Critic's Notebook: Bergman golden

Empty

Plenty of silver threads among the gold were around when Alan Bergman started to sing at Vibrato the other night, or at least plenty of gold among the credit cards.

Left behind was the gold on the mantelpiece the great songwriter shares with his wife, Marilyn, the president of ASCAP, in the form of their three Oscars: for "Yentl," "The Way We Were" and "The Windmills of Your Mind."

In a wispy, wistful voice that reminded you a little of Edith Piaf, the wiry, white-haired Bergman, 81, sang the latter two and several other award-winning lyrics he's written during the past 50 years, lyrics apt to be about things left behind, or about to be left behind, or things that must not be left behind.

This seemed to be an aspect of life all too familiar to his silver-haired listeners, who gave him standing ovations as he advised them that "memories may be beautiful and yet, what's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget."

So, one might carp, you don't really recall "The Way We Were," as in one of his more famous songs, but more like "The Way We Wish We Were."

But no one was carping on a mellow night like this, a night when Bergman's delivery was at its most touching. Its appeal had attracted an array of industry names, including Haskell Wexler, Mark Rydell, James Newton Howard, Dori Caymmi, Wayne Bergeron, Dave Koz, Henry Winkler, Veronique Peck, Tina Sinatra, Michael Feinstein, Zach Horowitz and Gordon Davidson, among others.

"Owl," as Quincy Jones calls him, had invited them all to celebrate the release of Bergman's masterpiece, "Lyrically, Alan BergĀ¬man," a Verve album on which he sings, as he did on this night, a dozen or so of the songs by which he wishes to be remembered.

Calling him "a black-belt singin' junkie," Jones wrote in the liner notes that Bergman met the five prerequisites for artistic excellence as laid down by the great classical teacher Nadia Boulanger: sensitivity, feeling, believing, attachment and knowledge.

Bergman certainly displayed these qualities as he sighed or sang the classic lines of his "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"

"If we can be the best of lovers, yet be the best of friends" was one of his answers to the title question, implying that the latter is where it's really at. That's a thought that echoes in the mind as the silver threads gather.

It's the sort of thought not apt to be heard in the output of the music industry singer-songwriters of today, a circumstance about which Bergman has a theory.

"Most songwriters don't know their history, are not conversant with Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins ... and in order to bridge the gap between pop and standards, you have to know what happened before," he said. "Hits today are often hits for two weeks, and then you never hear them again."

"How do you deal with all the things you thought would last, that didn't last?" Bergman asks in "Where Do You Start?"

With the sensitivity, feeling, believing, attachment and knowledge that Bergman was deploying this night, it looked like the things Bergman has built to last will do so.
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