While writing the tune "Scrabble" for her recently released CD Ages (Jazzed Media, 2010), lyricist and singer Lorraine Feather's songwriting partner, Dick Hyman, had an unusual request that bordered on a dare: could she work the name of the venerable pianist/composer's family friend Dushka into the lyrics? After all, the middle section of his stride composition "Barrel of Keys," the musical basis for what was becoming "Scrabble," was called "The Dushka Stomp."
"Figuring out how to work the name in took me longer than the entire rest of the song, but I'm glad I was able to," commented Feather. Soon after a critic's recent admiring mention of it, an obviously pleased Hyman showed the review to the now-bedridden Dushka and proudly played her the new song. The karmic wheel that had gone around was swinging around again.
In the hands of this black belt word nerd, a fictionalized Dushka becomes the mischievous landlady to a squabbling Scrabble player and her boyfriend while Stravinsky's darkly comic ballet is playing in the background:
Though his body isn't awfully sturdy, And his manner is incredibly nerdy, Conversation often overly wordy, He's a heck of a brain.
Monday night we played our landlady Dushka, While we listened to the score of Petrouchka; Dushka put a double "o" in "babushka." You could see his pain.
It was just a joke that sank like lead! She's been known to mess with his head.
Lorraine Feather clearly understands Shakespeare's somewhat snide commentary that all the world's a stage, and the men and womenincluding herselfits players. She engages the lyricist's craft as an activity integral to the living of life. It is not a case of life imitating or being imitated by art, because art is itself a vitally important and indistinguishable part of it. Throughout the new compositions on Ages it is obvious that, despite her developed abilities as an observer, she is on some level involved in her characters' lives, delighting in their triumphs and feeling the sting of their losses. As they shuffle on and off this treacherous coil, their tumultuous exits and entrances, their loves, their treasons, their rambunctious joys and cherished dreams are seen through the lens of her uniquely empathic perspective on this, her most emotional, sardonic, hilariously poignant and piquant work to date.
As she did with her last CD, Language (Jazzed Media, 2008) she wrote these new pieces with contemporary composers. The lyrics are evocative and deeply imbued with her edgy trademarks: the self-referential humor, the smart-alecky jibes and the acute social commentary are all there, razor-sharp. Her rich contralto's bell-like tone, especially in the higher range, manages to drive the music with a whirlwind intensity, while her dulcet murmurs and sly intonations cut through the noise overload of modern life.
Among contemporaries, her poet's precision of language is on a level not heard since pop lyricists like Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman, and among jazz lyricists, Bob Dorough or Dave Frishberg. Her sensitivity to the subtleties of syntax, plus the exactness of her meter and rhyming, are unparalleled.
"Although I'm best known (though not, like, across the whole planet or anything) for my new lyrics to old music, I don't think it's an accident that my current and last CD, which were written all with the living, have been the most successful, or as [pianist/composer] Shelly Berg is fond of saying of his releases, 'went Wood!' My relationships with my composer friends have grown stronger over the years, and the co-writing felt especially organic on this album. They all have a deep appreciation for lyrics and a vast musical vocabulary. The give-and-take was so gratifying. I especially love the way a song may start out to be one thing and turn into another."
And once again, Feather gathered the cream of the crop of L.A. and N.Y. session players for her recording. "The musicians all did more blowing on this album, which was something I wanted because they're so incredible, as well as being cool people I love being around."
"The Girl with the Lazy Eye" is a song on Ages that tells the story of an apparently introverted, socially inept young girl whose underachievement and awkwardness are of great concern to her teachers at school. Her lack of friends (Feather's wry lyric says: "She had a close friend one semester./ Ana's now back in Paraguay.") and her high IQ but mediocre grades, her notebooks of morbid poetry, all are embodied symbolically in her "lazy eye," a minor neuromuscular anomaly which can result in somewhat poorer vision in the eye when looking straight ahead. To accommodate it she quite often follows the eye's natural strength, and literally looks at her environment out of the corner of her eye. Feather uses this lyrically as a metaphor for not only all the mostly-misplaced concerns about the schoolgirl, but for the fact that she sees the world from a different angle and may perceive things more clearly than many of the other people in her life.
Feather's eye doctor has said her own lazy eye is "not that lazy," but she says her mother "used to say 'Turn your head straight!' when I watched TV because she was afraid I wasn't strengthening the muscles by compensating when I angled my head . . . I do have a habit of turning to the left when I look at things."
All the better to see you with. Previously, on Language, she turned her perspicacious gaze on the means by which we all communicate. On Ages she has taken on the even weightier subject of mortality, her own and ours. The subtexts of aging, its harsh and humorous incongruities, and the flimsiness of the concept of time itself, course quietly just below the surface of these sparkling lyrics like a powerful underground river. "The years from 50 to 60 had been the most interesting of my life. I had released five albums and performed a lot. I thought it was a good time to do an album focusing on different stages of life as I had known it up to age 60."
But aside from the brief, oblique glance at her early life afforded by "The Girl with the Lazy Eye," there is scant mention on the recording of her earliest days growing up in New York. This and the other slightly autobiographical references scattered here and there are difficult to detect because fact, fiction and synthesized yarns are woven into the fabric of her work so seamlessly.
However, her first dozen formative years become increasingly important for the insights they provide into how this girl trained her lazy eye, for what they show about the development of an artist who climbs on and off the merry-go-round of life as observer and observed so readily.
"The very first records I really got into were by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross [Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, the premier vocal group of the 1950s]. My mother and I used to try and sing along, which was pretty much impossible but lots of fun." Although it may not have been all that impossible. Her mother Jane, earlier in her own life, had been a professional big band singer, though she never felt the driving ambition to make it her life's work.
Her father Leonard Feather, on the other hand, left his home in England at age 20 with precisely that level of ambition and purpose. In 1935 he came to America in pursuit of jazz's burgeoning art form and found it in Harlem, there flourishing as a record producer and composer while establishing himself in the pages of Metronome, Esquire and Down Beat as the first serious writer/critic the music ever had. On one of his first trips to Los Angeles, he was introduced at a dinner with singer Peggy Lee to her best friend, Jane Leslie Larabee, and proposed to her the very next day, resulting in a marriage that lasted the rest of his life.
Leonard Feather brought this same impetuous ardor to his work in the music world, and as a writer his liner notes, published essays and reviews numbered in the thousands. He was the first (and for a good while, virtually the only) reporter on the beat at the dawn of the Jazz Age, with the result that hundreds of musicians and other music business people knew him as a friend. He had opinions which he expressed freely. Not everyone shared them, of course, but friends or foes, everyone in New York knew him.
"It took me some years to shake off the LF's daughter thing. Not that I wasn't terribly proud of my dad, but every interview started 'So tell me some anecdotes about growing up around all of those jazz greats!' and some people still refer to me that way. At this point I don't really mind.
"Being my father's daughter brought me a certain kind of attention that was good in some ways, bad in others, and early on I was not ready for it, frankly. Some people worshiped him, others hated him. One famous jazz singer used to call and read my dad the riot act if he wrote a review of the singer's performance that was full of lavish praise and had one little caveat, like 'The medley before the intermission was not my cup of tea.'
"The flip side of people being worshipful of my dad was encountering those he had wounded, who would take me to task for things he had said. I felt bad about it, but of course we were two different people.
"It was his combination of brains, talent and emotion that worked so well together, and the fact that he came from across the pond caused him to appreciate American jazz in a particular way, also made him more painfully aware of American racism. When we moved to Los Angeles, at one point a famous musician friend was house-hunting nearby and a neighbor and local builder went from door to door telling everyone that Leonard Feather was "trying to get a nigger into the neighborhood." I was as proud of my dad's position at the NAACP as of anything. The bottom line for me is that he was a wonderful father. The fact that he and my mom brought me up in a world full of glorious musicians and fascinating artists was a gift I didn't fully appreciate until much later.
Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Leonard Feather
"Because Billie Holiday was my godmother and my first name is Billie, naturally when I began working as a singer and doing interviews, I was asked if I had any great anecdotes. I have one strong memory of coming home from grade school and meeting her. She was glamorous, queenly, wearing a lovely suit and a chic hat. She seemed very kind. My father and mother were crazy about her, and she about them. She knitted me baby booties. She wrote them letters from prison, once on toilet paper, my dad told me. The day she died, I went into my parents' bedroom and found him looking at the lurid headlines and crying. My favorite picture of Billie is one of her on skis in Switzerland. When my father first met her he tried to convince her to accept one of the offers she had to perform in Europe, but she was dubious. Years later, he did arrange a tour for her and she was a great success.
"To me, jazz is the music of the holidays, a homey sound. I had no thought of being a singer until I was in my late 20s and had been struggling miserably as an aspiring actress for years, tired of waitressing at restaurants of every ethnicity in New York. That music obviously permeated my soul, though. Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross were friends of my folks and I saw them at social functions as well as concerts. Jon was an ebullient personality and always told me we were Virgo soul mates. Annie was wry, sophisticated, down to earth. She came to see me perform with Full Swing [a vocal trio organized by producer Richard Perry with Feather, Steve March and Charlotte Crossley] in Santa Monica, California some 25 years ago. I had started writing a lot of material for the group. I hadn't run into her since I'd grown up, and after the show she came up to me and said, 'Those lyrics. My dear.' One of those nuggets of encouragement that you hold onto.
"The Ellingtons and my parents were close. Duke hired my father for Mercer Records when I was a year old and my parents had gotten badly injured in a freak automobile accident involving a driverless car that hit them while they were walking across the street. Later, Duke's sister Ruth lived down the street from us and her son Stevie and I hung out together, went to the amusement park, made popcorn and watched TV at the apartment on Riverside Drive.
"Dizzy Gillespie and his wife [dancer Lorraine Willis] were also close friends of my folks, often at their apartment for cocktail parties, hanging out with them at clubs or festivals. Lorraine once gave me a beautiful ballerina pin with rubies on her skirt and a pearl in her upraised hands. I lost it somewhere along the way, in my frequent changes of apartment in Manhattan. Dizzy was a real character, hilarious. [see photo at right, Gillespie in the surf at Nice]
"There were many musicians I only met in passing at festivals, or when my dad was interviewing them. After we moved to L.A. my parents took me to the Monterey and Playboy festivals, and we would see their musician friends. I remember when I was in my early teens, my parents introducing me to Miles Davis backstage. He was an intense presence. He pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, but his voice was so raspy that I couldn't make out what he was saying.
"My father was rather low-tech and would tape over a few of the million commercial cassettes he'd been sent, to re-use for interviews. When he died I gave all of those to the Lionel Hampton School of Jazz at the University of Idaho. I was there performing with Shelly Berg at the festival one year and saw a display case with some of my dad's memorabilia. There was a commercial cassette of John Denverhis name was crossed out and my dad had written, in red grease pencil, the name of that day's interviewee: Miles Davis.
"When we were moving from New York to Los Angeles [in 1960] my mother and I stayed at Peggy's for a time, my mom checking out the housing situation." Singer Peggy Lee and Jane Feather had known each other since the two of them shared expenses and roomed together in the early days of WWIILee was from North Dakota and had sung with Benny Goodman, while Jane was from Minnesota and sang in Manhattan clubs like The Famous Door.
"Peggy had two Pekingese named Little One and Little Two, and a white rug that was like their fur. Her Christmas tree was white too. A highlight of that trip was Frank Sinatra saying 'Happy New Year, baby,' when I passed him in the living room at Peggy's New Year's Eve party. She always gave me grown-up, glamorous gifts ... once, a beaded purse. She was 'Aunt Peg' to me. She and my mom lived such different lives, but we got together on holidays throughout the years."
To the Manner Born
Once the Feathers had settled in Los Angeles, they enrolled young Lorraine in school, and a little later, in a jazz dance class, which led to a 15-year infatuation with terpsichore.
"I started taking jazz dance when I was 12. It was my mother's idea. I had no friends and I think she assumed it would be some kind of social event. It wasn't, but it completely changed me, because I was a very dorky child who couldn't stand up on skates or anything. Even though I didn't have great talent as a dancer, it helped me to kind of get outside of my own head, become active, much more fit, more confident. I learned what it was to work really hard, and mostly for art alone. Most of the dancers who were deeply serious, and did have serious talent, took class all day long, all week long, when they weren't auditioning. It's a more punishing career than acting, even, because even if you become successful the performing years are short for most. When I studied jazz dancing, often with just a conga player playing, I started to feel the groove! My first teacher was the late Carlton Johnson, who was also a Motown fanatic. Sometimes I'd play the 45 of 'Nowhere to Run,' by Martha and the Vandellas, for an hour straight in my room. My parents were tolerant.
"In ninth grade, I went to a Catholic girls' school for a yearmy best friend was going therebefore switching to the freewheeling world of Hollywood High. During the year at Corvallis I stepped in for an ill classmate who had been cast in the lead role for the school's production of Euripides' Electra. I only got the call because I'm good at memorizing, but was officially bitten by the acting bug by show time. I started thinking about going back to New York on my own to act, and after a couple of years at LA City College in the theatre department, got a partial scholarship to the Circle in the Square school and returned to Manhattan at 18.
"As far as music goes, I can't honestly pinpoint when I drifted back into jazz. I started to appreciate [Miles Davis'] Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) and [Dizzy Gillespie's] Gillespiana (Verve, 1961) when they had been out for a while and I was in my mid-teens, and continued to play them and certain other key albums when I moved back to New York on my own and everyone my age was into Big Brother and the Holding Company. I also got my first waitressing job at the Village Gate then, so I heard artists like Nina Simone downstairs, and pianists like Mose Allison, Bill Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Horace Silver upstairs where I worked. The music was familiar and friendly to me because I'd grown up with it... not that you'd call Nina Simone 'friendly,' but she was riveting onstage. My musical tastes were growing more eclectic. I didn't get The Beatles at first, but started to come on board with Revolver (Capitol, 1967), then one night after my shift at the Gate I heard the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1968) album, which blew my mind along with millions of other minds that year."
But Feather had returned to New York to pursue stage acting, not dance.
"When I studied acting at the H.B. Studio in New York, I found that I did have something of a gift for it. I learned what it was like to be 'in the zone,' when something else takes over. It's not dissimilar to performing a song. I also read many plays, and getting to know some of the great playwrights that way was exciting, the beauty of their words.
"I used to practice singing a song or two for theatre chorus auditions in New York. My then-boyfriend, who was a musician, told me that he thought I had a certain je ne sais quoi and ought to think about being a singer. I auditioned for a group called Farmer Brown, a jazz/rock band that had a gig at the Village Gate. Later I did club gigs in the Bronx, the Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. It took me quite a while to get good, to feel comfortable singing on stageand later still, to get comfortable in the studio. In those days, the main thing I had to offer was my ability to learn countless Top 40 songs in record time."
One of her early singing/acting jobs was fortuitous and kept her rent paid for some time.
." . . I was in [Jesus Christ] Superstar on the road, then a year on Broadway till it closedrunning around in the two-piece loincloth, waving the palm frond, making like a leper... For one scene, there were headdresses so heavy that you had to hold your head super-straight for fear your neck would snap if you tilted it too far. We got hazard pay because the stage opened and closed. There were three women who came down in a giant butterfly to sing 'Jesus Christ, Superstar' at the end of the show, and if any of the three were out sick, I got to be one of them. Those were wild days and it was terrific to be employed, plus New York State was giving out a lot of unemployment benefit extensions in those days, so the show supported me for years."
Looking for ways to make grocery money during these lean times, she began landing singing gigs here and there, like with pop singer Petula Clark.
"The Petula gig was only for a couple of weeks but. . . it was glamorous and fun. The other two singers and I were given cool outfits, there was a great orchestra, I was excited to be in Vegas and making money. Petula was sweet. The other singers were Margaret Dorn, a very talented singer who still lives in New York, and my later-to-be-best-girlfriend Linda Lawley, who is no longer with us. I wrote the lyrics for "Two Desperate Women" [on the Ages CD] about her, again with some exaggerations and fiction thrown in. The only scary thing about the Petula gig was that there was some misconception about my sight-reading, which borders on the nonexistent. I got by, lagging a microsecond behind the other two.
"I also toured with Grand Funk Railroad. Shortly after I met Tony [drummer Tony Morales, Feather's husband since 1983] he came across a picture of me in a rock magazine called Circus, dancing behind GFR in a leotard, net pantyhose and a multicolored Afro wig. But I had gone to New York to act and I was only hired as a singer/dancer, when I worked at all."
These hungry years in New York are the subject of one of the hardest swinging tunes on Ages, "Old at 18/Dog Bowl," written with Eddie Arkin and inspired by her years as a struggling actress. Opening with a groove that her husband Tony began playing one day on a metal dog bowl, the cold predawn atmosphere in an actress' small Manhattan walk-up is captured in all its chilly pathos and wistful glory.
"I had written a few lyrics in my late 20s, but the first serious writing I did was when I got hired for the vocal trio Full Swing. It was me, Steve March [Mel Torme's son] and Charlotte Crossley [Motormouth Mabel in the recent Broadway production of Hairspray]. Richard Perry was the producer and it was his concept.
From Left: Steve March, Lorraine Feather, Charlotte ("Charlo") Crossley
The first recording the group did was called Swing (1982) for Perry's record label, Planet Records, then later reissued as The Good Times Are Back. "Richard wanted us to record a song that was an instrumental written by composer/tenor saxophonist Tommy Newsom. He was thinking of calling in a lyricist to work on it and I nominated myself. I wrote the lyrics to Tommy's swing tune... the rhythms were a bit complicated... and sang them in one of our meetings. Richard didn't like them at all. He told me what the song should be about, the vibe it should create. I rewrote the lyrics and he accepted them. My version was called 'The Trocadero Ballroom.' I wound up doing lyrics for several songs for the album, including Horace Henderson's 'Big John's Special,' which I called 'Big Bucks'it was in the movie Swing Shift with Goldie Hawn, brieflyand Charlie Barnet}}'s 'The Right Idea.'
"What was significant about that experience for me was that writing words to fast, tricky music with a lot of syncopations came to me more easily than anything else I had ever tried to do. I find fault with some of the writing I did back thenfor one thing, I believe in the perfect rhyme now for that kind of songbut it came so naturally, and I didn't discover it till I was in my early 30s. It was also my first experience flinging myself into creating words for a song and having to get it approved, getting shot down and doing it all over again. I've done a lot of lyrics for animation, much of it with Mark Watters, and a lot of rewriting. Sometimes you do take it personally, but experience teaches you there's always another idea."
Full Swing meant performing work, including tours of Japan and Brazil, a TV special with Barry Manilow, and appearances at the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals, along with two more albums: In Full Swing (Cypress,1987) and End of the Sky (Cypress,1989)unfortunately, now out of print.
From Left: Charlo Crossley, Lorraine Feather, Bette Midler, Augie Johnson
Though not Full Swing's creator, as the only original member from beginning to end, Feather was the de facto curator for a band that a employed an impressive array of musical talent, including Grant Geissman, Russ Freeman, David Benoit, producers Morgan Ames and Tony Morales and recordist Geoff Gillette, her engineer to this day. Many talented male singers were employed after March exited the band to pursue a solo career Bruce Scott, Arnold McCuller, Augie Johnson, Tim Stone. And after Crossley had left, Angel Rogers took her place.
"So that group went on in different forms for eight years and did two more albums. I wrote lyrics for a lot of material the group sang and recorded, including two Ellington pieces. My parents loved bebop... I appreciated it but it was and is kind of over my head. Lyrically speaking, I gravitated more toward pre-bop when it came to tackling existing material. I liked music you could dance to."
First and foremost Lorraine Feather is a lyricist, a writer. She is also a gifted singer who has continued to develop her considerable natural skills over the years.
But as a lyricist and singer who relies on musical composers, she has had to master a third and very difficult skill, which, because it is so all-encompassing, is quite invisible: she is one of the music world's most accomplished practitioners of the delicate act of collaboration. Her embrace of this fine art is key to understanding the artist. Even the most educated of listeners is only vaguely cognizant that it is Ira Gershwin's words they are hearing in their head when they hum "I've Got Rhythm," or Oscar Hammerstein's when they hum "The Sound of Music." But because collaborations are team efforts, it is the team ("Rodgers-and-Hammerstein" is spoken these days as a single word) that gets the spotlight. Unless, as was the case with the great Johnny Mercer, and is the case with Lorraine Feather, the lyricist is also the singer.
The Body Remembers (Bean Bag, 1997) is a solo album that was a collaboration with several composers, principally Feather's husband, drummer/producer Tony Morales. "[It] was essentially conceived in Tony's studio in our first, wee home in La Crescenta [California] on our old 4-track machine. It's dated now because of all the electronics, but it was a blast to do. 'Five' was based on a weird sliding thing Tony's old BassMan bass machine started doing when the batteries were wearing out. He made it into a groove. I don't overdub my own voice anymore because it's not often appropriate on an acoustic jazz recording, but I did it a lot on that CD and I love doing it. Janis Siegel later sang 'Indigo Sky,' which Eddie Arkin and I wrote for TBR, with Bruce Lofgren. Joe Curiale and Yutaka Yokokura wrote the beautiful music for 'Bleecker Street,' dedicated to my friend Cliff, who had died of AIDS. Terry Sampson, Tony and I wrote 'Where Are My Keys,' which I recorded later for Language, and is one of the most played tunes of mine on radio.
"I also worked with Don Grusin for the first time on that CD. Besides being a fantastic player and writer, he gave me a lot of good musician's advice that helped me as a singer. 'Touchy' was written with John Capek, who had hits with Rod Stewart, Toto and Heart ... we later wrote a song called 'Why Did She Come In with You?' that Patti Austin recorded... it was a strange tune with a kind of yuppie rap section that included the word 'quesadillas.'
Feather Composer/Collaborators, From Left: Dick Hyman Eddie Arkin, Russell Ferrante
"In 1999, five years after my dad passed away, I was going through some CDs with my mom and borrowed Fats Waller's Turn on the Heat (Bluebird/RCA, 1991). I hadn't heard much of his music growing up. I became smitten with it. I wrote lyrics to a Fats piece for fun, recorded it with the original piano and live musicians. I sent it to Dick Hyman because I thought he might get a kick out of it. He called me and suggested I do a whole Fats album. 'It's like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross but with much older music!' he said. 'I'll help you decide on the material and I'll play on it.' A few days after he called, my mother had a stroke. She died within a couple of weeks. Dick told me that he thought it would be good for me to keep working through that sad time, and it was. I could never have done the album without him, musically or otherwise.
During the writing period, Mike Lang worked with me in L.A. As well as being a fine, fine player, he knows a lot about jazz history and helped me expand my knowledge of the Fats repertoire did hip arrangements of 'Blue Black Bottom' ("Too Good Lookin"), 'Viper's Drag' ("Timeless Rag") and 'Numb Fumblin' ("In Living Black and White").
"I remember, vividly, the first time Dick Hyman played Fats Waller's 'The Minor Drag' for me, in David Abell's piano store. I thought it was the most entertaining piece of music I'd ever heard." So inspired was she, that it became "You're Outa Here," the opening track on New York City Drag (Rhombus, 2001), her CD of Waller pieces for which she daringly wrote the classic tunes' first-ever lyrics. As it turned out, this collaborative album with Hyman and Mike Lang (and Waller) was a watershed moment in her career.
Finding Her Artistic Voice
With Café Society (Sanctuary, 2003) Lorraine Feather strikes just the right nostalgic note for the listener, providing a wistful introduction (or re-introduction, as the case may be) to the world of 1945 Greenwich Village, where the basement at 1 Sheridan Square housed the historically famous nightclub Café Society Downtown and the top floor was the apartment home of her newlywed parents. She creates a rare kind of intimacy for her listener that is only possible because of its authenticity. Her lovingly written musical paeans and revivifying lyrical treatments of a pair of tunes written by Duke Ellington, and one each by Johnny Mandel and Charlie Barnet, are seamlessly enveloped in a world few besides Feather would have had the life experience needed to imagine it. Her collaborations with contemporaries like Eddie Arkin, Don Grusin, and Russell Ferrante are all in the spirit of that hard-swinging and first-ever racially integrated club where blacks and whites sat side-by-side not only on the bandstand, but at the tables in the audience as well. After the club opened in 1939, such luminaries as Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum and Billie Holiday had performed there.
"Café Society . . . was mostly all-original. Some of the highlights were working with Russ for the first time on the title track, doing my own version of Eddie's and my song 'Big Fun,' that Barry Manilow had recorded on the Swing Street (BMG, 1987) album Eddie worked with him on; my own version of 'Jungle Rhythm' from The Jungle Book 2. Paul Grabowsky and I wrote two of the songs for that film with him in Australia and me in Half Moon Bay, CA, never having metfor me, one of the first clues that the world had completely changed thanks to the Internet. The singers on that album, Shelby Flint, Carmen Twillie, Michael Mishaw, Randy Crenshaw and Morgan Ames, who arranged the vocals, were divine."
A year later Feather went all-in once more with an entire album of lyrical treatments to Duke Ellington tunes (save one nugget written by her father and recorded by Duke) entitled Such Sweet Thunder (Sanctuary, 2004).
"I love Ellington's music, Strayhorn's. Many of my favorite pieces were written in the 30s. I had done three Ellington pieces for Café Society and met Bill Elliott, who is a stellar big band arranger. I decided to do a whole Ellington album with Bill arranging and it was a thrill from beginning to end, except for the legal hassles. Doing these adaptations of old tunes is a real can of worms, or slippery slope, or Pandora's Box, I'm not sure which to choose... but it's fraught with peril. You have to show the publishers what you're doing before they agree, and by that time you've already invested time and money. At the last minute, one of the publishers for three pieces I wanted to use, decided not to give the okay because Norah Jones, an artist on their label, was doing an Ellington adaptation of her own. Of course, no one had forced me to take the chance! The musicians were wonderful though, and there was so much music to listen to and consider. Ken Dryden sent me some fascinating Ellington compositions I had never heard. It was a real adventure as well as an honor.
"I do feel I have a deeper appreciation of these composers' work, having delved into it as I did. It was good for me as a singer and lyricist, good for my ears to learn the music more intimately, and good for my soul to have the privilege of connecting with what these compositions had to say, and keep saying, as they are performed all over the world every day. I took the liberty of writing whatever came naturally to me without regard for period. Once when I was performing 'You're Outa Here' in New York, a musician pulled me aside after a run-through to hip me to the fact that there were no 501 jeans during Fats Waller's lifetime,"
Significantly, somewhat ironically perhaps, her collaborationist's efforts with these composer's ghosts and their classic recordings were helping her to find her own artistic voice.
Stride pianist Fats Waller inscribed this photo of himself with the words, "To Leonard Feather, you 'swell' person. Oh! What a change you have made in life! May God bless you and your days without end. Sincerely, 'Fats' Waller"
Vocalese, the painstaking musical prestidigitation done by writing lyrics to already-penned instrumental melodies or complete compositions, was back. Sometimes maligned by hair-shirted jazz police, this "simple" art form has been responsible for some of the most popular music of all time: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was the biggest jazz vocal group of the 1960s, and The Manhattan Transfer was the hottest thing in pop vocals in the late 1970s/early 1980s. This time, at the dawn of the new millennium, it was carefully crafted lyrics written with practically a historian's sensibility and depth of understanding, first for the breakneck up-tempo compositions of Fats Waller, and then for the sophisticated stylings of Duke Ellington, performed with Lorraine Feather's bright, agile instrument in the place of the group dynamic of LH&R's improvisations and scatting, or MT's close harmonies.
New York City Drag elicited rave reviews. Zan Stewart of Down Beat wrote: "Employing Fats Waller's attractive and still meaningful '30s music, the gleaming-voiced, fluid and articulate Feather concocts a variety of mostly contemporary scenariosmany humorous, some disquieting...emotive whammy...glowingly tributes Waller and his ilk;" while Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Her new twinning of words and music based on chop-busting, improvised choruses do not simply recall previously heard melodies and riffs; the words, in Lorraine's supple and engaging voice, bring a new luster and excitement."
Of Such Sweet Thunder, Nat Hentoff, the esteemed old professor of jazz himself, wrote: "At this point I have to say, and I never had the temerity to say this to Duke, that in a number of others' attempts to put lyrics to Duke's music, they missed his swift and amused sense, for example, of the unintended consequences of desire. Lorraine has that perception in the stories that are her lyrics. I wish she had been around as a lyricist when Duke was. I think they could have collaborated."
Because as much as Lorraine Feather and her lineage could be loftily viewed as the embodiment of the Jazz Age, she is far more than a time-traveler or historical reference point. All good writers live in their constructed worlds long enough to write about them. Like a successful student in the Flemish School of painters during the European renaissance, she had studied the masters to the point where her own mastery was becoming an extension of theirsbut the more she was drawn to working with them, the greater the urge became to collaborate with the talented contemporary composers she had come to know, and do entirely original work.
"On Dooji Wooji (Sanctuary, 2005) I discovered that I was suddenly allowed to use the three other Ellington pieces I had worked on. I'd become smitten with the 'small big band' sound he popularized in the early 30s and much of the album goes for that vibe. That CD included Eddie's and my song 'I Know the Way to Brooklyn,'which Janis Siegel sings on the road... in fact we sang it together at Jazz Alley in Seattle when the Transfer were therealso 'Remembering to Breathe,' a song I wrote with Bill Elliott right before he moved east to teach at Berklee. As with 'The Girl with the Lazy Eye,' the music was written to my lyrics before the get-together, and when I heard him play it I teared up. I think Bill was a little taken aback, but it really touched me. I had started to work with Shelly Berg on the previous album and he wrote two tunes with Eddie and me on this one, 'Once Bitten' and 'Cicada Time,' the latter in honor of the mysterious insect's reappearance that year after 17 years underground.
Production cel from 2009 short film, You're Outa Here" produced by Feather, in collaboration with animator George Griffin That's pianist Dick Hyman stylin' on the ivories
"With Language I went with all-original songs, music by my living collaborators. I was able to have three kick-ass vocalists guest: Tierney Sutton, Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne. I had sung with Janis and Cheryl before on the Dick Tracy soundtrack, but never with Tierney, and they were all a delight to work with. I'd heard the Hornheads track 'Can't Quite Put My Finger On It' driving to a sound check in Plano, TX and looked up Michael B. Nelson to ask if I could adapt it. Gary Grant put together one of his killer horn sections for that song, 'Waiting Tables.' I wanted to do acoustic versions of 'Very Unbecoming' and 'Where Are My Keys?' and Shelly arranged them. For some reason I thought the talking sections might put people off, I guess because you don't hear a lot of that on jazz recordings, but no one ever mentioned it. Eddie's and my 'Making It Up as We Go Along' was supposed to be on Café Society, but that was when I thought that album would be all ballads. . . the concept turned out to be too lugubrious and I replaced several ballads with up tunes, but I always wanted to have that song on a CD. Mike Lang plays so beautifully on the track. Shelly and I wrote 'Traffic and Weather' and 'We Appreciate Your Patience' in record time, at this house in LA. And Russ and I did the song that made me laugh the most when we were working on it, 'Hit the Ground Runnin.'"
Making herself and other people laugh, as it turns out, is something Feather does too easily. No songwriter wants to be known for writing humorous tunes any more than an actor wants to be remembered as a comedian. Who wants to be remembered as a novelty act, the Spike Jones of the new millennium, or a cult favorite in France who never wins the big awards?
But one of the aspects of finding one's own artistic voice is discovering talents or predilections one has not suspected. Almost effortlessly, it would seem, Feather's lyrics can produce everything from ironic smiles, embarrassed chortles or little snickers all the way up to loud, satisfying, gasping-for-air guffaws.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the videos she has produced, mostly with her own camerawork and editing, sometimes in collaboration with her husband Tony. With the exception of the video she did to accompany her heart-rending "Remembering to Breathe," the song whose lyrics she wrote as advice to a fictional, aspiring young ballet dancer, her videos produce such mirth that they can be revisted as often as one needs to laugh. While last year's hilarious award-winning short film You're Outa Here will not be available until animator George Griffin has completed work on compiling a DVD of his work, "The Making of New York City Drag," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and "The 101" are available on her website.
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