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 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 the 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. Attachments
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 seriesthe 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 is one of those few fortunate jazz masters who have topped the twin peaks of 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 scoresthe kind that make good films great, and which are a genre of composing all of their ownand from that golden touch he's produced the scores for The Graduate
, The Firm
, The Fabulous Baker Boys
, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
, 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 weepfor joy, with grief, or from profound awe at the human spirit, it's hard to sayand 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 lyricanother 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 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 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 writeit 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 recentlyor 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 longvery traditional, though not a bluesand 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 beingbut can't quiteit 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 singingvery wellon 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 pallette 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
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."
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."