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Arif Mardin: In Conversation

By Published: October 1, 2003

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 harmonies—but 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 and—devoid 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 there—I come from Turkey originally—you 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 Collins—people 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.

AAJ: You worked with the Bee Gees in the '70s also, you did "Jive Talkin?," which was a huge, smash hit.

AM: Right, but that was kind of state-of-the-art technology too.

AAJ: Some people worry that was the end of the artist-driven music market and the beginning of the producer-driven scene. Then the '80s came along, and it was sort of a dark age for pop music, with payola in the industry?

AM: [Laughs.]

AAJ: ?and overproduced, out-of-touch music, whereas jazz-rock and punk rock were pushed underground.

AM: In the and '80s I was very happy to work with Chaka Khan for example. We made great records. [Mardin produced 1979's Chaka Khan, featuring "I'm Every Woman," and 1984's I Feel for You.] Again that was sort of a state-of-the-art fusion of rap and synthesizers. But the drummer was playing drums!

AAJ: That's real, organic drumming and not a synth drum?

AM: Excuse me, that was a drum machine. I will be giving a speech in October at the AES [Audio Engineering Society] Convention, and it is about, will technology replace the artist? I'm going to say that technology is great, you can't stop it, because people will invent new devices, new machines all the time. It is, in whose hands the technology will be, because you can use the technology to great advantage, or you can manufacture an artist, a singer from nothing. Those are the points that you have to weigh.

AAJ: Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but is Norah Jones a kind of penance for Boy George?

AM: Whoa. What did I do with Boy George?

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