Showing posts with label Johnny Mandel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Johnny Mandel. Show all posts

Friday, July 3, 2020

Emmet’s Place

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.  The young and great jazz pianist, Emmet Cohen, has created a Monday night streaming jazz session from his Harlem apartment which is nothing short of sensational.  He has an irresistible personality, prodigious talent, and a reverence for the history of jazz and its legendary performers.  It all converges at Emmet’s Place.

It is probably sacrilegious to observe that in many ways these live, streamed performances are at least as soul satisfying as seeing him and his bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole in person.  Streaming those performances mandated getting a Fire Stick as soon as Amazon got them back in stock.  Now we can enjoy these on the “big screen” with surround sound in the comfort of our home, as good as seeing them in a Club but without people talking, serving distractions or viewing obstructions.  The first time we saw Emmet perform was in NYC at Dizzy’s Club and honestly, we were blown away.

It’s just so special to watch him perform in the intimacy of his apartment and interface with his group and with special guests remotely or, more recently, in his apartment, such as the jazz vocalist and scatter supreme, Veronica Swift.   Most recently he hosted jazz legend, singer and pianist, Johnny O'Neal who sang his iconic “I'm Your Mailman.”  O’Neal also displayed his virtuosity on the piano. 

The last time we saw Emmet and Trio live was on the Jazz Cruise back in February, where we made sure to catch as many of his gigs as possible, sometimes having to bypass other sets to get a seat reasonably close to the stage.

We also admire Emmet the man: he is self effacing in spite of his remarkable talent.  His reverence for his predecessors and mentors greatly impresses us along with his genuine admiration for his fellow artists.  But putting those aside, he is one of the best and most versatile jazz pianists we’ve ever seen and he just turned 30.  Yes, 30.  We wish we could be around to witness his full maturation.

We’ve been blessed over the years to see some of the jazz piano greats in person:  Oscar Peterson, Claude Bolling, Bill Mays, Admad Jamal, to mention a few.  I should add Benny Green and Tamir Hendelman to the list, both of whom we saw on the ship.  Oh, I also used to see Dave Brubeck but that was in my dentist’s office in Westport!

The Emmet Cohen Trio has coalesced over a five year period to the point where they can playfully hand off to one another at unexpected times and in unexpected ways and it’s never quite clear whether anyone is  in charge.  They just sense when to dive into the musical conversation or pause and it makes for interesting, mesmerizing listening.   His side men bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole are outstanding performers in their own right and sometimes carry long solos.

Emmet has given himself over to a Jazz Masters series, playing with some of the greats.  He channels them as well as those who are no longer with us, with strains of Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk.  The point is, he can and does play all styles, straight jazz, stride, swing, rhythm’n’blues, and in synthesizing these, he creates his own unique, soulful style.  He can transition from block chords to light; fast improvised ascending and descending arpeggios which definitively land on the base note.  Just listen to him paying homage to the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, playing his "Original Rags" at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola @ Jazz at Lincoln Center some four years ago (when he was only 26!).

This is indeed what makes this young man so special.  In addition to his talent he has a genuine outgoing personality and a kilowatt smile.  A couple of months ago he was soloing at Emmet’s Place, taking requests from the audience via the YouTube’s streaming comment feature and I was typing “please play Johnny Mandel’s ‘Where Do I Start?’ and I wasn’t but a few keystrokes into the message, and he played it!  I almost fell out of my chair at how serendipitously that happened!  I emailed him afterwards about the strange coincidence and expressing my love of Mandel’s music (and wishing him a happy 30th birthday which was just coming up, noting that it coincided with my wife’s, who is a mere 49 years older) and he was good enough to reply “That's so crazy!! Wonderful when the universe works wonders... Thanks for all the kindness, and happy bday to Ann!!”  That’s a mensch.

This last week Johnny Mandel passed away.  Perhaps Emmet will mark his passing with another Mandel medley in his next session.  I hope so.  The afternoon before I learned of Mandel’s death, I felt this strong compulsion to play some of his songs on my piano.  I ended up playing ALL of them (at least all of my favorites), even including “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless).”

It was as if something drew me to his music and that night reading the NYT, I learned that he died.  Now that is just plain bizarre.  I couldn’t help but think of that stunning medley Cohen played but a few weeks before, and the entry I wrote, now, more than two years ago about Mandel’s place in The Great American Songbook.

As we are self quarantined until there is an effective vaccine, which, who knows, could be for the rest of our lives, we’re hoping that Emmet’s streaming sessions will continue as it is our only way to be so close to the music we love and to preeminent musicians who bring it to life.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve joined Emmet’s “Exclusive” Club.  It gives members access to a “unique and ongoing creative feed’ and more significantly allowing us to feel that we’re part of his and his group’s journey, one well worth supporting, particularly as their tour revenue has dried up in these times of COVID-19 and uncertainty.  This support provides “a path for new innovative and creative endeavors to come to life.”  Indeed it does, and thank you Emmet for sharing your creative genius at Emmet’s Place.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Under the Radar

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.

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
And I believe that you are there
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
It's morning
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!