Lorraine Feather: The Girl With the Lazy Eye

Carl L. Hager By

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Lorraine Feather got a bit of a late start answering her true calling. Not that she hadn't worked hard at it, but like many creative people, she was a proverbial jack-of-all-trades who discovered as she went along that she could work competently in a number of artistic fields, and have fun trying them all. By the time she realized what her mad passion was, her raison d'être, she had already had a career as a dancer and singer, though not on the level she would have wanted. In her new tune "Two Desperate Women in Their Late 30's," she describes in some autobiographical detail what she and her fellow singer, Linda Lawley, were both experiencing.

One day we would again have it made,
Sip fine wine on the mountain,
Tally up our successes,
Dressed in hand-beaded dresses.
But for now we'd swill hard lemonade
By the fiberglass fountain,
Each ignoring the oncoming train
That was otherwise known
As Our Fortieth Birthdays,
To be desperately feared.
Ever closer it neared.

Told uniquely as a song sung about, or perhaps to her friend who has now passed, her typically ironic brand of self-aware, self-deprecating humor allows her to recount the bittersweet story of all the painful pitfalls in their ambitious scrambling in the music world, battling failures real and imagined, bucking up against cultural and professional ageism all the way.

Maybe in some corner of her mind she had known that her rose could well bloom late, but it would indeed bloom, as indicated in the lyrics of an early effort like "Cézanne" on 2001's New York City Drag:

The mountain,
A thousand tries and countin.'
You drew and you drew—
It always eluded you
(Now and then you would paint your wife).
You had no betters,
And in your letters,
Wrote you finally had sight of
The light of your promised land,
On the other side of sixty.

The lyrics she wrote for "Cézanne," like many of the songs she has written throughout her career, address the hard issues that an artist faces in being an artist: artistic drive, which is never easy to describe in everyday terms; personal esteem, the kind one accords to oneself; the ability to believe in one's own vision; and the courage to keep on living and aging in a world obsessed with youth. Like a few other songs she had written, she might well have included it on Ages.

But Ages is a complete, self-contained work. In many ways it is a culmination of Feather's broodings and earlier studies, a direct confrontation of what is likely the most frightening aspect of being human. That someday one will not be here again in this life is the most chilling thing of all. Feather does not spend undue time on Ages in the depths of the metaphysics of life and death, but she does indeed tackle it on her soaringly beautiful "Perugia," a song she wrote for her father Leonard. The man who had looked up at his daughter Lorraine as he lay dying was known to jazz readers and historians as the chronicler of the Jazz Age, but he was simply her loving father, the man who had held her in his arms in her infancy. There is nothing complicated about the emotions of the piece, with lyrics written for Russell Ferrante's haunting interpretation of Felix Mendelssohn's "Venetianisches Gondellied."

I told you what was fading fast,
Was not, and had never been, you.
You met my gaze, and smiled at last,
Because you adored me,
Because you believed it was true.

Perhaps even more than one's own death, the idea that one might never again see a loved one is the most excruciating pain of all. Feather's emotional bravery in writing and performing this intensely personal song, accompanied by Ferrante's sensitive playing, can be a breathtaking catharsis for anyone who has ever lost a parent.

"This album has the most ballads of any I've done. Radio tends to play the more jokey tunes, which I understand because most of the femme jazz singers do not do that and it mixes things up programming-wise.

"People often assume that every lyric is autobiographical. Almost all of my songs are a mixture of things that happened to me, things that happened to friends of mine, stories I've heard or read, and simple flights of fancy or gross exaggeration. It does please me when someone gets what I was going for in a song, especially when it's not spelled out. I've written some sarcastic lyrics over the years, a couple that never saw the light of day and rightly so. I don't mind being bitchy now and then but there's too much seething hostility in the world."

And the multilayered aspects of the lyrics which sometimes reverberate and resonate like lines from Emily Dickinson?

"I don't set out to accomplish it, but discover things as I go along. I came across Bela Fleck's 'Circus of Regrets' and fell in love with it. In the case of that song, I found a title I liked ['Peculiar Universe'], that felt right with the first line, and it seemed to unwind from there.

"I wrote two verses of lyrics, recorded over the original in Tony's and my little home studio, and sent it to Béla and he approved. When I asked Russ to arrange it he told me he had to stop the recording a few times to determine what time signature it was in—I see three of them on his chart—as I sang along I had no idea and still can't tell. He also asked me what on earth possessed me to think of putting words to such a piece! He liked the concept though. I asked if he would write some kind of intro. With a great musician/arranger you can make a request that vague and then when you get to the session it's a swell surprise. I thought what he did with Warren Luening's trumpet was so evocative.

"I saw a kind of montage when I was writing the words, beginning in a surreal version of New York and ending in a suburban backyard. The song is about losing love, and it could be about being left by someone generally, but the 'Phones ring, words fall, eyes fill' line is about the phone call telling you that someone has died. That's what I was thinking of anyway. I read a short story once that I was thinking about toward the end of the song. It was about somebody in a deep state of grief who suddenly, for no particular reason, feels released from it for a moment and has the sensation of swimming in space with the moon and stars. I don't know what the story was called and I may be remembering it wrong! Béla writes about space and planets a lot... 'Mars needs Women' [for example]... but 'Circus of Regrets' was dedicated to Bozo the Clown. I didn't know that till later, but it just goes to show you.

"Eddie Arkin and I have written together for over two decades and are very close friends, like, the kind of friend you would call if you were lost in a bad part of town, or if you were having a shop-gasmic experience at Costco. Aside from the depth of his musical knowledge, Eddie is the most flexible collaborator ever. If necessary he'll fully rewrite something three times and each version exceeds the last. Usually I bring lyrics to him and he sits and noodles at the piano or guitar and works through the song, but this last year we've done a lot by phone, meaning periodically we'll hang up and he'll send me an mp3. He gets very excited when he likes something and it's always a treat. Once when I was recording a song of Russell's and mine called 'On the Esplanade' and Eddie was in the control booth hearing the lyrics for the first time, he opened the door after a take and called in to me with wry delight, 'Inky sky! Barnacled pilings!' He's an excellent guitarist and wrote a well-known guitar book [Creative Chord Substitution for Jazz Guitar (Warner Bros. Publications)]. He and Grant [Geissman] used to be in a band together.

"I met Shelly [Berg] when I was looking for someone to play the stride music for the Fats album at a Catalina's gig. Stride is very hard to learn, and who the hell has the time? Somebody suggested Shelly, who was head of the jazz department at USC at the time, and he signed on. The gig was in two weeks, Don Heckman was reviewing for the LA Times, and Shelly nailed it. As a composer, he has a terrific knack for creating jazz tunes that are both interesting and catchy, and writes freakishly fast. It's harder to get together now because we moved as far apart as two people could and still be in the contiguous U.S. [Washington State and Florida], so we wrote the Ages songs whenever we performed on the road. He came up with the music for 'I Always Had a Thing for You' in a half hour at a sound check in Cleveland.

"My relationship with Russell [Ferrante] has progressed more slowly. He's away a lot with the Yellowjackets. We have never worked together live, but we struck up a writing collaboration during the Café Society album—he wrote the music for the title tune—and worked together closely on Language and Ages. He was a huge part of this album, both his extraordinary playing, the way he arranged 'Perugia' and 'Peculiar Universe,' and his composing of course. As I said on the song comments on my site, my favorite writing experience with Russ doing this last project was the way I gave him my concept for 'The Girl with the Lazy Eye' and he wrote something entirely different in the middle of the night before we were to get together, music that sounded a hundred years old. He's a beautiful soul as well as being ridiculously talented.

"One thing I love about all these guys I have a working chemistry with, is that they're so droll."

What about the individual musicians who perform on Ages?

Shelly Berg and Lorraine Feather

"Michael Valerio is a treasure. I met him years ago when the late, dear and great Dave Carpenter was unavailable for a session. Mike contributed so many ideas during the Ages sessions. For example, he played a harmony on the opening figure of 'How Did We End Up Here?' that was not planned, and when the arrangement called for him to drop out at the end of 'Two Desperate Women' he started whacking the bass as another percussion part.

"I don't remember the first time I worked with Gregg Field but as with all the guys it kind of feels like forever. Gregg specializes in the ultra-tasty swing grooves. He's producer-ly at the session and really listens, and he's great at picking up on little nuances in the singer's phrasing. He's married to Monica Mancini and knows how to accompany a singer. He was with Frank Sinatra for some years. You can tell.

"Mike Shapiro, the other Ages drummer, is known for the Brazilian thing, works or has worked with Lani Hall and Herb Alpert, with Sergio [Mendez], Dori Caymmi. . . but he does a lot more than that. He also listens closely and is highly inventive. The entire ending of 'Old at 18/Dog Bowl' was left loose, and what they came up with on the first take was perfect. Mike is devoted to the music, cares a lot, and grooves like nobody's business.

"I've known Grant Geissman for a long, long, time, over a quarter-century. He's one of those people who keeps expanding as he gets older, as evidenced by his CD Cool Man Cool (Open All Nite/Futurism Records, 2009). He's done a lot of studio work but Grant is a serious jazz player, as all the world knows, and you can always depend on him to be right in the pocket, solo creatively, everything you could want from a guitarist.

"Warren Luening is what you might call an unsung hero on trumpet, but he is 'sung,' meaning a lot of people know how great he is. I had never met him before the date. Eddie recommended him and I was so glad he could do it. He seems to play so effortlessly but with such chops. Bob Leatherbarrow is somebody I've known for decades, he's terrific on both drums and vibes. He and my husband Tony played together with Peggy Lee.

"And as far as Tony goes, he helped a lot this time out on many of the tunes, either laying down a groove for songwriting purposes or actually playing—trash can and dog bowl! He plays these funky little patterns on various objects... when Sterling and Brava hear the dog bowl groove they know it's dinnertime."
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