Mark Winkler: Peeling Back the Onion

Scott Mitchell By

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Mark Winkler is a Los Angeles-based jazz singer, lyricist, and songwriter with over 150 songs to his credit and platinum records hanging on his wall. He has written songs with the likes of saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Joshua Redman, as well as pianist David Benoit. Singers Randy Crawford, Dianne Reeves, Lea Salonga, Bob Dorough and Liza Minnelli have recorded and performed his songs. JazzTimes Magazine recognized Winkler as one of the top ten male jazz singers in 2011 with his release of Sweet Spot (Cafe Pacific). In addition to creating and performing, Winkler teaches lyric and songwriting at UCLA, as well as workshops in jazz CD production and marketing. The singer's latest recording, The Laura Nyro Project (Cafe Pacific, 2013), was recently debuted before a full house at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California.

All About Jazz: Having been at the Catalina Bar and Grill show in Hollywood a few weeks back, it was hard to tell who was having the most fun that night—you or the audience. What was that night and experience like for you? Was it everything you hoped it would be?

Mark Winkler: It was a pretty great night. It turned out better than I could have hoped. It was a show of all new material that I'd never done before—so a little scary, but the band was so great and the audience was so big I got over whatever nerves I had and just had a good time. I usually make it a rule never to have more than a couple of new tunes in the act, and here I had eight—but I did an extra rehearsal, so all went well. And the great thing was the audience really got into the Laura Nyro material, so that made me really pleased.

AAJ: How did that performance impact you on a personal level?

MW: It was probably the most personal show I ever did, which is really strange, because it's a show of lyrics written by somebody else, not me. But in the process of doing The Laura Nyro Project, I soon realized that her songs were like mirrors to what I was going through as a young man in the late '60s, and they held a lot of emotion and healing for me. Case in point, I always loved one of her songs "He's A Runner," but I didn't connect it with my life until I was in the studio singing it. You see, when I was a kid growing up, my father would disappear every six months or so—and then come back. My mother always took it personally of course, but only later, when I was already almost out of the house, was he diagnosed as bipolar; he was just having an episode. So here I am in the studio singing this song, when I realize I'm singing it to my mother, who died long ago, about my father, who's also gone, and through the miracle of Laura Nyro and technology, I think she heard me. It was very cool, yet mind-blowing. So bringing all these insights and emotions—peeling the onion back a bit in front of an audience—was scary but liberating.

AAJ: How did that performance impact you on a professional level?

MW: I was really proud that all my years of perfecting my craft, getting my shit together, learning how to work with musicians on a professional level, held me in good stead that night, because there was so much emotion and new material to get through. I couldn't have afforded having a diva-ish drummer or an unprepared pianist. The guys led by Jamieson Trotter were fantastic.

AAJ: Your connection with Laura Nero runs deep and is a big part of the back story behind the making of this album. If you don't mind, can you walk us through the relationship that you had with Laura, starting when you were a kid and were first introduced to her work?

MW: Well, I've been reading Billboard Magazine since I was eight years old, so I've been a big fan of singers and songwriters forever. I actually was first made aware of her through Top 40 radio in LA where "Stoney End," by her, was a hit. Then "Wedding Bell Blues," too. I didn't realize that LA was the only place where she had hit singles. But my relationship with Laura really began on the day I bought her second LP, Eli and the 13th Confession (Columbia, 1968), and was completely blown away by it. It's a revolutionary work of just great songs beautifully produced and sung. I literally lived with that LP for two years, taking it to school with me, to my best friend Rochelle's house and even rolling a joint or two on it. From that time, I followed her avidly.

Then I started working with a fantastic arranger, Jimmie Haskell (who did "Ode to Billie Joe"and "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), and he was hired to arrange her next LP, so I was even more clued into her. I remember writing Laura this horrible faux Nyro-esque note telling her how much I loved her. Jimmie [Haskell] gave it to her. Jimmie really mentored me, got me into songwriting and produced some masters on me that almost sold to Capitol. Great guy.

Of course I went to see her at the Troubadour many times from 1968-1970, and would always use her as my yardstick to judge a song if it was great or not. I have more Laura Nyro on my iPod than anyone; Mark Murphy is second.

AAJ: You had some wonderful and personal stories and insights regarding Laura and her music that you shared with the audience at Catalina's. Can you share some of them here?

MW: Well, outside of "He's A Runner"—the son—"Time and Love" holds special significance to me. When my mother died, my Dad wasn't very good at keeping himself on the drug (Lithium) that kept him and other bipolar people sane, and during these periods I would take him in from time to time, to make sure he was okay. During one of those times I played piano and sang to him, and the song I played to soothe him was "Time and Love"; I still remember the sheer look of bliss on his face as I sang it to him. I was a terrible pianist, but somehow he got the message. He was a big fan of my voice and music. I've often think to myself that both my parents loved my talent and nurtured it; not everybody has that in their family.

AAJ: As you grew out of your teens and started developing a better understanding of the world and music, how did her music fit into your life?

MW: Well her music never lost its magic for me. The sophistication of it, coupled with its emotionality actually is timeless.

AAJ: How did she impact you as you developed your own musical direction and skills?

MW: She set a wonderful example of someone who was fearless and listened to her own drummer; she wasn't trying to be anybody but who she was, so when I started figuring out who the hell I was as a songwriter and singer, she was my guide. The funny thing is, I don't sound even a smidgen like her—I'm a baritone—and I'm much more of a swinger. But she allowed me to go there, proudly. And I am a bit of a rebel; I love to do what people tell me I can't.

AAJ: What is the back story behind the making of the album? When did the idea first come to you?

MW: I've been wanting to do the Laura Nyro CD for about five years. I just wanted to keep her great songs alive and thought that if I didn't do it, who would? But I was also aware that I was a jazz singer and I had to find the songs of hers that lent themselves naturally to more of a jazz treatment. That wasn't so easy. I have seven terrible arrangements done for me by some very talented guys who just didn't get it! They ranged from a Holiday Inn bossa nova take on "Sweet Blindness" to a very schmaltzy version of "Time and Love." A few years back, I read an interview with [pianist] Billy Childs and he said Laura Nyro was one of his favorite songwriters. I had worked with him a couple of CDs back, went to one of his shows and asked him to do the CD with me. But he very nicely told me he was planning to do one of his own, [so] it really wasn't until I met up again with Eli Brueggemann that it all fell into place.

He just got what I was trying to do immediately, and from then on it was easy. I told him I wanted to do a ballad version of "Sweet Blindness" and in a musical microsecond he thought that the melody reminded him of "Moonlight in Vermont" and we should pay homage to [pianist] Ahmad Jamal's version of it from one of his live LPs. He played me the cut, and I sang most of "Time and Love" over it there and then. Then, He did this great New Orleans meets Louis Prima version of "Time and Love" and I was sold.

AAJ: What was the most difficult aspect connected with the production of the album?

MW: As I said, it was choosing the right songs that had a jazz sensibility to them, and also that I could sing as a baritone—from a male viewpoint. Some of her best songs are very female-centric---"To a Child," "Lonely Women" and "Wedding Bell Blues" come to mind. I also found that her most adventurous songs were just perfect the way she did them, but I knew I had to do at least one and I chose my favorite, "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp," which is actually a little art song, and was a bitch to learn. But it really captures a side of Laura I had to have on the CD.

AAJ: What was the most rewarding and perhaps most surprising aspect of the production?

MW: The sheer emotionality of it; how personally I am connected to these songs. They really take me very deep into my feelings. I especially love the vulnerability of "Billy's Blues." A friend of mine had just died, and he was very much like Billie; he didn't have a clue about real life, although he was a fantastic songwriter, and I did that song basically in one take. Eric Reed was just fantastic at that session, on piano.

AAJ: Has there been any discussion of taking the show on the road?

MW: I will be doing a show soon in New York. There's just no way to do a CD on Laura Nyro and not do New York. Then after that, we'll see.

AAJ: What was the first instrument that you every played?

MW: The piano. What I learned, after seven years of lessons, was I'm not a very good player. But it does help me in my writing.

AAJ: What was your musical progression and experience like?

MW: Well that question is a book. But it all started with my mom being a Big band singer and sharing her love of music with me. I started writing songs and working in the business in High School, played in wedding bands, wrote lots of bad songs and then took classes and started writing better songs. Then I met up with a wonderful writer named Jim Andron, and did my first LP in 1982 for a little jazz label out of Seattle called First American. [Singer] Diane Schuur did her first LP for them. It actually got some notice, sold pretty well and was a big hit in Japan. Then, at the same time, I started having people record my songs. Singers like Liza Minnelli and Stephanie Mills and LTD. I was actually one of those guys who wrote songs for a big act on the LP that wasn't the Gold one; it happened to me three or four times. Then I eventually wound up doing straight-ahead jazz CDs and writing musicals. And I'm teaching lyric writing and producing CDs, so I'm a busy guy.

AAJ: Did reading and playing music come easy to you?

MW: The love of music came easily to me. I'm not a good pianist or a fast sight reader, but as a lyricist I'm pretty quick; I've been doing it a long time. I'm also a pretty natural singer, but through teachers and experience I know a hell of a lot more now than I knew in the '80s.

AAJ: Who were your early influences?

MW: . I was listening to Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand as a kid; then, in my teens, I loved the songs of the Brill Building. I'm eclectic: [Jerry] Leiber/[Mike] Stoller, [Gerry] Goffin/[Carole] King, [Barry] Man/[Cynthia]Weill], and [Burt] Bacharach/[Hal] David were the best. Then, in my late 20s, I discovered Mark Murphy, and was gone.

AAJ: What was your formal musical training like?

MW: I did go to the Dick Grove School of Music, which helped me with theory, and I learned songwriting from Al Kasha and Arthur Hamilton, who wrote "Cry Me A River"; both just wonderful teachers.

AAJ: How old were you when you played in your first paying job?

MW: I was about 22 and playing in a crazy Polish wedding band, with these two loud trumpet player brothers. Nothing's louder than a 20-something trumpet player.

AAJ: What did you have to experience before you got to a point in your musical development, where you knew that you had the talent to do this?

MW: I think I was in my mid-20s; thank heavens I have talent, because I love music so much, I never would have stopped, no matter what.

AAJ: When did you know for sure that this was the life that you wanted to pursue?

MW: Oh, at about the late age of nine. I was at Thrifty's Drug Store in Los Angeles, when I made the decision, and I thought my parents were going to hate it. But, of course, when I told them, they looked at me like, "Of course, what else would you have become in a family like this?"

AAJ: The desert island question. What ten albums would you bring with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

MW: Mark Murphy's Stolen Moments (Muse, 1978) and Once To Every Heart (Verve, 2005); Laura Nyro's Eli and the 13th Confession and New York Tendaberry (Columbia, 1969); Bobby Troup's The Feeling of Jazz (Starline, 1955); Thelma Houston's Sunshower (Dunhill, 1969)—songs by Jimmy Webb); Rupert Holmes' Wide Screen (Varèses Vintage, 1995); Al Jarreau's This Time (Warner Bros., 1980); Claire Martin's Make This City Ours (Linn, 1998); Lorraine Feather's New York City Drag (Rhombus, 2001).

Photo Credit: Scott Mitchell

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