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Lorraine Feather: The Girl With the Lazy Eye

Carl L. Hager By

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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 met—for 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 scenarios—many 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 theirs—but 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 there—also '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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