BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein are both musicians, but they come from very different traditions.
Merritt, 38, is a pop and folk singer-songwriter from North Carolina. Dinnerstein, 40, is a classical pianist from New York. Merritt learned to play music by ear. Dinnerstein is classically trained to play music by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in which the notated score is king. Merritt normally doesn't practice that much. Dinnerstein practices as much as eight hours a day.
However different they are, Merritt and Dinnerstein have joined forces to play concerts and put out an album together, Night, named for a Patty Griffin song on the CD just released on the Sony label. It's a kind of song cycle that ranges from Merritt songs to Schubert lieder, an arrangement of Johnny Nash's reggae hit I Can See Clearly Now to The Cohen Variations, an homage to Leonard Cohen's Suzanne for piano by Daniel Felsenfeld.
"The concert is a bit like an expanded version of the album," Merritt said in a phone interview in March. "The common thread for me is a willingness to be open, a love of music and a real passion for bringing as much depth and intensity as you can to that music."
Merritt and Dinnerstein are on tour and perform Saturday night at Tampa's Straz Center. Their concert is presented by Club Jaeb, a series that features folk, alt-country and other grass roots musicians, but has been shifted from the Jaeb Theater to the larger Ferguson Hall.
With seven other albums to her credit, Merritt is often compared with performers like Dusty Springfield, Emmylou Harris and Shelby Lynne. Nevertheless, she was daunted by the prospect of collaborating with Dinnerstein, who put herself on the classical map with a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.
"In rock 'n' roll and folk music, you play all the time, but you don't necessarily practice all the time," Merritt said. "Simone is so technically proficient that I had to work hard to meet her in the beginning. That was very scary to me. Performing any of the classical songs was very intimidating to me. Now it's in my blood and I don't have to worry as much. My work is not as technically challenging as hers, but to live in a song with as much depth as you possibly can is the same principle."
The two met when Merritt interviewed Dinnerstein for The Spark With Tift Merritt, a radio show she does for a Texas station (marfaspark.com). "I like to interview artists about process and integrity," Merritt said. "I went to the concert the night before the interview and was floored and moved by the beauty of her playing. After that we just became friends."
There are four songs by Merritt on Night. "I come at all of this as a writer first and a musician second," she said. "I am more comfortable in the world of words. And music is this profound, mysterious language that I can't find the end of. Music is a mystery to me, while language is something very specific. I always want my lyrics to stand up on the page without the music. I will write and write until I have gotten to something that I think is worth getting up on stage and performing. I strive for a very plainspoken sort of poetry. Hopefully something that sounds so natural and unlabored that it could have rolled off the tongue of someone you bumped into on the street."
One of Night's most affecting songs is Feel of the World, which is also on Merritt's own album See You on the Moon.
"I wrote that song when my grandmother was dying," she said. "I was really far away and my family told me not to come home, and I thought, 'How can I honor my grandmother?' Well, I can think about her and I can write something about her. I realized at a certain point that the song was from the point of view of my grandfather, who had long since passed away, to my grandmother. Originally from California, they were high school sweethearts, and they lived in Texas. There are a few songs that happen to you in a mysterious way and they're really effortless. That was one of them. It was very, very quick. I wrote four verses, I went to bed, I woke up in the morning and went, 'Oh, the third verse is the bridge, it's only supposed to have three verses.' It was a gift of a song."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.