Self-taught Americana singer-songwriter Tift Merritt and Julliard-trained classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein would hardly seem likely collaborators, but the rapport and cross-hatching of styles they achieve on Night sure makes it seem like they were destined to work together. The pair met in 2008 when they were brought together for an interview and they discovered mutual interests and approaches to performance. The music on Night was put together for a song cycle commissioned by Duke University and debuted in January 2011. The album’s stark beauty and seamless flow owes part of its success to the decision of Merritt and Dinnerstein to keep the work modest in scale and free of conceptual baggage.
There’s a feel to the collection that harkens back to the sheet music era, when folks entertained themselves in their parlor room and playing songs rather than listening to records or the radio. Together they make transitions between some of Merritt’s most translucent balladry: Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” Bach’s “Prelude in B minor” and Johnny Nash’s indelible “I Can See Clearly Now” seem not only effortless, but also logical. When Merritt, who’s busted through her gauzy Emmylou Harris model with a more forceful, grainy delivery, sings classical pieces like Henry Purcell’s ubiquitous “Dido’s Lament” or Schubert’s “Night and Dreams,” she doesn’t overreach; she shapes the words exquisitely in her natural North Carolina twang, while Dinnerstein plays with typical refinement, balancing simpatico accompaniment with virtuosity.
Some songs were written specifically for the project, including one by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (“I Shall Weep at Night”) and another by folk-pop singer Patty Griffin (“Night”), while the composer (and eMusic contributor) Daniel Felsenfeld elaborated on the melody of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” for “The Cohen Variations,” his instrumental feature for Dinnerstein. Merritt tackles “Wayfaring Stranger” with just voice and acoustic guitar and when Dinnerstein plays sparse figures by plucking the piano strings directly on the traditional song “I Will Give My Love an Apple,” a single, recurring note bleeds directly into “Colors,” the Merritt original that follows, quietly reinforcing the organic flow from one to song to the next. Lots of lip service is paid to musicians who bridge stylistic gaps, but on Night Merritt and Dinnerstein make genre irrelevant.