Ute Lemper’s London Jazz Festival concert has been postponed until December 11th, because she is having minor back surgery. I interviewed her in New York last week
Her show, “Last Tango in Berlin,” Ute Lemper told me, will be an evening of intimate music-making. Just three people on the stage: pianist Vana Gierig (with Lemper above), an Argentianan old master of the bandeoneon, and Lemper herself.
The show takes the audience on an imaginary journey, which starts in Berlin in the Weimar period, then goes to Paris, a long stop-off in Buenos Aires, to end up -in the imagination -back in Berlin. There isn’t a fixed order or set-list of songs, the protagonists and their imaginations are free to travel.
Ute Lemper was talking to me from her apartment in New York, the city she now calls home. She has lived there for the past thirteen years, it is where her three children are growing up.
New York is the base, but travelling is a major theme. Ute Lemper travels, and how. In the past month she has been to Latin America and back. And then to Europe and back. The London Jazz Festival performance on November 20th will mean another trip.
The show has intended similarities with, and resonances of Lemper’s own journey through life. Like countless others in the past century, and for many different reasons, Germany has been a country she felt an imperative to leave. The stories of some of the others who left their homeland and chosen to settle somewhere else resonate strongly with her. Perhaps the nearest parallel to the journey in this Saturday’s show is Kurt Weill. More recently she has taken a serious interest in the work of that extreme exile, the writer/poet Charles Bukowski. I discovered that sometimes the links can be subconscious: Lemper made a record of her own songs was called “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow.” I asked Lemper about the satirist Kurt Tucholsky, who died in exile in Sweden, who wrote an anthology with that title. She said she’d never thought of that connection.
Lemper has worked in many domains, and now has a strong sense of what is core repertoire to her, in contrast to what she calls “side-adventures.” The collaboration with Michael Nyman in the 1980s is seen as one of the latter- “they weren’t quite my costumes” – as, already is the experiment to do an album of her own songs. The mainly dark and cruel songs of the album “Punishing Kiss” are no longer in her current repertoire. She describes it as ” a chapter which came and went.”
The core, then, consists in the first place, of the Weill and Friedrich Holländer songs of the Weimar period. She feels a deep connection to them, pride and a sense of mission in being an ambassador for them and for her native German language.
Her connection to French song – Piaf, Brel – is also profound , and Paris has also been an important destination. Her collaboration with theatre director Jerome Savary was one of the defining points of her career. She has a very deep affection for Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, and for the songs which Kurt Weill wrote in French.
She also has along-lasting involvement with the compositions of Argentinian composer and inventor of the “Tango Nuevo” Astor Piazzola, and songs such as “Yo Soy Maria,” “Chiquillin” and “Pajaros Perdidos” can be expected to feature prominently in the LJF show.
And she has a strong sense that the Bukowski songs will also be far more than a passing fancy. “I hope to present themfor many years.”
I asked her about her association with London, which has been more than just a port of call on her journey. She had two spells here, first in the late 1980’s and then later around 1997. She lived first in Kensington and later in Maida Vale. She made many friends here, and has a real enthusiasm for life in London, but one bad experience in her first flat left its mark. She was burgled three times, she believes by the same criminals : “they came back and removed everything.”
Reading Lemper’s biography, one gets a sense for the scale of the achievement in different domains. It is as if she has had multiple lives. Maurice Bejart designed a ballet for her. As a film actress she has thirty film credits on imdb.com . But music is special : “It’s through music that it all flows, music is my tool of making contact, my medium of expression.”
And during our interview she provided a more powerful and intimate demonstration of what she meant than any interviewer has a right to expect. I asked her if she still ever sings two wonderful songs by Kurt Weill – Der Abschiedsbrief, to words by Erich Kästner, and the anthemic Berlin im Licht. She responded by singing both them to me down the phone.Those sounds have been ringing in my ear ever since. I’m looking forward to Saturday December 11th.