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Johnny Mandel on Streisand (Part 2)


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Everyone in the music business loves Johnny Mandel, from jazz artists and pop singers to record and movie producers. It's easy to see why. As one of America's most gifted composers and arrangers, Johnny has spent much of his 65-year career making bands, singers and musicians sound superb. When Johnny writes a song or orchestral score, you can hear the history of American popular music in his melodic and harmonic choices. What's more, Johnny can craft an arrangement so it's pin-drop sensitive or all-out swinging. [Portrait of Johnny Mandel by Merryl Jaye]

Spend time talking with Johnny, and you start to sense where this duality comes from. Johnny is part poet-gentleman and part juke-joint tough guy. What drives both the glossy and flinty sides of his personality is an unwavering passion for beauty and grace. His philosophy is simple: What the listener hears must touch the heart or gut. For Barbra Streisand's marvelous new album, Love Is the Answer, Johnny worked with pianist-producer Diana Krall to create an unusually intimate and tender backdrop for the iconic singer, and the result is one of Streisand's warmest albums in years. [Pictured: Quincy Jones and Johnny Mandel]

In Part 2 of my conversation with Johnny about his arrangements for Streisand's new album, he talks about his textured instrument choices on the tracks he arranged, the creative struggle he endures, and his only regret:

JazzWax: You open the song In the Wee Small Hours with a piccolo and strings, followed by an inventive tick-tock tempo. Then you launch the bass, with strings lingering in the background.
Johnny Mandel: That's right, and yes, it's a piccolo, not a flute. A piccolo in the low register is an amazing thing. Unlike a flute, it has almost no overtones. And it doesn't sound like a piccolo until the second octave, when it starts to get piercing, like a penny whistle. Someone once said the instrument up high sounds like an old man dying [laughs].

JW: How would a flute differ?
JM: A flute playing the same notes would have sounded too full-bodied. I also used a piccolo in the execution scene in I Want to Live, to play against the dramatic scene. As an arranger, you always have to know the personality of a song or its singer before choosing certain instruments. For example, I never use double reeds behind a vocalist. Not because I don't like reeds. I just think they're scene-stealers.

JW: So you're always conscious of the singer.
JM: Yes, I don't want to pull the listener's ear away from the vocal. Yet you still want to color the vocal. For example, I don't think there's any instrument that expresses the outdoors better than an oboe. It's a distribution of overtones. I used to write double reeds at one time, but now I avoid it unless it's purely an instrumental passage.

JW: So in some ways you're working like a painter, choosing instrument textures like paints, knowing that different colors produce different emotional feelings.
JM: That's right. You want to produce those feelings without the listener noticing what's going on.

JW: What's your favorite instrument?
JM: There's nothing like an accordion when used properly. Because it breathes. A listener's body responds to that. Just listen to some of the bandoneon players in Argentina.

JW: On Gentle Rain, you start the strings like raindrops. Then a misty harp comes in. How do you consciously keep the harp from becoming too heavy or cliche?
The harp isn't a schmaltzy instrument. It has an antique sound. Which is why I used it on Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. On there, I had just the harp accompanying Barbra at the outset following the intro. I don't think Barbra has ever had just the harp behind her voice on a record. But you're right, you have to use it carefully.

JW: I think your arrangement for Gentle Rain may well be the album's orchestral high point. It's suspenseful, innocent and softly evocative of rain without ever being obvious.
JM: It's my favorite arrangement as well. It sounds great because Diana is playing piano on it. I built the orchestration around her solo. While she's playing, I added four alto flutes at the bottom. I didn't want to get in the way of what Diana was playing upstairs on the piano. So I put those lines down in the lower register. It just felt right. Then I added high strings for harmonics.

JW: Did you ever arrange Gentle Rain before?
JM: Yes, for Tony Bennett [on The Movie Song Album in 1965]. I had totally forgotten I had done that. After I turned in the current chart and we played it, Barbra, who's always trying to make things better, said there was a version of Tony's that she really liked. She played it, and there it was. The arrangement still had a great feel, even though it was from the mid-1960s.

JW: On Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, you used minimal strings.
JM: It wasn't going to have strings at all. But Diana and Barbra asked me to add them. And I did. Originally Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most and Some Other Time were just going to be for Diana's quartet. So when I added the strings, I kept them translucent. They're there, but they don't call attention to themselves.

JW: Barbra chose two of your own compositions for the album--A Time for Love and Where Do You Start. Tough to arrange your own songs?
JM: Yes, I always find it harder to arrange my own material.

JW: Why?
JM: Because I want to make it perfect. I do numbers on myself when I'm writing. It's not an easy process. I don't know why I do that. I just do. It seems everything is right, but I have to create my own problems. But I don't tell anyone I'm struggling. It's just part of the process for me.

JW: But who's going to hear what you hear?
JM: Me. I'd be much faster if I wasn't so self-critical. [Vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs always kids me about that. We go way back. Terry, me and [drummer-arranger] Tiny Kahn were inseparable back in the early 1950s. Terry would always rave about my arrangements. Then I'd tell him about the struggle. And he'd say, “Hey, I'll go through your wastepaper basket anytime, and everything that's in there is going to sound great" [laughs]. I really do fill up a wastepaper basket.

JW: Terry Gibbs had some band in the late 1950s.
JM: Sure, the Dream Band. Terry and I go way back. We're like two kids when it comes to music. The Dream Band he had was terrific. I did a concert with the Diva Jazz Orchestra in Albany a few weeks ago. The ban is made of entirely of women. The house was packed, and it was a sensational night. The women in the band hadn't played my music until the day before. They were great. So the Dream Band concept still lives.

JW: Your arrangement for Here's That Rainy Day has a When Sonny Gets Blue feel, and you added a George Shearing Quintet interlude.
JM: You know, I never liked When Sonny Gets Blue, so whatever you hear wasn't deliberate. We did add the Shearing sound on purpose. That was Diana's idea. She heard what I wrote and thought about it when we were laying down the tracks. Then she suggested the Shearing touch. We had vibes there, recorded the passage and nailed it. We did the Shearing sound the right way, too, with the right distribution of voices, the way they're supposed to be put together. Diana listens a lot, and she's a great musician and incredible piano player.

JW: Was Krall supposed to play piano on this album from the start?
JM: Diana didn't want to play piano on this track or the others. But everyone felt she had to. Her sound is too special. She wanted to keep her head on the producing, not having to play. She's really a marvelous producer. I've never seen her just produce. But she produces all her own stuff with Tommy LiPuma [pictured], who's indispensable. He was the co-producer on this album. There's an old expression when you're talking about someone with a marvelous ear: “He can hear a rat pissing on cotton" [laughs]. That's the kind of ear Tommy has. If something is out of tune, he hears it in a second and makes the adjustment. He's a producer who really earns his money.

JW: Did Barbra try singing your composition, The Shining Sea?
JM: Not that I know of.

JW: The song would have been perfect for her.
JM: I agree.

JW: Any regrets about the session?
JM: The only thing I regret is that I wrote a full orchestra arrangement of You Must Believe in Spring. But for some reason--and it came out great--Barbra didn't want to do it. She wanted to do it with just piano. But hey, who's to argue? It's her record.

JazzWax tracks: Barbra Streisand's Love Is the Answer is available as a single album or a deluxe edition double album. You'll find both as downloads at iTunes and Amazon, or as CDs at online retailers. I heard the deluxe edition's second CD yesterday. It features the piano quartet and solo piano sessions, without the orchestra.

Although You Must Believe in Spring is listed on the downloads as the “orchestra version," it's not. Streisand is accompanied only by pianist Bill Charlap, who as the liner notes point out was creating a Bill Evans feel. As Johnny notes above, his orchestral arrangement was not used and does not appear on either disc.

I recommend the deluxe edition for those who want to hear Streisand in a small group setting, which is highly unusual for her. I also recommend the deluxe edition for Johnny Mandel fans who want to hear his quartet arrangements for Streisand before he added the orchestrations. In many cases you're hearing different Streisand vocals, since, as Johnny mentioned yesterday, Streisand re-recorded many of her vocal tracks after the orchestral tracks were added.

JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny's arrangement of Gentle Rain. Replay the intro a few times. Listen as it opens with piano chords and strings sounding almost like the first drops of rain. Then come two cinematic brushes of the harp, with the bass entering as an anchoring pulse. The clip is here or just click on the image below. Marvelous writing...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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