Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beatles, Oscars, Grammys & Overachieving: The Best Cliché Ever, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Among people competing for the various annual awards, one of the most popular topics of conversation is: OK, let's say I am the winner--what then?

Of those who believe they deserve the recognition (which is all of them) only those who have already received one of the honors know that the little statue at the top of the mountain doesn't really hold more career opportunities, more money, more love or better sleep at night. Which is okay, because the real payoff is something more valuable than all those things combined: the admiration of your peers. After a lifetime of being ignored, denied, rejected and invalidated, to have your hard work acknowledged at last means that you can go back to liking yourself again.

But some odd things can happen at the top of the mountain. Celebrity, for example, when the artist becomes the object of that admiration instead of the art.

The nominees for Record of the Year at the 17th Annual Grammys ceremony held on March 1, 1975, were:

Elton John - Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Roberta Flack - Feel Like Making Love
Joni Mitchell - Help Me
Olivia Newton-John - I Honestly Love You
Maria Muldaur - Midnight at the Oasis

Of the five nominees, only one of the songs failed to survive the 1970s. Four of the five got admitted to the big circus tent of "classic rock," which by now includes nearly any popular music (aside from gutbucket blues or straight-ahead jazz) written in 2/2, 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8 between 1955 and 2005, from jump blues to rockabilly to soul to R&B to rock & roll to folk rock to hard rock to progressive rock to grunge to whatever you call what Beck does. It includes every related musical form--from the sharpest on the edges to the smoothest in the middle--once played on AM and FM radio stations and now on their internet equivalents.

That song that was left behind won the Grammy in 1975 for Record of the Year. It was the sort of marshmallow-soft confection that no one ever seems to claim association with in retrospect. Call it pop, short for "popular," or pop as in the sound bubblegum makes when it deflates on contact with anything solid or pointed.

Throughout the wryly improvised shtick during their 1975 presentation of the award, John Lennon and Paul Simon heap the sarcasm and inside jokes on one and all while reading a bit of forced cleverness from the cue cards. But seen through the filter of our current age's obsequious political correctness, their unscripted cynicism and snideness about the evening's proceedings can be difficult to read. More difficult still, when Lennon finally announces that "I Honestly Love You" is the winner, and Art Garfunkel inexplicably comes out of the audience to accept the Record of the Year Grammy for Newton-John and her producer, John Farrar. The scene feels so surreal that Fellini would ask for a re-write.

It was a meeting of the Sgt. Pepper's No Love Lost Lonely Hearts Club.

Garfunkel and Simon had unhappily split up an act formed in high school just months after releasing their Bridge Over Troubled Water, for which they eventually accepted six Grammys and sold 25 million copies (by far their most successful album). In the same year as that notorious dissolution, 1970, John Lennon had of course sundered his famous relationship even less amicably with his mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And four months after bidding adieu, the most artistically and commercially successful band in history posthumously released one of their most successful albums, Let It Be.

Learning to Let It Be
On the same day when that final Beatles album hit the streets, a documentary film of the same title was released. Produced by Apple and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and filmed throughout most of January in 1969, it captures the agonies and ecstasies, the realities and unrealities, and the essential tedium of making a recording. Warts and all. It is probably the first time anyone had ever attempted to make such a document, and it succeeded so brilliantly that no one is ever likely to do it again.

In addition to the expected scenes of songwriting, jamming, rehearsing, improvising, arguing and clowning, the filmgoer is shown the grind of the long, long hours, the ill tempers, the artistic labyrinths, the endless cigarettes and cups of tea. We get to see the dynamics of a real, old-fashioned working band: four people who had ridden in the back of a van along with their equipment, stacked on top of each other like cordwood in order to keep warm on the trip to Hamburg; four people who had eaten, lived, and breathed the music together, non-stop, for ten years. And we are afforded the rare opportunity of peering under the surface at many of the qualities that defined the Beatles, the most uniquely gifted musicians of their generation, and how they produced music in the studio.

Paul McCartney and his charismatic personality had provided the de facto leadership of the band since Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Despite Epstein's strong presence and skilled management, and the respect he commanded from all the Beatles, he had failed to get them to perform live for nearly a year; after his death, the boys were inclined to hang it up altogether. So from that day forward, McCartney cajoled and wheedled them into carrying on, kept them moving forward one day at a time. His often pedantic approach is on full display in the film, as well as Lennon's loyal, vocal opposition and Harrison's introversion in the long shadows that those two cast, plus Starr's somewhat detached but rock-steady presence in the corner.

It wasn't a bed of roses. Camera-shy George Harrison wanted to get rid of the cameras and forgo the whole idea of doing a film. Family man Paul McCartney slightly breached the musician's creed of protected isolation at the recording studio by having his wife and daughter drop by, probably in response to Lennon's flagrant breach of letting Yoko Ono settle down next to him as though she were a participant in the session. Ringo looks alternately disgusted and stoically resigned to it all. And for the first time a guest artist, in the person of Billy Preston, was publicly employed as a participant in a Beatles recording session, though many others had done so anonymously over the years.

Lindsay-Hogg cut out much that deserved expurgation and even more at the Beatles' request, including footage of a short period during which Harrison resigned from the band and the others discussed who to replace him with. But the band had been unraveling for some time--even happy-go-lucky Ringo had quit the band for a while the year before; Lennon would tell the others of his decision to leave the band later in September, after which McCartney would retreat to a home studio and begin quietly recording a solo album.

I'm sure a few scenes that remain in the film are still somewhat unpleasant for the way they remind the surviving participants that those final days as a band were difficult. But as usual, despite all the drama and chaos, the band was as creative and exacting in their approach as ever. Lennon's later claims--that the studio tapes' substandard quality was the reason he had hired Phil Spector to do extensive post-production work on what Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons had recorded--could well be true, but start to finish everything in the film, from the rehearsals to those last live tunes filmed and recorded on top of the Abbey Road studios, documented a masterful chapter in their superb artistry. Through it all, despite drugs and disillusionment and every form of legal thievery and managerial interference known to man, they set the professional standards that every musician has been measured against since.    

So it was quite appropriate that the Beatles then received the Academy Award for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture for the outstanding music they had made for Let It Be. It was also a fitting accompaniment to the Grammy they had received for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture a month earlier.

But you would never guess it, not based on the way the Beatles responded to the honors. Note the film clip here from that Grammys ceremony, an earlier Fellini-esque time capsule that captures the moment when a sneaker-shod Paul McCartney and wife Linda, minus Lennon and Harrison, accepts the award from... can it be?...

John Wayne?

When a casually dressed McCartney and his wife come bounding out of the audience to accept the three Grammys from Wayne, Sir Paul takes one of the heavy little statuettes, has Linda take one, and jokingly offers the third to John Wayne. McCartney, clearly nervous and uncomfortable with the situation, offers only a two-word speech to all his admirers in the audience. "Thank you," he says, and gets off the stage quickly. 

Live And Let Die

The reason McCartney had showed up is because throughout it all he had always maintained a British sense of decorum and protocol. In his mind, an English gentleman doesn't win a Grammy and then just not show up to receive it. In many ways the film had been his project all along, as many things had been since 1967. But the album that had come from it was certainly a collaborative effort, all the post-production wrangling notwithstanding.

McCartney's sense of the Beatles' place in history meant he was quite aware that during the months since the album's and film's release, both were quickly being labeled as a chronicling of the Beatles' break-up. Never mind that it wasn't. The recording that began in February after finishing with the Let It Be sessions, and continued through August, was the last the Beatles did together. George Martin returned as the producer on the condition that he be allowed to control the proceedings as he had on Sgt. Pepper's, resulting in a disciplined session approach and more congenial atmosphere. Lennon and McCartney held it together despite disagreements on what material to do and how to do it, and Yoko was still a fixture, but... the sublime Abbey Road was the result. Shortly after wrapping it up, Lennon announced he wanted a "divorce" from the Beatles. Abbey Road was mixed and released a month later, but because of the involved post-production difficulties, Let It Be, both the album and the film, weren't released until the following May, several months after the Beatles' divorce was final. The stigma resulting from that coincidence of timing stuck.

The backbiting and nastiness visited by a community upon anyone who is thought to have deserted them is one of the primordial elements of social change. The Beatles were feeling the wrath of a fan base scorned. While many music critics were dismissing the recording as a poor effort, fans the world over were forming a lasting distrust of the inscrutably quiet, black-clad Yoko Ono. Her ubiquitous presence in the film quickly got her labeled as the agent provocateur responsible for the band's demise.

McCartney did just what he should have done in going to Los Angeles to accept the Academy Award. From Lennon's and Harrison's recent cathartic musical statements, it is certain they wouldn't be attending. Who knows what Ringo was thinking. Above all, McCartney knew, more than anyone outside the band ever could, the close relationship he and his friends had shared and the consequent anguish their recent separation meant. He fetched the Grammy for all of them.

Did the award make the difference or turn the tide of sentiment? Let It Be went on to become one of the Beatles' bestselling albums, so the music has certainly endured. But you haven't been able to buy a copy of that Academy Award-winning film since it went out of print in the early 1980s. If you're lucky and can find a used VHS copy on eBay, you'll pay a lot to own it. More than likely, you'll pay a lot for a crappy bootleg copy of a copy.

It's been out of print because the film's reputation as the chronicle of the breakup continued to grow unabated. The irony now is that people continue to accept this to be true, largely because they can't actually view the film and discover how incorrect the perception is. Instead it should have become known as the classic cinéma vérité that it is, with a killer last reel consisting of the band plus guest keyboardist Billy Preston, performing "Get Back," "Don't Let Me Down," "I've Got A Feeling," "One After 909" and "Dig A Pony."

Always sensitive to the reputation and legacy of the Beatles' catalog, McCartney and Starr, plus surviving heirs Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, still view the film as having more negative than positive impact, and have never agreed to reprint it in any form. One or more of them feel that maintaining the fictional Hard Day's Night version of the band's image somehow serves the music's place in history better than Let It Be. But the longer it has stayed out of print, the more complex people's lives have become. The longer it goes on, the harder it will be to change that consensus. Personally, I think it is wrongheaded to serve up redacted, sugar-coated illusions as biography. As internet content balloons in this information age, the best way to deal with the inevitable disinformation attendant to PR and image-shaping, is to tell the truth. Even when the truth stings a bit as people discover the dirty little secrets of their hero(s), we move on. We can forgive anything, and always will, as long as it isn't kept secret any longer. The only thing standing in the way of redemption is a lie. The truth is never as bad as it seems. So what if George went off in a pouty snit and refused to talk for a few days? Who among us hasn't? Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg said in 2011 that there was a chance a DVD might be released in 2013. As of this date it hasn't happened, but it could.

The Competitive Edge

Competitors in any field are always looking for an advantage, something they can utilize to increase the odds of success. A clever wax specialist can help a skier beat everyone to the finish line on the same day that the leading contender has been slowed slightly with an injury, and win a medal. For a recording artist, a golden-eared producer can mean the difference in creating a sound that turns a great song into a dance hit, the same way a cutting-edge special effects team can turn a well-scripted movie into box office gold. Many would have you believe the biggest competitive advantage is a weak field. But they'd be wrong.

Because the single biggest advantage a competitor has (all things being equal--which they very often are--even in the fanatically measured world of sports, considering that .004 seconds on a luge run can mean the difference between fame and infamy, or worse, anonymity) is to not only be better or do better work than anyone else in the field, but to not be taken seriously by anyone until that critical moment when it is too late to fend him off. Every racer knows that the ideal place in a race is in the blind spot of the oddsmakers' favorite pick to win it, drafting the presumptive winner. It's the place where the spotlight isn't.

That moment when you step out of the shade of the mountain and suddenly make the final climb to its summit is the most deliciously advantageous moment of all. A great athlete or artist gets to experience it only once. The irony is that after that first taste, attempts at every competition thereafter, in order for the victor to defy nature and get that advantage one more time, are doomed. It is all downhill from the top of the mountain.

And nowhere are those odd contradictions and vicissitudes of celebrity more apparent than in the most serious competitions of all--the awards business--that vortex of desperate vyings for the position at center stage where all the love and adulation of one's fans and peers swirls the most deliriously.

And In the End, the Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make

Which brings us back to those bizarre four minutes of video with Paul Simon and John Lennon at the 1975 Grammys. It took a while to get here, but these two artists' story is what their snidely dismissive jokes are all about. Both had climbed to the tops of their respective mountains. Both had been repeatedly acknowledged by their peers. Both had fans numbering in the millions (maybe billions in the case of the Beatles--they probably were more popular than Jesus Christ at one point, but as Lennon also remarked, he'd never said that was a good thing). Both had held armfuls of gold statues in recognition of their magnificent accomplishments, songs which people will listen to and sing again and again, until the end of time. Both had bank accounts stuffed with money.

What ain't we got (as Ray Walston sang in South Pacific)? Hint: the answer is not "babes." Neither of them had a shortage of babes.

What neither John Lennon nor Paul Simon had many of at the moment was other mountains to climb. Certainly, they had other interests, but art for an artist is an activity, not a statue or a badge. And the worst pain an artist can experience is a shortage of that activity. If he (or she) has an artistic collaborator, a divorce or even a separation from that collaborator is the bitterest possible pill to swallow. Fellow artists, particularly fellow collaborators, are the most valuable assets an artist has. Being able to challenge yourself and keep going with your next artistic venture is the most energizing activity there is.

Many years ago I watched Charlie Rose interview Kenneth Branagh, the fine actor best known for his Shakespearean acting and directing. He's been nominated many times, but has never won an Academy Award or a Golden Globe. He had just completed writing and directing a film, A Midwinter's Tale I believe, and was describing the experience when Rose asked him why, after his recent success in films like Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing, he was directing a small art film.

Branagh said he considered it a privilege to do his newly finished film--the darkly comical story of an out-of-work actor's quest for redemption by producing a play to raise money and save his sister's church from land developers--because in his mind, the definition of success is having the freedom to choose what he will do next. Money, he said, along with recognition or fame, simply provide the wherewithal to accomplish his artistic goals.  

So support your local artist. Whether he has a mantle bedecked with shiny awards or one adorned with candles he lights instead of cursing the darkness, go out of your way to acknowledge the work he does for the world, help keep him doing whatever is his next project. It's what he lives for.

Whether he has chosen to be a tailor in Kiev, a painter in Paris, a novelist in Seattle, or a cabinetmaker in London, support him. You're what he lives for, too.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Happy New Year Full of Jazz/Rock is Here -- Time to Party Like It's 1969!

(In case that headline is puzzling you... 1969 is the year Columbia released Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, and the year after the release of Filles de Kilimanjaro, when the Dark Prince got the party started and electricity started running through his veins.)  

Three weeks ago I received an email from Hungarian guitarist László Halper, asking if he could send me a copy of the CD he had made with his group, Band of Gypsys Reincarnation, called Electric Angelland. I get many of these requests and often need to decline them, but my instincts told me to accept his offer. I am certainly happy that I did.

After listening to it one time through, I can, at the very least, say it is some of the freshest and most innovative jazz/rock I've heard in a long while, all beginning and ending with László Halper's advanced techniques at making a guitar do nearly anything that Hendrix ever did, in a constantly unfolding series of compositional contexts. Halper says on his website that he founded the Band of Gypsys Reincarnation in 2007 with several leading jazz musicians in Hungary because, "through the sound of the band's music I wanted to create a bridge between the musical world of Jimi Hendrix, the jazz played by Hungarian Gypsies and traditional Gypsy music."  

I will be writing and publishing a complete review here and for All About Jazz (AllAboutJazz.com) as soon as I've had a chance to listen some more to this and his earlier CD, 40 Years After (2010), but I wanted to make a New Year's note that there is a discernible resurgence of interest in jazz/rock fusion coming, and László Halper's music is part of the reason why

In his liner notes for Electric Angelland, Halper writes that "It is widely known that Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis wanted to make a joint LP. The music they dreamed about together can never come about, obviously, but I still was intrigued by figuring out how that fusion of Hendrix's music with jazz would sound." Indeed, the meeting of those two great musical minds would have followed in logical progression from the music Miles had been making with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Lenny White, etc, and the bigger, wider improvisational approach Jimi was beginning to take with his bands. 

It is sad indeed that Miles and Jimi weren't able to pull it off. But Miles' Bitches Brew-era personnel were the nexus of an era of magnificent changes that happened in jazz, and it is a vital and energizing tradition that has continued to this day.

Just recently here on Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) I wrote about the tour of the jazz/rock supergroup Third Rail (George Whitty, keyboards; Janek Gwizdala, bass; Tom Brechtlein, drums) through Austria, Germany and Czech Republic, a European tour that was hugely successful and created quite a stir.

It is no accident that two other jazz monsters, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Eddie Gomez, joined forces with Halper on Electric Angelland, and in 2010 for 40 Years After, it was the inestimable talents of trumpet master Randy Brecker.

Speaking of whom, the announcement of Grammy winners on January 26th is going to set off fireworks when the 761-yr.-old (1,850-yr.-old, if you accept the Ptolemy citation theory) city of Kalisz, Poland, celebrates its ancient birthday and the Jazz/Rock Fusion Renaissance of 2014 officially begins, as the magnificent recording Night In Calisia, performed by Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio, and the Kalisz Philharmonic receives its well-deserved Grammy.

For the curious, Brecker and company's Night In Calisia competitors for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album this year are:

Babylon - Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
Night In Calisia - Randy Brecker, Wlodek Pawlik Trio & Kalisz Philharmonic
Wild Beauty - Brussels Jazz Orchestra Featuring Joe Lovano
March Sublime - Alan Ferber
Intrada - Dave Slonaker Big Band

But till then, Happy New Year! May 2014 bring you abundance in all things, love, joy, freedom, peace and prosperity.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

'Zat You, Santa Claus?

We Americans and our religious holidays are hard to figure, that's for sure. 

First, you hear us demanding tolerance and equal time for people who choose to affiliate with an anti-religious philosophy, or no religious practice at all. The next minute, we are decrying the absurd religious descrimination being exercised by a commercial enterprise like A&E Network with their top-rated television program, Duck Dynasty. Then you hear us defending our gay brothers and sisters. Then you see 360 choir members and 110 orchestra players gathering at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a Christmas celebration with people like the venerated newscaster, Tom Brokaw.

And then you see our celebrations of Christmas cheer with commercial television programming and advertising aimed straight at the affluent American consumer, accompanied by a flat-out affirmation of capitalism and its rewards, as we vocally sing our re-written, anglicized Christmas carols.

What gives? WTF? 

Here you go: it is the 237-yr.-old American commitment to the little guy, the underdog. As of 1776, all bets were off. Whether it had been the current British King George and his Anglican Church's haughty supremacy over the Empire, or the eventual President of the United States of America and his distinctly Protestant mindset, none had the power or dominion over another man's mind. A person's religious beliefs, no matter how absurd or disconnected from mainstream thinking, were his own and a sovereign choice. 

So when you hear Louis Armstrong singing "'Zat You, Santa Claus?," keep in mind that he did so of his own free will ... and that he could not have done it anywhere else in the world.

As for Christianity and its prominence in a Christmas celebration--do all religious adherents practice the principles of their faith without hypocrisy?... of course not. But the concept of love and tolerance and even forgiveness of your brother are its central tenets... and the central tenets of every civilization since the dawn of time. Only crazy people have a problem with that.

And as for the celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day and the darkest night of the year, as a religious prophet's birthday and a time for a lights-out party? How are you going to argue with that?

'Zat you, Santa Claus?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Jazz/Rock Is Alive and Well--Third Rail in Zülpich Tonight, Cologne on December 7th, Prague, December 8th


Music fans in Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, etc., who are willing to do a bit of traveling, have the opportunity to hear the Jazz/Rock supergroup Third Rail tonight at the Live Proberaum in Zülpich, Germany, at the Altes Pfandhaus in Cologne, Germany tomorrow, December 7th, and at the Agharta Jazzclub in Prague, Czech Republic on December 8th.

Five-time Grammy winner and multi-keyboardist George Whitty (Herbie Hancock, Brecker Brothers, Carlos Santana, David Sanborn) is joined by drummer Tom Brechtlein (Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Jean-Luc Ponty, Al DiMeola) and bassist Janek Gwizdala (Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, Randy Brecker) to do some serious Jazz/Rock fusing and shredding. 

These three guys can play, as you can see and hear from this video, filmed live at the Jazzclub in Minden, Germany. All three are veterans who have earned high marks in many musical fields, but what makes this grouping special is their willingness to not only touch, but embrace the proverbial third rail of jazz...

The bringing together of jazz and rock 'n' roll (and many other musics, ultimately) has been through some changes since Miles Davis first laid down Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968) and In A Silent Way (1969). When Miles recorded the revolutionary Bitches Brew (1970), he knew from the instant reaction of the music world that he had touched a nerve. He also knew from the harsh criticism he immediately elicited from many music critics of the day, that the old traditionalists thought he had ventured too far beyond the pale--or in other words, he had touched the "third rail." 

On an electric railway, of course, the third rail is one that runs parallel to the two that the railroad cars' wheels travel on. It supplies the very high-voltage electrical power that moves the train and its passengers and cargo at a very high speed. Just as was the case with the music of Miles Davis and the music that his personnel went on to create in the form of Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin), Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Lenny White), Lifetime (Tony Williams, Larry Young) and Weather Report (Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter), the electrical power was real and physical, as well as spiritual and musical. This was music played in the tradition of jazz, with the power of rock 'n' roll.

In the case of a human being who comes into direct contact with the third rail on a railroad line, that human dies a sudden and violent death by electrocution. For those of you interested in the colorful history of the jazz idiom--beginning with that fiery cauldron Miles stirred up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the music brought such loud controversy, such harsh and bitter rhetoric from some jazz critics, that it felt much like one of those human electrocutions. At least, that's what the bilious condemnation intended for it to be.

But the joke is on the critics. It always is, isn't it? Jazz/Rock is still here. And the critics ... if they're not spinning in their graves, are awfully soft-spoken these days. The direction jazz took in 1968 is still a bit of a third rail for some people. But if James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong were around today, they would be innovating still. They would be trying everything they could to keep the music alive and vital and relevant. They would be all over the third rail.

They would be electric.

Jazz is the one musical form that embraces all other forms. Jazz can (and does) incorporate everything from klezmer and European classical to hip hop and blues and bluegrass. The imaginary third rail, the one that says you can't go exploring too far and can't try something, anything, because it is too radical a departure from what is currently considered acceptable, is a falsehood. It certainly has nothing to do with jazz, which can include anything. It's just like Duke Ellington said:

"Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."

George Whitty's band Third Rail is putting jazz and rock 'n' roll together at full roar and can take you for a good, long ride. George and Tom and Janek are keep the electricity flowing and the trains running on time. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Unpardonable Turkeys: the 2013 Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) Listeners & Readers Poll

The 1st Annual Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) Listeners & Readers Poll will commence in 7 paragraphs. You can SKIP THIS MESSAGE in 30 seconds, 29 seconds, 28 seconds ...
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I recently sent a note to my friend, Jeff Fitzgerald, a writer in Virginia who lives far enough from Washington, D.C., that he can find a free-range, guiltless turkey for today's feast, thanking him for the latest piece he published. I'm in the habit of doing this every so often when I read something that strikes me as exceptionally good. Jeff has published so many things that are so good that I thought it was time to say so. Shortly after hearing back from him, I realized that the writers I'd written to in recent months all had something in common, in addition to their choosing to spend time in solitary confinement while pursuing just the right word to turn a phrase: they all write humor, or employ humor so well they are known for it.

Jeff and another recipient of one of my recent notes, pianist Bill Anschell, write about jazz, or as Jeff calls it, "Our Music." Like most writers, Jeff writes about other things, too, movies and food among them. Bill spends the bulk of his time composing music and arranging it, and plays beautifully. But not coincidentally, I know each of them best as humorists who regularly publish articles with the same fine publication I do, All About Jazz--Bill with his "Mr. P.C.'s Guide to Jazz Etiquette," and Jeff with the "Genius Guide to Jazz." Not coincidentally, I say, because it is not a coincidence at all that the three of us, scribes who like to express our outrages and opinions through various forms of sardonic humor (often combined with a kind of sacrilegious disregard for proper jazz dogma), all found our way onto the pages of Mike Ricci's website. It is not wasted on any of us that his comprehensive coverage at All About Jazz has the greatest reach of any online jazz publication in the world. Humorists like to have an audience to laugh along with them. 

Jon Hendrickson, a friend I've known since we co-wrote a satire column for our high school newspaper several decades ago (simultaneously incurring the wrath of the school administration and the closeted adoration of the faculty), lives in northern California and writes about wine. His adventures while pursuing wine, women, song and more wine in the vineyards and pubs of the wild, untamed foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains pique my appetite so well that I want a glass of his discovery by the end of one of his articles. He also listens to jazz, more acutely than most.

Then there's Lorraine Feather. Lorraine is, in my not particularly humble opinion, the finest lyricist working in jazz. She sometimes gets embarrassed when I threaten to publicly compare her to contemporary writers like Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough or Mose Allison, or the Broadway giant, Stephen Sondheim, all of whom have made contributions to Our Music that could (and should) fill a very large book. But right now, November 28, 2013, she is in her prime and on the hottest of hot streaks, as evidenced by this year's Attachments, or 2012's Tales of the Unusual (both released on Jazzed Media.) The humor in her lyrics, as is always the case, requires that the listener listen to what she is saying. And if you care to dive below the surface and read along with the printed lyrics while listening to one of her recordings, you will discover galleons filled with treasure at the bottom of her seven seas, including one of jazz's finest and most powerfully emotional voices. And one of the dazzling jewels in those blue depths is that she will very often make you laugh out loud.

I mention these writers because I don't get a chance to laugh out loud often enough these days. Details of why this is the case aren't necessary--you, dear reader, live on Planet Earth just like I do, but if you are from Mars, 10 minutes (more is not recommended) with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal will tell you all you need to know.

Besides the daily fishwrap, I read a lot of jazz writing, jazz criticism as it is often called (for good reason). What has struck me this year is how onerous and lifelessly intellectualized these discussions have become. Whether in the form of short, snotty little dismissals of years' worth of an artist's hard work, or great, ponderous dirigibles full of sulfurous hot air, the writer seems to have taken himself so seriously and found so little joy in either the music or the task of writing about it, that biting into a dried-out, weeks-old fruitcake stuffed with rancid pecans and hard green things sounds preferable to sinking your teeth into this guy's treatise on the arcane ideas and oblique interpretations rattling around in his head--a guy who has the same number of ears that you have, but the seemingly relentless determination to prevent you from ever hearing the music.

So I thought to myself, "Self, we need a new kind of year-end jazz poll." One that rates, in addition to the music you listened to this year and liked (as with the Down Beat or JazzTimes poll), the music you heard and disliked. It also struck me that you should have the opportunity to rate not only the music you heard, but the reviews you read. A poll that allows you to be the reviewer. You know, and I know, that often a review is so completely off-base or wrongheaded that you'd like to tie the reviewer to a tree and blast a mix tape (on a nice, cheap Radio Shack cassette) of Barbra Streisand songs (including her rendition of John Lennon's "Mother" from her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand) at him all day long, preferably on a 1980s model boom box with tiny speakers.

So here goes. Respond to any or all, as you wish (at the bottom of this Blogger post, or by email). The categories constitute the rating for any particular artist or recording that you care to mention, from the worst Unpardonable Turkey(s) to most Worthwhile Pursuit(s). If you feel inclined to rate any reviewers or reviews that you remember--or haven't already used as kindling in your fireplace--by all means throw them under the bus (or up top, if you liked one ... it could happen). And don't feel that you have to limit yourself to jazz. Our Music, as you know, incorporates all the other musical forms, so if you feel compelled to trash or deify a rocker or a hopper, feel free. Name names! Kick ass, or even heap praise! As Jesse Pinkman would say, "Whatever, yo."

Unpardonable Turkey(s)





Pardonable Sin(s)





Justifiable Caution(s)





Admirable Restraint(s)





Worthwhile Pursuit(s)





Photo credit: courtesy of BestSaxophoneWebsiteEver.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lorraine Feather: I Love You Guys (Interviews with Lorraine and Her Co-writers for Her Latest CD--Dave Grusin, Russell Ferrante, Eddie Arkin and Shelly Berg, Plus Her Recording Engineers--Geoff Gillette and Carlos Del Rosario)

Geoff Gillette, Lorraine Feather, Carlos Del Rosario

The great pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk, is credited with the remark that "writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture." But don't dash off and try to authenticate the quote. One, it'll just take you down a rabbit hole, and two, whether or not he ever actually uttered those words doesn't really matter. Because far too often, it's true.

It's true to the extent that the offending scribe is violating a fundamental law: either he doesn't know the subject well enough to write about it, or he doesn't know how to effectively express himself. Or both.

Obviously, the ideal writer on the subject of jazz, by virtue of understanding the music, would be a professional jazz musician. Similarly, based on an ability to express ideas, a professional writer would be the best person for the task. But these skill sets are very rarely found in the same person. Hence the uneasy marriage between writer and musician, and Monk's (or someone's) snarky comment on it. 

Jazz musicians have tended to stick to expressing their often complex musical ideas through their performances. But writers have quoted Shakespeare, tortured metaphors and squeezed the life out of countless adjectives and adverbs in their attempt to describe the blue notes, chord voicings, progressions, and swinging rhythmic patterns that characterize the music. Unfortunately, no matter how sincere their efforts, attempts to define or delimit jazz have always been reminiscent of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. (Jazz is like an elephant's trunk ... or its tail ... or its ear.)  And being hard to define, the music is therefore hard to describe. You see the problem.

But it is a problem only because we enjoy talking about this music so much. And the reason we do, is simple. Music truly is a universal language, a polyglot, some form of which is spoken in every culture in the world. Listening to jazz, and talking or writing about it, are ways of learning how to speak the language more fluently, ways of more fully engaging our culture and the world around us. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1976), Duke Ellington said it well: "What is music to you? What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘esperanto’ of the world."

Thus the jazz journalist's paradox, wedged halfway between Monk's comment and Ellington's.


As luck would have it, while in the midst of pondering these philosophically, morally confounding matters, the dark clouds parted for a moment and a grandly appropriate opportunity fell from the sky, a singular chance to connect readers directly with an important piece of music and many of its principal creators.

Lyricist and singer Lorraine Feather had released her CD, Attachments (Jazzed Media, 2013), after skillfully assembling many of the same stellar session players she has used for her two recent, Grammy-nominated CDs, Tales of the Unusual (Jazzed Media, 2012) and Ages (Jazzed Media, 2010)--i.e., guitarist Grant Geissman, bassist Michael Valerio, violinist Charles Bisharat, drummer/percussionists Michael Shapiro, Gregg Field and Tony Morales, plus a guest visit from saxophonist Bob Mintzer (on bass clarinet)--the sort of busy, in-demand musicians who require a fair bit of coordinating to gather together and get recorded in the same studio, at the same time.

More significantly, Feather had managed to reassemble the same cast of musical co-writers with whom she had collaborated on those two previous recordings, composers whose stylistic breadth and technical facility span an ever-widening musical spectrum: Russell Ferrante, the versatile keyboardist/arranger for the ambitiously metamorphosing band, Yellowjackets; Shelly Berg, monster stride pianist and Dean of Music at the University of Miami; and Eddie Arkin, veteran producer, guitarist and author of Jazz Masters Series: Creative Chord Substitution For Guitar (Alfred Music, 2004). Added to this bewitching mixture was J.S. Bach on one piece and Joey Calderazzo on another. But it was her new collaboration with the extraordinary Dave Grusin that caught my eye.

Grusin's addition to this gathering of composer/collaborators signaled a new direction for Feather, which, if you are familiar with Ages and Tales of the Unusual, and choose to view all three recordings as a suite, is almost de rigueur for the progression of the series--the recordings being like three chapters in a book, each startlingly different from the last, but thematically consistent with basic subtexts in the other recordings. Charles Bisharat's addition for Tales of the Unusual presaged the kismet of Grusin's arrival for Attachments.

When Lorraine Feather records a song, she chooses the company she keeps carefully. She needs to. As a lyricist, first and foremost, she writes the most profoundly thoughtful and emotional lyrics in contemporary jazz; as a supremely gifted vocalist, she therefore demands music that translates one of these poetic pieces into a form that is vocable and singable. While many others have sung her songs (Julie Andrews, Patti Austin, Diane Schuur, Cleo Laine, Janis Siegel), doing so requires a certain vocal dexterity and emotional bravery. And as her own principal artist, her sophisticated lines necessarily demand that she collaborate with composers and arrangers who possess the sensitivity to compose for this wordsmith's famous turn-on-a-dime diction and agile voice.

So when I discovered that, one for one, all these co-writers, including the somewhat elusive Grusin, were so enthused about the Attachments project that they wanted to talk about it, I knew I was onto something good and rare. When I discovered that her recording engineers (Geoff Gillette and Carlos Del Rosario), those unacknowledged legislators of the music world, were equally enthusiastic about discussing the technical aspects of this music, I leapt at the chance. It was apparent that the quality of the entire recording was what all these musical wizards were jazzed about.

Dave Grusin

Dave Grusin
Dave Grusin is one of those few fortunate jazz masters who have climbed to the top of the twin peaks of both critical and commercial success. In addition to co-founding GRP records in 1978 and producing some of the earliest digital jazz recordings, he has won 12 Grammys, plus an Academy Award in 1988 for the original score he composed for The Milagro Beanfield War. Hollywood discovered early on that he could write blockbuster movie scores--the kind that make good films great, and which are a genre of composing all of their own--and from that golden touch he's produced the scores for The Graduate, The Firm, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Tootsie, Heaven Can Wait, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Three Days of the Condor, etc. It's a long list.

When I suggested to Grusin that Feather compared favorably to the great jazz lyricists and song stylists of the past, he responded by saying, "I think your assessment about Lorraine as a lyricist and jazz singer is right on. Besides having a tremendous grip on the craft, her ideas about subject matter for lyrics are so different from most songwriters’, it puts her in a category of her own, in terms of what she chooses to write about. Plus, she has the free-wheeling stylistic sense of letting the piece go where it needs to go ... maybe a little reminiscent of how Dave Frishberg or Blossom Dearie would allow things to just 'happen.'” 

While working together on an album project for singer Monica Mancini, Feather approached Grusin with the radical idea of writing lyrics to a piece he had composed for his outstanding soundtrack (all solo piano) of The Firm, ‘Memphis Stomp,’ a hyperkinetic, rumbling boogie full of slippery syncopation. As Feather recalled, "I was a little nervous about playing him my lyrics for ‘Memphis Stomp,'" because I wrote a whole counter-melody and a short vocalese section, and I was hoping it would seem musical to him."

It did. Grusin liked it quite a lot, in fact. "Working with her on Monica’s album was a delight, and when she suggested a lyric idea for 'Memphis Stomp,' as crazy as it sounded, I was into it," he said.  "The version we did for her Attachments project is basically the original piano part, with her special sense of where a vocal should lay in… and with her consistent sense of 'story.'  I’ve learned that every one of her works has that element. It was much fun re-visiting that piano part … in spite of actually needing to re-learn it!"

The other tune Grusin did with her for Attachments came from an idea he had one day as they were wrapping up a rehearsal for "Memphis Stomp." He began playing J. S. Bach's "Air on the G String," and asked Feather what she thought about the possibility of writing words to it. The devastating lyrics she wrote for the resulting song, "True," and her heart-rending delivery, would make Bach himself weep--for joy, with grief, or from profound awe at the human spirit, it's hard to say--and would certainly change the way he heard his own composition the next time he listened to it. As Grusin explained, "the Bach 'Air' is something I had done with Bobby McFerrin, who did it as a vocalese. I told Lorraine about it, and played her the beautiful Josh Bell recording. She went home and came back the next morning with this lyric--another example of the genius that inhabits this woman. [N.B., Feather demurs on this point, and says she hadn't quite finished it by morning.] We decided to add Charlie Bisharat’s violin to this version, even though Lorraine’s vocal is the original violin melody. I think the result is beautifully satisfying, without too much alteration of the intent of the original.

"The other songs on Attachments are all amazing examples of how she creates with incredibly talented writers … Russ Ferrante, Shelly Berg, and Eddie Arkin.  They all have a great sense of ‘song,’ and sensitivity to Lorraine’s stories.  My hope is to do more work with her, and continue to be amazed and inspired by her phenomenal abilities."

Shelly Berg

Shelly Berg
Shelly Berg is a musical and educational force of nature. As a pianist and arranger, he has worked with such a diversity of people that just fitting all their representative genres into a single sentence is difficult: Arturo Sandoval, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Chicago, Gloria Estefan, Bonnie Raitt, KISS, Nancy Wilson ... After eight years spent chairing the jazz studies department of the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, he moved cross-country in 2008 and became dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. His non-traditional teaching methods separate him from the dry, stultifying musician mills, because he thinks music students should spend more time practicing and playing, less time studying and thinking about it. He is a brilliantly impulsive composer, and plays stride piano like a white Art Tatum.

But because he and Feather live at opposite corners of the continental U.S. (she on an island north of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, almost in Canada, he in Miami and a boat ride from Cuba) the question for curious minds is: how do you write songs together?

"It is a marvel to Lorraine and me that our songwriting process goes very fast.  We write two or three songs in one session of a few hours. I don't come in with musical ideas worked out in advance, because I don't want to become attached to an idea that doesn't resonate with Lorraine."

Feather commented similarly, that while working with Berg, he typically doesn't get involved in composing until "the end of the process, because I almost never see him. I always say this, but it blows my mind how close we are and how well and fast we work together, no matter how long it has been. As far as ‘The Veil’ goes, I had never intended to write the lyric, and when we were finally going to get together, toward the ending of the writing for the album, I had it in hand, so showed it to him and asked if he thought it could be a song. He said he thought so, but wasn't 100% sure. So ‘The Veil’ took a little longer. It had evolved in a way I hadn't heard yet, when we got to the session, and now it's one of my favorites of ours.”

On the other hand, she says, "Because Gregg Field will be the drummer when Shelly and I do a group piece, I think of something that would be great to hear Gregg play, ‘I Love You Guys’ being a classic example, a fast swing with a lot of fills. Shelly practically wrote it before I'd finished reading him the words."

Berg says, "She often has rhythms in mind, and so I ask her to speak the lyrics to me using the rhythms she imagines. Sometimes we talk further at that point, but usually I dive into a chord progression or intro figure that expresses the vibe of the song. As musical form emerges, Lorraine will sometimes alter a lyric so it can fit into the form we are constructing.  I think our songs have gotten more complex over the years, and are now becoming like miniature musical 'plays'."  

"I Love You Guys," a song he and Feather collaborated on for the Attachments CD, is just such a musical play. In fact, it is almost a play within a play, a heart-on-the-sleeve valentine and sweetly sardonic commentary on Life As A Musician In Our Times. The arrangement's musical twists and turns mirror Feather's lyrical layering of sarcastic tweaks, puns, inside musician jokes and gig cosmology, played at a breakneck pace maintained by an all-time killer rhythm section of Michael Valerio on bass, Gregg Field on drums, plus the ever-ebullient rolling thunder and lightning of Shelly Berg.

In commenting to Berg about the recording, I told him that after it opens with his totally out-of-the-box piano intro, "Gregg Field's drums and Michael Valerio's bass fly along comically, like one of those Keystone Cops car chases where the drivers are skidding around the corners and narrowly missing the pedestrians, while the escaping pianist knocks over a fruit stand and scatters a flock of freaked-out pigeons."

His response was, "I love your description of this song!  Right from the beginning I had an idea, which Lorraine loved, and so we wrote to that concept.  So often, musicians are overqualified, in terms of technique and sophistication, for the music they are playing.  They play 'casual  gigs' with watered-down standard songs, all the while chomping at the bit to bust out with their real chops. We decided to highlight that tension between the gig and the truer aspirations of the musicians. So we began the recording with the 'out of place' piano solo that would be either taboo, or pushing the envelope on most gigs. Throughout the song we return to a riff in the rhythm section that would be from a stock arrangement of a swing era song, and that riff is symbolic of the guys paying their dues on the bandstand.  The tempo is another key element.  On most gigs, this tempo wouldn't be used, because it can't be danced to.  But jazz musicians love to be 'on the edge,' and we wanted to convey that feeling.  I couldn't have had more fun with a song, and my tongue is still implanted in my cheek."

Commenting on the maturing and transformation he has seen in Feather, with whom he has been composing for several years, he said, "I think Lorraine's recordings have become even more personal to her.  Even though almost none of her songs are autobiographical, they speak to the journey of her life.  There seems to be more at stake each time we write together, in terms of the significance of what she wants to say.  It is a real honor to be her collaborator.

"Lorraine has had two Grammy-nominated CDs in a row. This is no accident.  She is one of the most profound and compelling musical storytellers of our time. I hope the elusive Grammy win occurs with this album. Attachments may be her most brilliant recording yet, although I say that each time!  As my life gets more complex, I have less time to work with her, so my role diminishes.  This may be fortunate for her, because the songs she is writing with Eddie Arkin, Russ Ferrante, and Dave Grusin are amazing."

Eddie Arkin

Eddie Arkin
Eddie Arkin is Lorraine Feather's oldest friend and songwriting partner. A composer, guitarist, producer and arranger who has worked with a gamut of people that includes Stanley Clarke, Diane Schuur, Nnenna Freelon, Lee Ritenour, Barry Manilow, Nancy Wilson and David Benoit, he has been Feather's simpatico first-call collaborator since the beginning of her songwriting career.

One of Feather's songs can involve an interconnected series of lyrical adventures. Commenting on what this involves, she said: "Eddie is great for a writing process that has a long trajectory and a lot of sections.  'Attachments' was on the complicated side to write--it evolved slowly from just a 'list' song about someone's various lovers, to the other attachments in a person's life, and then at the end, what I had first conceived as someone talking to himself or herself, turned into an intimate conversation over drinks, and you realize that one has been saying these things to another. I came up with my talking lines at the end, "I don't know where you're going with this and I don't want to talk about it," after the song was pretty much done, ran the idea by Eddie and he liked it. If I have several ideas for a word or phrase, he will always tell me right away which of them he would choose. He's especially discerning that way. I'm also more likely to bring him a lyric I'm unsure of, because if he doesn't think it would make a good song, he'll say so immediately."

Feather often begins writing a song by having her husband, drummer Tony Morales, work out a groove and record it. As a lyricist, her writing is so poetically conceived, with such precision meter and rhyming, that she can use what Morales records for her to build the lyrical architecture of the song. "On the Attachments album, he did this on four songs," Feather told me. "How it works is that either I ask Tony if he could play something in a certain vein, like a slow shuffle featuring the toms, as if I were singing 'Why Don't You Do Right?'--I requested this recently--or a samba or rhumba or whatever, or I hear him playing something and get excited about it and ask if he'd please record it. He'll loop it for a few minutes, and I'll listen to that when I'm writing the lyrics."

When I asked Arkin how he utilizes these rhythm patterns that Morales records, he said, "I’ll start by saying Tony is a terrific drummer. What he develops are usually 2- or 4-bar loops that Lorraine writes her lyrics to. This affects the composition in two ways. The most obvious is that these grooves define and lock in the tempo. Secondly, depending on the style of these loops, whether they’re Latin, jazz, hip-hop, swing, etc., they will help define how the arrangement will unfold as Lorraine and I work on the song.

"As our writing process begins, we almost always get together in person and Lorraine will often speak the lyric in rhythmic phrases, showing me how she hears the lyric against the groove. This is often our jumping-off point, and we usually play around with the rhythm as I come up with melodic ideas. What we always work out on our own, independent of these grooves, is the length of the musical phrases and the differing rhythmic patterns within these phrases.

"Interestingly, for all the sophistication in both the music and lyrics of Lorraine’s and my songs together, the actual compositions, almost all the time, follow quite traditional songwriting forms. For example, “Attachments” is written in an “AABAC” form. The verses are twelve bars long--very traditional, though not a blues--and the B and C sections are both eight bars long, again very traditional. So, we expand these traditions by playing with the rhythmic phrasing of the lyrics, and using sophisticated chordal harmony."

One of Feather's hallmarks is a unique ability to fearlessly attack the diction of a lyric. Slow, medium, fast or crazy fast, she can sing all the words and hit all the notes in her vocal range. I asked Arkin how this, a skill few singers possess, affects the way he composes.

He said, "As we jazz musicians like to say, Lorraine has “big ears” [referring to the aural attribute rather than the physical attribute]. So this is an area where our collaborations can really take off. Along with her razor sharp diction, Lorraine also possesses the ability to hit intervals that are outside the normal diatonic or blues scale style of songwriting.  Thus, we’re free to come up with melodies that are quite chromatic in nature, plus she’s really comfortable singing the upper extensions of chords. And with the versatility of her voice, I can write a melody in her lower register and all of a sudden jump as much as an octave, and continue in her upper register with a smoothness as if she were singing one continuous line. These elements allow us to create very dramatic colors and constantly changing emotions.  At the same time, she sings with a softness that pulls the listener into her story. Her voice is especially well suited to the depth and personal characteristics of her lyrics."

"Hearing Things" is a quintessential Feather tune with the kind of lyrics few other songwriters would write, even if they could, and fewer yet would ever have the composure to sing convincingly. A song about that emotional echo chamber in which one wants so much to simply engage with another human being--but can't quite--it lights a candle in that dark place where one is unable to easily distinguish between what is plausible and what is possible, what is imagined or what is desired. The emotional miasm is an uncomfortable place, but as the song ends it turns a completely unexpected corner as Feather's voice is overdubbed in an eerie, Felliniesque chorus that hovers and floats instead of fading, until it ends neatly and logically, like an exhalation. It is musical terra incognita, and similar to other compositions on this recording like "A Little Like This" or "The Veil," Feather's lyrics seem to have gone deeper and become more emotionally complex than ever before.

I asked Arkin, whose long collaboration with Feather has seen many changes of direction, if the experience of writing with her has changed.

"As with any close relationship, be it a spouse, friend or collaborator, we all hold out a fervent hope that as our hierarchy of needs change, we can all grow and change together in some parallel way.  Lorraine and I have been quite lucky in this matter. We’ve been writing together for close to 30 years, going back to the first major recording of one of our songs, “Big Fun” by Barry Manilow, for his album Swing Street and the subsequent CBS television special, Big Fun On Swing Street. In those days, the music came first and then the lyrics, often [with each of us] working our part out on our own. We continued writing all through the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, at which time I became quite busy as a TV composer, so songwriting took a backseat for me for the next ten years.

"As Lorraine began to write her own albums featuring herself as an artist, our method of working changed.  She came up with the lyrics first and we started to sit in the same room, working out these tunes together, at least until we had a substantial part of the song written.  Then I would develop the arrangement more until the next time we got together. I think sitting in the same room and hashing these ideas out can only occur with two people who’ve worked together for many years and have established a vulnerable and trusting relationship.

"I like to think of our collaborative efforts as growing deeper with each new project. However, I’ve always felt that our writing over the years has been quite emotional.  What I love about it, and feel is quite unique about Lorraine’s lyric writing, is that it covers the whole landscape of the human condition. Besides the humor, wit, literary and poetic intelligence, Lorraine’s lyrics are at the same time full of longing, yearning, comfort, acceptance, sensuality, and even fear. So I like to think of our songs as an ongoing development of our talent and skills that is hopefully growing deeper with each new project.

"As for the song 'Hearing Things', it’s written in 6/4 time but does not have a waltz feel. The rhythm, as I learned later, is a Peruvian style called a Lando. The accent is on beat 1 and 5, so it has the feel of 1234, 12. I feel the music and the lyric of this piece create a very mysterious, almost existential mood. Lorraine and I decided to have a chorale at the end of the song, where the rhythmic feel becomes more waltz-like. Notice how beautifully Lorraine’s overdubs blend on the different lines in the mostly 2-part but sometimes 3-part harmony."

When asked if he saw any other differences between Feather's work on Attachments and her last recording, Tales of the Unusual, Arkin said, "I only see small differences between the two projects. Mainly from a music and lyrics standpoint, there seems to be more of a spatial aspect to Attachments. There’s more instrumental 'blowing' or improvisation in this album, and I feel the compositions contain more of what I would call positive and negative space, meaning more spread out. I feel this album really breathes and the listener has more room to experience the project as a whole. Also I believe the subject matter is more universal, [something] most people can identify with.”

I asked Arkin if he ever employed a device that I sometimes use myself when writing: which is, reading lines I have written out loud to myself, in order to hear the sound of the words as opposed to the meanings of those same words, in order to make adjustments when sounds or cadences could be at odds with the sentence's meaning, potentially causing confusion for the reader. In my case it would result in changing the vocabulary or grammar to suit the communication; in his case, it would mean adjusting the composition to suit Feather's lyrics.

"I do a similar thing to you, although my version is I sing the lines to myself. It seems the choices I make as I’m composing happen on a subliminal level, somewhat outside my conscious awareness and thought process. If a melody works for me, it’s usually because it feels right emotionally and seems to feel in sync with the lyrics.  Some songs kind of compose themselves, while others need rewriting or revisiting. Sometimes a change in a song will reveal itself after a writing session, in sort of a visceral way, kind of like having a splinter in your finger that will irritate you until you take care of it. Changes in the writing process can take place by the piano, but often come to me while I’m doing something completely unrelated, like taking a shower or driving my car. Lorraine and I discuss the lyric before I start writing the melody, so we’re usually in sync as to what the meaning of the song is about."

One of the outstanding songs on Attachments is the tune "159," a quirky, rhythmically catchy song about a family sitting around their kitchen table while the drummer son lays down the groove to "The Clapping Song" with his metronome set to 159.  The tune opens with bassist Michael Valerio doing some fetching Slam Stewart-style scatting along with his swinging bass melody that bumps right into the groove, which Feather says her husband Tony recorded to assist her in writing the song's lyrics. It's a tune destined to be one of those Lorraine Feather instant radio classics, so I asked Arkin how the lightning-in-a-bottle composition had evolved.

"Lorraine wrote the lyric and Tony sent the groove, which he called a 'jump swing.'  With this tune, I came up with a couple of 4-bar progressions before we got together, ones that might work as a basis for building the song.  When we met, Lorraine immediately picked the progression you hear in the finished tune.  My idea, musically, was to pick something that was hypnotic or trance-like, that had a certain subtle smoothness and an ostinato-montuno repeated bass line. The melody came very quickly on this particular song.

"While working on '159' I happened to go to a jazz club to see pianist Mike Lang play. Mike Valerio was playing with him, and much to my surprise, he was featured singing--very well--on one of his original tunes.  I told Lorraine about his excellent singing, and we both thought it would be cool to have him open '159' playing a bass solo and scatting.
What I love about this track is that it grooves like crazy, and yet never gets above mezzo forte, so Lorraine [was able to] sort of glide above the track, using the lyrics much like an added percussion instrument to punctuate the rhythm. "

The arranger's palette grew rapidly on this and her previous CD, when Feather added Bisharat and his imaginative violin work. But her regular troupe are increasingly willing to try anything, as demonstrated by Valerio's scatting or Grant Geissman's magician's sense of guitar swing, or the drummers' various approaches to exactly how to "fill" a request (e.g., from Shelly Berg to Gregg Field, to "Throw another bucket of fish on" a wild section of "I Love You Guys"). I wanted to know from Arkin how the recording was influenced by writing with these personnel in mind.                          

"I find Lorraine's CD to be a virtual treasure chest of talent. There can be no better example of the phrase 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' On my compositions, the band consisted of Russell Ferrante on piano, Grant Geissman, guitar, Charlie Bisharat, violin, Mike Valerio, bass, and Mike Shapiro on drums. It's very rare indeed to find a group of musicians so accomplished that they can play anything you put in front of them, no matter how technically sophisticated, and at the same time introduce ideas and embellishments to these charts that go far beyond the written page.  Simply put, their mastery and creativity blow me away." 

Russell Ferrante

Russell Ferrante
Producer, arranger and multi-keyboardist Russell Ferrante is the last remaining original member of Yellowjackets, the legendary fusion (and beyond) band formed in 1978 that, among other things, was one of the seminal 1980s aggregations to keep the flame alive along with groups like Weather Report, Chick Corea's Elektric Band and the Rippingtons, but which unlike those bands, keeps the flame alive still. The band's tastefully adventurous work is largely due to Ferrante's guidance and vision as a composer. In addition to his work with Yellowjackets, he has also written and produced records for a wide range of artists, including Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Michael Franks, Diane Reeves and Sadao Watanabe.

Of the co-writers Lorraine Feather works with, Ferrante is perhaps the most stylistically eclectic and likeliest to compose something not immediately recognizable as his. His broad mastery of harmony and orchestrational theory result in a fountain of compositional ideas that might bear a strong resemblance to Rachmaninoff at one moment, Zawinul the next, Debussy the next, and still remain uniquely his. Watching his instructional videos, you get the feeling that you are listening to a musical scientist, a particularly analytical intellectual who lives and breathes harmony, rhythm, melody, and especially compositional narrative. Then there is his staggering pianistic technique. He can play anything that he writes.  

And he loves writing with Lorraine Feather: "I'm a huge fan of Lorraine's lyric writing and singing. After working together for the past twenty years or so, I think I've come to better understand her unique musical world. It encompasses early American musical genres from blues, stride, and swing to the present day. Her lyrics often suggest a mash-up of all those eras! I, too, share a love for all those musical styles. Each style has its own melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. I think all of Lorraine's collaborators have to speak those various musical languages in order to support her lyrics in the most authentic way. 

"The songs we've written together have been constructed different ways. Early on, Lorraine would send me a lyric and I'd write the music I thought best supported her lyric. Songs like "The Girl With the Lazy Eye" were written this way. More recently, we've been brainstorming together at my house, with both of us throwing ideas back and forth. Once we settle on the direction for the song, I'll work on it on my own and send MP3s for her input and direction.

"I guess in the simplest terms, you're always trying to find a balance of heart and head. One studies music to gain a working vocabulary, but then one has to move into the realm of the heart, to grasp the emotional center of a lyric and find the best possible way to serve it."

Feather's Attachments CD opens with a captivatingly earthy tune with a 19th Century American folk song vibe. Even for one of their collaborations, it is very unusual. Feather had said " 'A Little Like This' is in 7, so I knew Russ would come up with something tasty and hypnotic for the accompaniment, and I thought he'd like the rhythm I had in mind for the vocal. What he does rhythmically with Yellowjackets is so sophisticated, but it never sounds contrived. I admire his deep knowledge of time, though I would not attempt anything as complex as the tunes he does with his group. We have adapted classical pieces that I knew he'd sound beautiful on. There's something soul-satisfying about exploring the hybrid world of jazz and classical music with Russ."

So I asked Ferrante how he frequently manages to compose in an utterly different style, as he did on "A Little Like This," while still keeping what he is writing tethered to her lyrics.

"That song was indeed a bit of a departure for us. Lorraine's husband, Tony, had created a drum loop that was the starting point for the rhythm of the song. I tried to create something that had a more open feeling, almost a modal feeling. Again, all of Lorraine's collaborators have diverse musical tastes, from folk music to orchestral music. It's fun and challenging to step into those different music worlds. In a way, it's like an actor playing a different role than the one most associated with him.”

On Feather's previous CD, Tales of the Unusual violinist Charles Bisharat was brought into her heady mix of session players and created such an impact that he was issued a permanent RSVP. His playing on Attachments on "Anna Lee" or "A Little Like This" is so much a part of the arrangement that it's hard to imagine it being any other way. One of the most obvious uses of Bisharat's colorations is as a second voice paired with Feather's, so I asked Ferrante how writing for Lorraine's voice worked in relationship to writing for Bisharat's violin or another instrument.

"We always give Charlie lots of free reign in the arrangements. He's more like a horn player in a jazz band, with lots of space to create his own parts. I do write a few specific things for him that are part of the arrangement, the same way you would write for any second voice, employing harmonies and counter melodies to help move the arrangement along. 

"A voice has a more limited range than most other instruments, so one needs to keep things in a certain area to best take advantage of each singer's unique vocal qualities. Lorraine has a very solid understanding of her voice. If we write anything that is in an awkward range for her, she'll let us know!"

The arrangement Ferrante wrote for "Smitten With You," with the lyrics that fellow dog-lover Feather wrote for her rescue mutt, Sterling, modulates deceptively from an odd little Prokofiev-sounding march time, to a kind of balladic middle and back to the march, then out with a full, almost big-band sound with Valerio's bass, Bisharat's violin and Bob Mintzer's bass clarinet. It is such a melodically incongruous composition (for Feather) that I asked him how the arrangement evolved.

"That was one of those instances where, together, Lorraine and I landed on the initial feeling for the song. The beginning chords just kind of spilled out. After that it wasn't as easy. I encountered several "Not A Through Street" signs before hitting upon a treatment for the middle section. Once that was in place, the ending evolved naturally from the beginning with a slight tweak of the harmony and rhythm."

Carlos Del Rosario

Carlos Del Rosario is a singer, producer and engineer who has been recording Lorraine Feather's vocals for over fifteen years. Such stellar engineering captures as Feather's Ages and Tales of the Unusual speak volumes for what he does, in addition to the work he has done with Denise Donatelli, Stephen Bishop, Arturo Sandoval, Yo-Yo Ma, and Judy Wexler.

I mentioned to Del Rosario that on 2012's Tales of the Unusual plus on her new Attachments CD, her voice sounds fuller and clearer, and the overall sound of the individual musicians' performances, separately and collectively, sound bigger, the aural space greatly expanded, and asked him if he was doing something different with the file compression or if there was anything else different in the way he was recording her.

"I've recorded her from her very first solo album using the same microphone, a Neumann Tube U-67 and the preamp. I think the difference you're hearing is really Lorraine. The growth she's made in the last few years in her expression is just amazing.

"Geoff [Gillette] is solely responsible for the recording of the band and I'm responsible for recording and editing of all of her vocals. And we mix together. Yes, you're right about the compression. We've been using less and less of it.  And we are very conscious of the aural space that you talk about, which gives each instrument the dynamic range without trampling the other musicians, as you say.

I asked him if Feather's lyrics--which are so dynamically maneuverable, from very soft or even whispered, to quick staccato attacks, hairpin turns and octave leaps--involve anything special while mixing one of her vocals, or if the lyrical content influenced the way he recorded it.

"No, the lyrical content doesn't really influence the way I record her, although at the editing stage I may take a syllable or two and EQ them differently or compress just those syllables alone to make them come out."

Del Rosario has recently done beautiful multi-tracked vocals on a couple of Feather's tunes, like "Hearing Things" on Attachments, even recording Michael Valerio doing some sweet scatting, as mentioned earlier, so I asked him about these new directions.

"Geoff [Gillette] recorded Mike's scatting live as he played the bass. Yes, we are proud of the way it came out. I don't know if I'm supposed to divulge this to anyone yet, but I just recorded a multi-tracked vocal that's a lot more extensive than she's ever done before, on a piece that's written and arranged by Eddie Arkin for the next album. This is something you should look forward to!" [The album, slated to be finished over the course of 2013, is entitled Flirting With Disaster.]

The group of musicians Lorraine has been bringing together for her last three albums have started to sound very coordinated, like a real working band, so I asked him how that has influenced the experience of recording them.

"You're right again. When she settled down with these guys, her music became emotionally thicker and juicier. And that's definitely reflected in the whole production. Each one of these guys has such a special connection and understanding with her music, it shows so blatantly in their performances individually and collectively. I don't record them myself, but I have a hell of a lot of fun mixing.

"I've seen her evolve constantly and consistently as a writer and vocalist. When we first met, I was a recording artist for Dave Grusin's GRP label under the name of "Yutaka". I contacted her because I wanted her to write some lyrics to my song. We hit it off right away, and from then on she's been coming to my studio for the recording. As a musician, I find her evolving astounding in her ideas, her literary abilities, her vocal performances and of course that Lorraine Featherism that you find in all of her compositions. She's a true one of a kind. I am so fortunate to get to be a part of this team."

Geoff Gillette

Geoff Gillette has been recording music since the mid-1970s, capturing for eternity a Who's Who list that includes B.B. King, Dori Caymmi, Jon Hendricks, Yo-Yo Ma, Sergio Mendes, T-Bone Burnett and Flora Purim. Like Rudy Van Gelder and the other great ones, he is the music world's version of the gentle family doctor who is a master of the recording arts and sciences, empirical and hard-nosed in doing what is needed to breathe life. In person, Gillette is the warmest, kindest sort of gentleman, but as an engineer, he is a nuts-and-bolts technician all the way. Since Edison got his patent, there has never been anything natural about a sound recording, except in the end result. When I compared Gillette's recordings favorably to Van Gelder's, he did just what he should have: he ignored the compliment, and explained how it is that he (and Carlos Del Rosario) recorded Lorraine Feather in such a way that listening to her CD feels like sitting in the room with her and her band:

"There are a lot of elements adding up to why her records sound the way they do, starting with the writers and the musicians she's assembled.  Lorraine has created a great team that has been fairly consistent over the years, the newest great addition being Dave Grusin on the Attachments album.
"The recording process is usually done at Entourage Studio in North Hollywood, where I have recorded probably close to fifty records over the years.  I know the room well.  It's a great-sounding wood room with a vintage Neve console to record through. Recording through this particular piece of analog equipment makes a big difference.  Then, of course, it's a matter of putting the right microphones in the right places.  Lorraine's vocals are always recorded using a beautiful, restored Neumann U67 tube microphone. 

"What is interesting about the way Lorraine makes records is that she'll do two or three songs at a time, and then several months go by before the next session, while she's working on the next songs.  We hardly notice that we've done a whole record, when one day, Lorraine announces that the recording is done and it's time to mix. 

"The good thing about the way we mix is that we take our time, and are continuously revisiting each mix, listening on many different systems and making notes and adjustments as we go.  There are four of us doing the reviewing: Eddie Arkin, Carlos, myself, and of course, Lorraine.  There's a lot of attention to detail, especially making sure we hear and understand all of Lorraine's wonderful lyrics.  We call this part of the process 'nit-picking,' and we have some special techniques in balancing Lorraine's vocals with the band. This multiple scrutinization adds up to a refinement that ends up with everyone happy.  What's great is that Lorraine always goes the full nine yards in allowing this to happen.  Mixing by committee seems to work very well.

"Also, for the last two records, the mixes have been put through a Neve summing device which puts digital mixes back through analog, giving it an even bigger, warmer sound.
The final step is a good mastering with Bernie Grundman and voila, there you have it.

"One of my favorite things in life is making a Lorraine Feather record. I can't wait till we start the next one..."

Photo credits

Geoff Gillette, Lorraine Feather, Carlos Del Rosario: Eddie Arkin
Dave Grusin: Andy Ihnatko
Shelly Berg: Jim Wadsworth Productions
Eddie Arkin: Timothy Teague
Russell Ferrante: Mitch Haupers