...maybe Auden’s darkest moments belong on the page rather than reborn as dinner jazz.
Tom Barlow 2007
How refreshing when singers give the jazz tradition a new twist. In a market swamped by songbook crooners, the likes of Cassandra Wilson and Patricia Barber are shining examples of artists whose repertoires eschew the obvious. With that in mind, German pianist Andreas Schnermann’s plan to put 12 poems by W.H. Auden to music carries high expectations.
On Tell Me The Truth About Love, Schnermann targets some intensely beautiful poetry. With Auden’s verses sung by fellow German Inga Lühning, the lyrical, Jarrett-inspired pianist provides a delicate backdrop with his trio. From the wit and cynicism of ‘'Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue'’, to the tear-jerking ‘'Funeral Blues'’ (fans of Four Weddings And A Funeral will know ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West…’), these are challenging verses to transform.
But although the set list is intriguing, the results are unsteady. Auden’s words (so often crafted into dazzlingly original love poems) are diminished by so many inoffensive, mid-tempo bossas and ballads. And whilst Lühning dominates, her sugary, Norah Jones style has a pop-lite gloss at odds with the poet’s edgy, deadpan irony.
As a soloist Schnermann is engaging. As an arranger, his most successful moments are up-beat – notably the '‘Don’t Stop the Carnival'’ style pop of ‘'Calypso'’ (Auden’s ode to clandestine love in New York City). Trumpeter Matthias Bergman and tenorist Paul Heller also add improvisational clout to the album. Yet after the buoyant opener, ‘'The More Loving One'’ where Schnermann riffs jagged, angular bossa lines, too many tracks blur into a middle-of-the-road sweetness.
It’s a brave effort, but maybe Auden’s darkest moments (‘'Refugee Blues'’ and ‘'If I could tell you'’) belong on the page rather than reborn as dinner jazz.