Arif Mardin: In Conversation
AAJ: Norah Jones seems like a breath of fresh air for a lot of listeners. What is the difference between pop music and art, and where does jazz, from Charles Lloyd and Sonny Stitt, both of whom you?ve worked with, and Norah Jones and Dianne Reeves more recently, fit in?
AM: I'm looking at the young people today playing, dedicated musicians. Instead of going to lucrative pop music or whatever, they play in small clubs and they just play the music they love. I hope there [is] more of an awakening of jazz with the people because obviously the sales of jazz records aren't as big as pop records.
AAJ: It's just a fraction of the industry total. How can that market be improved, how can artists be exposed to young people?
AM: Well, you have some examples [such as] Diana Krall. Maybe great videos, some concertsI don't know.
AAJ: Some people feel worried that jazz is headed toward a nostalgic, kind of museum-piece future.
AM: You have a point there, but when an artist [such as] Dianne interprets songs, and you get into the lyrics, it's back to incredible, Billie Holiday time, or evenshe was not a jazz singer, butEdith Piaf. You get into the meat of the song, and she's acting out the persona. I worked with Bette Midler for many years, and I learned her craft, her art, that she becomes the person. When she would do a vocal, she would think, 'shall I be that person, shall I be this person?" Then she would latch on to the persona of what the songwriter is trying to say. Dianne is doing that.
Also I think it's a matter of education. Today young pop-music and hip-hop have very little to do with jazz. The basis of jazz is improvisation and freedom. If the musician is a mediocre jazz artist and the solos go on and on and on, you bore the people. But if you have a stellar instrumentalist, and he gives you an incredible solo, it will touch hearts. You see, we have to really lift the level of musicianship a little bit.
AAJ: Speaking of great musicians, you worked on Charles Lloyd's Dreamweaver in 1966, with Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett. That was a pretty "New Thing," Coltrane-style kind of record. With Jones and Reeves, they play more conventional, verse-chorus-verse songs and standards. Do you follow the avant-garde versus neo-classical controversy among jazz musicians?
AM: No, but at the same time, I'll give you an example: The "Skylark" arrangement for Dianne Reeves. It's a departure from the original chord changes, but at the same time, the feeling is there and the melody is always supported by new harmoniesbut it's not distracting. It is slightly avant-garde, but at the same time, it's beautiful. Sometimes you will have ultra-, ultra-different chords piled upon each other, and, if the object is to be totally avant-garde anddevoid of melody, well maybe that's sort of a Stravinsky-like approach. But if you're playing a song, you have to also be a little true to the original melody.
AAJ: You worked with Ofra Haza [on 1989's Desert Wind].
AM: Yes. She's Israeli, but she came from Yemenite Israeli, so she spoke Arabic too. Wonderful woman. She brought in some kind of desert tradition.
AAJ: Do you listen to a lot of world-fusion jazz?
AM: A little bit, not too much. When I travel to Istanbul, because I have an apartment thereI come from Turkey originallyyou turn on the radio and you hear a lot of interesting ethnic music.
AAJ: Some of your work, such as "Good Lovin?," Aretha Franklin's 'respect? [from Franklin's 1967 album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, on which Mardin worked as arranger] and Average White Band's Cut the Cake, is considered classic. Other albums, such as your work with Hall & Oates, Culture Club or Phil Collinspeople don't accord them the same kind of time-tested character. How do you assess the fickle trends in top-40 music?
AM: Well... I think the strength of the song is more important. I don't know if that is a factor. Today it is more like a handsome, young man or a very pretty, sexy, young lady dancing well and relying on videos and effects. Some of them, their voices may be pretty, but they are out of tune in many places, and they are being corrected by computer software. That's what we call today's pop music. It's really not an advancement at all. Top 40 of the '60s and '70s and '80s were totally different. [But] I'm not a person who says, 'those were the good, ol' days," because in the '70s, '80s I used to use synthesizers. Today a lot of people say, "Let's record analog." Fine, if the artist is really keen about that, fine, but give me Pro Tools anytime, because it makes my life easier. The conversions, analog-to-digital, are so much better now, that digital sounds very sweet. I remember in 1987 or ?90, I was recording with the Bee Gees, and we had one of the first digital multi-tracks, and the sound was terrible, very brittle. It's not like that today.