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Opposites attract for  classical and country duo

Simone Dinnerste(piano) Tift Merritt (guitar) headline Old Town School Folk Music April 12. | LISA-MARIE MAZZUCCO

Simone Dinnerstein (at the piano) and Tift Merritt (on guitar) headline the Old Town School of Folk Music on April 12. | LISA-MARIE MAZZUCCO

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Simone
Dinnerstein; Tift Merritt

♦ 8 p.m. April 12

♦ Maurer Concert Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

♦ Tickets, $26

♦ (773) 728-6000;
www.oldtownschool.org

Some musical duos seem almost preordained, with both artists sharing a similar style or background. But others are more unlikely, with the partners having to take risks and reach out to find common ground.

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt fall decidedly in the second category. The classical pianist and alt-country singer-songwriter never imagined venturing into each other’s musical realms, but the unlikely pairing has proven to be a success.

Their first album, “Night,” is set to be released April 19 on the Sony Classical label, and the two are on a cross-country tour in support of it, with a stop April 12 at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.

“I think it is important as an artist to stretch,” Merritt said, “and to know when you are growing and to know the difference between when you are settled into your musical sweet spot and when you are being pushed to somewhere new.”

The two musicians met in 2008, when the singer invited Dinnerstein to be a guest on “The Spark With Tift Merritt,” an interview program that she does through Marfa (Texas) Public Radio. They immediately established a rapport that grew into what Merritt called a “sweet friendship.”

A little later, Duke University’s Duke Performances series commissioned the two to put together a program for a concert in January 2011. The result was “Night,” a cycle of 11 “intense and confessional” songs — to use Dinnerstein’s words — drawn from an unusual diversity of sources.

That reflective, affecting program, which the duo went on to hone in further performances elsewhere, became the basis of their new album.

But the journey has been filled with challenges for the two musicians, starting with overcoming their fundamental differences in approaches: Dinnerstein had always performed only music that was written down, and Merritt was used to playing by ear.

“It was a big experiment to me,” Merritt said. “I thought there was more that could go wrong than could go right, meaning I’m always pretty sensitive and choosy about who I play music with, and I didn’t know how we would talk to each other. I knew it was going to be a huge leap to explain our case to each other and have a musical language.”

Their first task was picking a group of songs that would resonate together, and that meant the musicians introducing works and writers who were new to each other. Then the two had to determine how they were going to learn and play the songs together and just gain confidence in working as a duo.

The resulting disc is an intriguingly unorthodox mix of songs, ranging from Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and a lament from Henry Purcell’s 18th-century opera, “Dido and Aeneas,” to tunes written for the duo by Brad Mehldau and Patty Griffin.

The two performers bring a fresh, distinctive feel to each track, like their non-traditional yet poignant take on Franz Schubert’s 1825 art song, “Night and Dreams” (“Nacht und Traume”).” Merritt brings a dusky vulnerability to the vocals and adds a little harmonica along the way.

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.



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