“Midnight Masquerade: The Music of Bernie Bierman and Jack Manus”
Metropolitan Room – March 3, 17, 24
Before I discuss Joe Bachana’s glowing celebration of the songs of Bernie Bierman and Jack Manus, I would like to put it in cultural perspective. More than a half-century after the phenomenon, the terms Tin Pan Alley and Big Band still have a magic about them. Remarkably rich, they conjure up more than simply a period in our musical history and they convey more than just a particular musical genre—though of course they do these as well. More significantly, they reflect an underlying view of life, which itself rests on a set of beliefs and assumptions—and things don’t get more fundamental or comprehensive than that.
The body of work that these two terms embrace has a number of qualities in common. The songs are melodic and pleasing, and usually not so complex that they cannot be appreciated, at least in large measure, on first hearing. The lyrics are intelligible, with references that are clear and recognizable by the general public, and they are well crafted. The underlying view of life is a benevolent one. Even songs about love gone awry are typically based on the expectation that wrongs can be set right and that happiness is the natural state of affairs. In turn, this life view has as its foundation a philosophy of rationality and human efficacy: the world is logical and knowable and man’s mind is capable of understanding and mastering it.
A comparison between these principles and the cynicism, nihilism, subjectivism and relativism that have dominated contemporary philosophy for many decades will reveal one of the forces behind the direction that popular music has taken during this same period. It also explains why so many of us find this earlier music so very appealing. Which takes me, at last, to Joe Bachana’s show—a lovely and loving evocation of that other time, that other view of life, that other philosophy.
The songs were all written by Bernie Bierman, many of them in collaboration with Jack Manus, and a few with the additional participation of other contributors. Most were written in the late ’40s, and several date from the ’70s or later—though they share the same aesthetic. (101 years old, Bierman is still writing.) To be sure, these are not masterpieces with depth, nuance and subtlety; nonetheless, the qualities they do possess are admirable and many. Indeed, identifying those qualities was one of the objectives of my establishing a cultural frame of reference in the preceding paragraphs.
Bachana is the ideal person to present these songs, for he embodies the very same qualities; charming and completely disarming, with a smooth, attractive baritone, he is the quintessential band singer—as pleasing to listen to as to be with. Though this side of big, the Barry Levitt quintet does its talented best to take you back to that big band world—and it succeeds marvelously. (The group comprises Levitt on piano, Jeff Carney on bass, Brian Grice on drums, Ron Jackson on guitar, and Bob Magnuson on sax and woodwinds.)
Among the songs are the sprightly “My Cousin Louella,” the gratifyingly old-fashioned love song “A Bed of Roses,” “I Can Tell,” done as a super-fast cha-cha, and “Vanity,” which had covers by Don Cherry and Sarah Vaughan.
Another of the evening’s assets is singer—I’m tempted to stay in that era and say songstress—Valerie DiLorenzo, who joins in a couple of duets and does two solos. With a robust voice and presence and a life-embracing spirit, when she sings a song, it has done been sung. Doing a guest spot on opening night, the great Steve Ross performed the affecting “Why Did We Wait?”; I understand that he plans to return on the final night.
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.