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A classical take on Bob Marley?

Werner sets '60s, '70s hits to chamber arrangements

''This is a very Boston project in every possible way, except for me,'' says Susan Werner, who worked with the Boston Pops on her album. ''This is a very Boston project in every possible way, except for me,'' says Susan Werner, who worked with the Boston Pops on her album. (asia kepka)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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BERKELEY, Calif. - No offense to Music City, but Susan Werner wouldn't have attempted to record her latest album, "Classics," in Nashville. Or in Los Angeles, New York, or her home base, Chicago, for that matter. When the protean singer-songwriter decided to set a program of 1960s and '70s Top 40 tunes to chamber music instrumentation, she called upon the vast musical resources of Boston.

"This is a very Boston project in every possible way, except for me," says Werner, who performs at Passim on Thursday and Friday with Boston-raised cellist Julia Biber. "I wouldn't have gone to Nashville or New York to do this album, though I know a lot of fantastic string players there. Boston's a musically literate city, and I think that played a role in us having the guts to go ahead and do this project."

Werner honed the concept with veteran Boston producer Crit Harmon, with whom she collaborated on her 2004 female-centric sojourn into Gershwinesque songwriting, "I Can't Be New." For "Classics" they joined forces with versatile pianist/composer Brad Hatfield, who helped craft the arrangements, scored the string charts, and conducted a chamber ensemble he drew largely from the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Relaxing at a cafe before a sound check at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage folk club, Werner describes how she came to find emotional undercurrents connecting two very different eras of longhair music. While some arrangements simply highlight the beauty of beloved songs, like her aching take on Brian Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," the most rewarding tracks incorporate pitch-perfect classical segments, such as a hushed interlude of French composer Erik Satie in Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain."

"I was playing the Marley and it came up in this kind of 6/8 Rickie Lee Jones shuffle that feels like waiting, and then the Satie flowed over the top in this lucky accident," Werner says. "Those were the things that really thrilled us. We felt the classical quotes had to amplify the mood somehow. Not every song had to have a classical solution or it would have just felt like a big party trick."

While the "Classics" material is the heart of her show, she's also performing the wry agnostic gospel tunes from her award-winning 2007 album, "The Gospel Truth," and other selections from her capacious songbook. Moving between piano and guitar, she's reshaped the material for her supremely flexible duo, with Biber often providing a steady groove playing pizzicato bass lines on her cello.

Raised on a farm in Iowa, Werner launched her career in Philadelphia and has lived in Chicago for nearly a decade. But as one of the most venturesome artists on the singer-songwriter scene, her ties to Boston are deep and strong, and not just because last year she released a live album recorded at Passim.

"In other parts of the country people ask me, aren't you living in Massachusetts?" Werner says. "But in the Boston songwriter tradition they know their Dickens from their Dickinson, and I don't have the literate bona fides to measure up."

Her modest self-assessment not withstanding, Werner is a consummate performer who has steadily expanded her stylistic and thematic range with each album. For "Classics" she considered hundreds of songs, with Harmon riding herd to make sure no schmaltz slipped through.

"Susan is so talented she can execute any idea and make it sound really good," Harmon says. "I needed to be on patrol so that we didn't end up with something that sounded like it belonged in a hotel lounge. We took out all the pop production values and hoped people would hear why they love these songs in a new way."

SUSAN WERNER At Club Passim Thursday and Friday night at 8. Tickets are $25 at 617-492-7679 or www.clubpassim.org.

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