When we think of the great body of work which constitutes the Great American Songbook, there is a tendency to forget the great composers who never wrote a Broadway show but whose songs are as much part of our musical heritage. I’m reminded of this while reading William Zinsser’s Easy to Remember; The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on the book when I’m finished. Yet, I will say that the book, for me at least, is fascinating, as Zinsser’s passion for the music is evident on every page, it’s encyclopedic, and finally, he frequently discusses the songs’ construction, both musically and lyrically. This is my kind of tribute to the music I love.
And, yet, there are omissions. A composer such as Henry Mancini gets but a passing mention, only because of working with the “vernacular poet” of lyricism, Johnny Mercer, on the song “Moon River.” But a glaring total omission is the work of Johnny Mandel, perhaps not a household name, unless you hear one of his songs which you would swear was written by someone else. His oeuvre is not extensive, but he’s written a wide range of idiosyncratic songs and teamed up with some interesting lyricists. He has, most notably, worked extensively as an arranger for well known singers of his time as well as playing with some of the big bands of the 40s such as Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie.
He too worked with Johnny Mercer the lyricist on perhaps one of his best known songs, written for a movie, “Emily.” Tony Bennett, Sinatra, and a host of others have recorded it. The jazz community has adopted this work as their own, particularly the superb interpretation by Bill Evans, a version of which can be heard and seen here, Bill Evans in an intimate setting, Helsinki, 1969.
My mother’s favorite song was “The Shadow of Your Smile,” another film song he composed. Whenever I visited her at my boyhood home from which I had long moved she’d ask me to sit at our old piano, by then partly out of tune, and play what I didn’t realize was a Mandel piece.
And talk about unusual, he composed the “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”, which is also now played in jazz venues.
His work with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman produced two classic pieces, the mystically evocative “A Waltz from Somewhere” which reaches back to another era and one of my other favorites, “Where Do You Start?” about how does one disentangle one’s life from another’s?….”So many habits that we’ll have to break and yesterdays we’ll have to take apart.”
Yet the song which landed me in the sea of Johnny Mandel songs, never tying them altogether until I bought the composer’s Songbook, was “You Are There” as sung by today’s first lady of song, Stacey Kent.
We had the seen her and her husband, her producer and saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, some ten years ago at the Colony.
Her rendition of “You Are There" really elevates the composer’s intention: “To be done in a rubato feeling throughout”
Dave Frishberg, a musician who is sometimes best known for his satirical lyrics, wrote the words to this moving ballad and his collaboration with Mandel produced a classic, the story of a lover who is not just absent but is dead. The ethereal quality of Mandel’s music works with the lyrics:
In the evening
When the kettle's on for tea
An old familiar feeling's settles over me
And it's your face I see
In a garden
When I topped to touch a rose
And feel the petal soft and sweet against my nose
I smile and I suppose
That somehow maybe you are there
When I'm dreaming
And I find myself awake without a warning
Then I rub my eyes and fantasize
And all at once I realize
And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn
My dearest dream is gone
I often think there's just one thing to do
Pretend that dream is true
And tell myself that you are there
I offer my own piano rendition of this wonderful work. Thank you Johnny Mandel for all your contributions to the Great American Songbook!