like this, none are rendered so outré, that the audience gets lost or feels alienated, as I have seen in far too many jazz performances. Musically intricate and fascinating, the songs are rendered resonant and recognisable, with lush and sensuous playing, making each a fresh delight.
Each item is improvised on the spot, albeit that certain shapes may be emerging predictably for Bucchino himself, so that standout numbers of any one night may play out very differently on another occasion.
However, the ones that struck me were The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, with a delicate start leading to an encompassing crescendo, and then fading with a surprise ending; a yearning version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps; the haunting Fool on the Hill; and a beautiful treatment of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s If I Loved You from Carousel. He explained that his mother listened to the album of that musical many times whilst pregnant with him, so he is indeed deeply steeped in the Rodgers work.
Bucchino tends to favour atmospheric and melancholic songs, it seems, almost as though he is working something through in his mind, often leading to an intense climax and then resolving. The extra decorative notes lead the listener, each contributing to the drama or musical narrative, rather than simply show off his prowess or provide gymnastics. There is nothing gratuitous here.
His patter is charming with amusing stories, such as his encounter with Billy Joel, which help us feel we know him better, and as he pointed out, this was a huge exercise in trust, both in his own musical instincts and that his muse would not let him down in public, and also in the audience’s willingness and ability to remain attentive, given this is a purely improvised instrumental evening.
Apart from his encore, which was genuinely unplanned, the evening was ended with a reflective, quiet arrangement of McCartney’s Blackbird, rather than a stomping rousing finish – an appropriate choice for the programme presented.
This was a very unusual, quite unexpected and truly delightful show. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed an instrumental evening more.