I've known David Hajdu's words for decades now as among the most articulate and nuanced in the overlapping fields of music criticism, culture reporting and nonfiction books.
In the pages of The New Yorker, in many other publications, and online--and currently, as music critic for The Nation--Hajdu has considered songs of many musical styles as well as the lives, times and talents of those who play, sing and create them. His 1997 book "Lush Life" stands as the definitive biography of one of the 20th century's great composers of song, Billy Strayhorn.
When I last ran into Hajdu, he had just completed the manuscript for a forthcoming book "Popped Up: Popular Music and What It Means to Me," which he described to me as befits its subtitle--a personalized tour through decades of songs and the circumstances surrounding them. Hajdu seemed far prouder of another accomplishment--again focused on songs, this time from a new perspective.
"Waiting for The Angel: Songs with Words by David Hajdu," due August 28 on Miranda Music, marks Hajdu’s debut as a lyricist and songwriter. These 11 songs represent songwriting collaborations with pianists Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule and composer Mickey Leonard. The performing cast includes Rosnes and Hersch, along with other New York all-stars such as trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Carl Allen. The songs are sung by a distinguished trio--Jo Lawry, Michael Winther, and Karen Oberlin.
Suddenly, I find myself encountering Hajdu's words--a voice I know--well in a new and freshly gripping way. One tune, "Suffer," set to music by Rosnes, is a dedication to Strayhorn, whose world Hajdu inhabited for more than a decade while working on his book. Yet if there's a patron saint here, it s Lorenz Hart. When I interviewed him about this new CD, Hajdu posed the questions that, for him, most animated this new project: "What if Lorenz Hart lived in the 21st century and had a contemporary frame of reference, a 21st-century view of the world? How would he write?"
I'm not sure Hajdu gives us the answer to those questions, or even really tries. These songs sound nothing like poses or play-acted speculation. Instead they come across like clear, present and first-hand joys and anxieties set to music, major-chord realizations and minor-key moments that likely have played our in Hajdu s life or rattled around his mind after he's completed listening to and commenting on other people's music.
Here and there a truth gets unfurled--"good things happen slowly but bad things happen fast," goes the refrain of one song. Hajdu packs a lot of good and bad, slow and fast, in here. Mostly, though, he gives us the many shades of in-between that make for what we seek from a lyric when we listen to new songs.