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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 rein 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."
I grew up listening to mainstream '70s rock then ended up on the staff at the college paper at San Diego State, and volunteered to review heavy metal LPs. My second semester, the music editor dropped a Fenton Robinson LP on my desk, Night Flight. You like metal; they play guitar--he plays guitar, the editor told me
I grew up listening to mainstream '70s rock then ended up on the staff at the college paper at San Diego State, and volunteered to review heavy metal LPs. My second semester, the music editor dropped a Fenton Robinson LP on my desk, Night Flight. You like metal; they play guitar--he plays guitar, the editor told me. If we don't run a review, Alligator Records is going to stop servicing us.
Night Flight opened up a whole new world for me--the blues led me, inevitably, to Basie, who led to Duke, who led to Mingus, who led to Miles, who led to ...