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Lorraine Feather: I Love You Guys

Carl L. Hager By

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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 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 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 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 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.
About Lorraine Feather
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