Burt Bacharach often tells a story about his early days studying composition in California. The vogue among students at the time was towards the atonal and avant-garde but Professor Darius Milhaud spotted something in the young Bacharach and offered a simple piece of advice: “Never feel embarrassed by a melody people can whistle” thus granting permission for the musical birth of the 20th century’s greatest melodicist and the creation of a body of work that is at once effortlessly sophisticated and populist.
The irony is that Burt Bacharach became the man who put the avant-garde in pop. From early hits through the golden era of the 1960’s Bacharach elevated the form using elements of Jazz, Soul and Bossa Nova, incorporating dizzy swoops in key and time signature, introducing flugel horns, bassoons and harpsichord while always leaving the indelible mark of a great tune. Pop geniuses don’t as a rule emerge from Music Academy – they usually just make it up as they go along, and although Bacharach undoubtedly benefited from his schooling in the finer points of composition and arrangement, he was born with vision. When it comes to pop songs, Burt wrote the book. If you want to be a doctor, go to medical school. If you want to be a lawyer, go to law school. If you want to write songs may I suggest that a visit with Burt is all you need? I was 12 or 13 when I first heard my Dad’s copy of Portrait In Music. This compilation of semi-instrumental versions of his hits stopped me in my tracks with its never ending invention, incredible dynamics and beautiful melodies, all laid out like a fun text book for budding popsters. At that time Pink Floyd were giving way to The Sex Pistols in the hip stakes and I thought I might have got on the wrong bus. But of course, Burt never needed to be hip – his songs are timeless, in part because they exist outside of any social climate. Years earlier while the Woodstock generation were offering three days of peace, music and love (not necessarily in that order) Burt was collecting two Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and penning the heartbreaking One Less Bell To Answer for Dionne Warwick: Extraordinary songs about ordinary people.
Bacharach’s songs ring out from Concert Hall to Karaoke and usually bring out the best in the singers, instrumentalists and arrangers who touch them, as this compilation proves. Take the amazing Do You Know The Way To San Jose, performed here by jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, a song that utilizes one of Burt’s very favourite tricks – taking a line for a walk. They get you to do this in kindergarten – take a pencil and swirl around, up and down, back and forth on the page until an abstract form emerges. Then you colour it in! Well, that’s exactly what Bacharach often does with a top line melody, stretching the length of a phrase almost beyond credibility, introducing a 3/4 bar here, a 2/4 bar there with the effect of drawing the listener in note by note like a fish on a hook. It’s like double choc chip ice cream – almost too delicious. The sweetness in Bacharach’s work, however, almost always gives way to melancholy, and songs like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which gets a gentle Brazilian treatment here by Bossa Rio, offer a resigned sigh where chords and harmony provide the first emotional point of reference – even before you hear Hal David’s lyric you know it’s heartbreak all the way. On that subject, it’s perhaps understandable that, in the face of the greatest tunes ever written, “the guy who wrote the words” might get overlooked a bit, but rarely has a lyricist understood the emotional point of a melody better than Hal. Compassion and understanding are his watchwords – check out Connie Francis’s warm take on Make It Easy On Yourself, arranged by German maestro Claus Ogerman.
Burt’s own penchant for the unexpected is often mirrored in the cover versions – Scott Walker’s The Windows Of The World sets marimba against dark, lush strings and picked Fender bass, German lounge lizard and Hammond organist T.W. Ardy sends The Look Of Love thru an echo chamber, crooner Jack Jones revisits his 60s hit Wives & Lovers fifteen years later in a Disco frenzy, and as for Vincent Bell’s Nikki – is that a guitar through a Leslie cabinet, a synth’ or a plane? The fact is that Burt’s personality is so profoundly stamped on his compositions they always remain undeniably Bacharach, no matter who performs or records them. Among the 20 fantastic tracks on this compilation, from artists as diverse as The Sandpipers (Where There’s A Heartache in a typically gorgeous Nick DeCaro arrangement), Sergio Mendes, Tom Clay (rapping through This Guy’s In Love With You) and Stan Getz, a highlight is provided by the man himself with the incredible Freefall from his album Burt Bacharach (1971) – it’s like getting on a musical mystery train – where’s he going next?
Burt’s favourite among his children, the elegiac Alfie, is featured here in a lovely reading by the other Warwick, Dionne’s sister Dee Dee. Hal David’s naked opening line “What’s it all about?” sets the tone for a wonderful Bacharach melody which swoops and darts across the scale – a perfect expression of yearning self doubt, hope, just a dash of glamour and more real love than the Woodstock generation ever mustered.
David Scott, 2001