Mark Winkler: Peeling Back the Onion

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.


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