Reeling in the years

By JIM MACNIE  |  February 25, 2010

DO THE AMERICAN SONGBOOK TUNES FEEL LIKE COOL ARTIFACTS FROM A BYGONE ERA, OR ARE THEY FRESH MATERIAL IN YOUR MIND? They're still modern in my mind — absolutely. What I think is interesting is that the records I grew up with that are now 35 years old, like Zoot Sims discs from the '70s for instance, still seem like classics to me. The idea is to not take things for granted. As the years go by I think we'll find there are people making great records right now. Kurt Elling, Diana Krall, Pat Metheny have made and are making classic records. Metheny's first album is 35 years old! We've got to remember that the music is moving on, not just something from 1942.

IN THE CD LINER NOTES YOU SAY YOU GAVE YOUR BROTHER A DUKE ELLINGTON HITS ALBUM FOR CHRISTMAS. IN YOUR HOUSE, A VERY MUSICAL FAMILY, WERE ALBUMS ALWAYS HOLIDAY GIFTS? In many cases yes. I remember getting Hotel California from a girlfriend for Christmas, and getting [Steely Dan's] Aja from my sisters for Christmas, and giving my brother that Ellington album. One year, coming home from college after discovering classical music, I turned in my Christmas wish list with Tchaikovsky's 5th and 6th and the Hindemith concerto for piano and trumpeter. I remember buying a Dave McKenna record for someone for the holidays. It was a big deal back then. Albums looked so good, they were so big.

I HADN'T HEARD THE LYRICS TO "IN A MELLOW TONE" IN A FEW YEARS. YOUR UPDATE REMINDED ME THAT IT'S A PHILOSOPHY SONG, LIKE "ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET" — IT TELLS YOU HOW TO LIVE. Good point — I never thought of that. And happily it presents itself in mellow way. There are a number of Ellington songs that are better for their melodies than their lyrics. And that one pays off. And it's a rhythm song. It has both sides covered.

I LOVE THE BLEND OF "EAST ST LOUIS TOODLE-OO" WITH "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE." I like to find a song in a major key and put it in a minor. And when I was looking at the lyric to "Get Around," it seemed to be a sadder song than the music makes it out to be. Like "missed the Saturday dance" — the guy's actually stuck after the breakup, but [with its real music] he sounds happy. Something's off. Our producer Don Sebesky didn't understand my suggestion to blend the two songs at first, but when I sang it to him at a gig in Jersey, we all saw it on his face when it finally clicked for him.

THE PROGRAM GOES DOWN TO SOLO GUITAR, UP TO A BIG BAND, THERE'S A SCAT NUMBER . . . . The mix is nice. We sat down and worked on ways to make it not just another record. Casting the tunes in a new way is crucial. That's a beauty of Ellington material that you don't really get with a Gershwin or Rodgers because people are used to hearing the Larry Hart lyrics or the Ira Gershwin lyrics — you can't get around it. With Ellington, you can play "C Jam Blues," "Cottontail," "Rockin' In Rhythm," whatever, and still have a vehicle to play jazz and have fun with the arrangements. We got Ellington's somewhat rare "Love Scene" from a Tony Bennett record. I ran into Tony and I said, "It's really Duke's song?" and he said, "Yeah, it's a bitch isn't it?" [Jazz critic] Will Friedwald says Tony learned it right from Duke himself; Duke allegedly sang it to Tony. Imagine that?

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