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Marty Sheller and Joe Magnarelli

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The history of the jazz trumpet backed by strings probably dates back to Louis Armstrong and the Song of the Islands in 1930. But in those days, strings meant a clutch of violins that sounded more like fiddles than an orchestral backdrop. Harry James began including a full string section starting in 1941, but the effect was more drama and movie soundtrack than hip accompaniment. Bebop musicians avoided longhair strings until Charlie Parker's Just Friends and April in Paris became jukebox hits in 1950. Dizzy Gillespie took a shot with strings in Paris in 1952 and Chet Baker in 1953. Clifford Brown recorded his masterpiece in 1955.

Following in this tradition, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli has just released My Old Flame, a CD with strings arranged by Marty Sheller. I spoke to Marty yesterday about the album and his strings writing. More with Marty in a moment.

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Magnarelli moved to New York in 1986 and has recorded with Lionel Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Grant Stewart, Brother Jack McDuff and Chris Connor. He also has performed with Jon Hendricks, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, Ray Barretto, Louis Hayes, Marty Sheller, Maria Schneider, Dado Maroni, Rosemary Clooney, Tom Harrell, Junior Mance, John Pizzarelli, Jane Monheit and Don Sebesky.

Marty Sheller's career began in the late '50s. He perhaps is best known for his trumpet solo on Mongo Santamaria's Watermelon Man in 1962. He spent much of the '60s and early '70s writing for Santamaria and many other bands during this period and beyond, becoming a legendary Latin arranger, though he doesn't speak Spanish. You can read my interview with Marty here.

My Old Flame gives Magnarelli a chance to exhibit his tender side, and the result is warm and lilting. Tracks include My Old Flame, I'll Be Seeing You, The Duke, When Your Lover Has Gone and five originals. In each case, Magnarelli soars and sustains notes sensitively without overplaying or scorching Marty's string arrangements.

As for Marty's writing, it's quite remarkable. His string-writing style clearly is rooted in the '50s, creating an enormous sighing mood for Magnarelli's trumpet. Strings rise and hover sweetly before descending with an aching swoop.

Yesterday I gave Marty a buzz to talk about the new album. Here's what he had to say:

“How did I learn to write for strings? Trial and error [laughs]. I never studied formally, which may sound strange for someone who spent so much of his career arranging. I was very lucky. I was always around good musicians—learning and asking questions.

“My arrangements for Mongo Santamaria were things I heard in my head and just figured out how to arrange on score paper. The first time I wrote for strings was in 1970, for vocalist Joe Bataan. He was signed to Fania Records, and they wanted him to record a softer soul album called Singin' Some Soul. Since I was writing for Mongo at the time, the label asked me if I had written for strings. I never had but told them I did.

“When I got home with the assignment, I figured I had better check my theory book on how strings might be transposed. I looked at the violin section and saw that the instrument is written in the treble clef and appears as written: If there's a C on the piano, the violin reads the same C on the music sheet. Then I looked at the cello section and saw it was in the bass clef, also without a need for transposition.

“But when I looked at the viola, I said to myself, “Oh, man, what is that?" The viola is written in an unusual looking clef [pictured]. What's more, notes on the piano have to be transposed through a tricky process.

“Since I had never written for strings before, I wrote out a scale for the piano and next to it the corresponding notes for the viola, but transposed. This gave me a master sheet to work from. By the end of the first arrangement, the writing and transposing came fairly easily.

“The funny thing is that after we recorded the Bataan strings, the viola player came over to me and said, “Marty, it was a pleasure to play a real viola part." I said, “What do you mean?" He said, “Usually arrangers just write the viola part in the treble clef and we have to transpose it while we play" [laughs].

“It was Joe's idea to record an album with strings. After he heard my album Why Deny in 2008, Joe asked me if he could read over the scores. After he looked them over, he asked if I'd be interested in an album with strings. I told him that the concept sounded great. We started talking about the album early last year. Each arrangement took me about two to three weeks. I like to take my time. Plus there were times when Joe would be out of town on tour.

“Joe put together a list of great standards and wrote some originals. After I went over Joe's list, we discussed the structure of each song. Then I started to write. But I wanted the strings to have the old school feel I had in mind.

“My inspiration for Joe's album was Neal Hefti's [pictured] arrangements for Clifford Brown with Strings in 1955. Joe Magnarelli also loves the album. Even the late Woody Shaw, who was an old friend of mine from Newark, N.J., loved that album. 

“So, for example, on the standard My Old Flame, I naturally had the formal piano sheet. But I also wanted to consider alternate chords. I called Herb Mickman, who's a great bass and pianist in California and a good friend. He had come up in the Newport Youth Band in 1959. He's one of these guys who loves creating hip chord changes to songs.

“I said to Herb, “I'm arranging My Old Flame. I know the song and have my own changes. But do you have changes?" He said, “Oh, sure." He was a big fan of Hank Jones' [pictured] and has many of his recordings. Hank was a master of alternative chord changes to songs. Herb sent me a sheet to My Old Flame with his changes over the music. Between the standard changes, my changes and Herb's, that's how I decided how to arrange My Old Flame for Joe.

“When I'd finish a chart, I'll roll it up and send it off to Joe. Then Joe studied all the instrument parts as well as his own. I wanted his input because I always want as much information from whomever I'm writing for. Also, Joe is pretty serious about what he does and wanted to make sure he knew everything before we got together to rehearse. [Pictured: Marty Sheller and Joe Magnarelli]

“The Duke was Joe's idea. I thought it was a great choice but I wanted to come at it a different way. I told Joe that I wanted to give in a cha-cha-cha kind of groove. Joe had played in Ray Barretto's group, so I knew he was comfortable with Latin rhythms. Joe loved the idea. That's Chris Potter on alto sax, who has a terrific solo.

“I arranged six of the nine pieces—just the ones with strings. Joe arranged the balance that featured just the band."

“I had a lot of fun writing strings for Joe. I had the freedom to do it my way. I love what Eddie Sauter did with strings on Stan Getz' Focus album in 1961, but that's not the kind of music I hear. In addition to Neal Hefti's writing for Clifford Brown's album, I also love the way Johnny Mandel writes for strings. Manny Albam and Gordon Jenkins, too. Strings have to fall in love with the singer or instrumentalist, but they also have to provoke and tease."

 JazzWax tracks: If you're looking for a new album with a '50s feel to take the winter chill off, sample the tracks. You'll find Joe Magnarelli's My Old Flame with Marty Sheller's string arrangements at iTunes and here. (And yes, the cover does look exactly like Miles Davis' Miles Ahead.)

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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