Michael Feinstein is a critical link in America’s musical chain. On one side, he’s helping push it forward with his own new recordings. His most recent Concord Records release teams him with the renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Together, they offer lush new treatments of a dozen standards by Gershwin, Hammerstein, Loesser and others. It’s a rare occasion of the orchestra performing popular America music, and Feinstein’s first time recording with a symphony orchestra.
On the other side, Feinstein is embracing the past. He has just formed his own record label, Feinery, which will present hidden treasures from our musical heritage. The first release is the "Livingston and Evans Songbook, featuring Michael Feinstein." Feinery will showcase important artists in new ways, as well as restore lost recordings and old musical broadcasts in a loving act of preservation.
Additionally, Feinstein has just completed work on a series on the Great American Songbook that will air on PBS in the spring. He also co-owns the successful Manhattan nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, and is getting ready to open Feinstein’s at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in California.
JazzReview.com recently caught up with Feinstein to talk about his new CD, as well as discuss the importance of preserving our musical past. JazzReview.com
: Your new CD is wonderful. How did the collaboration with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra come about? Michael Feinstein
: "It came about because of my friendship with Zubin Mehta (music director for the orchestra). I’ve known Zubin for many years. We met in Los Angeles. I would see him socially from time to time at different gatherings. One day at one of those parties, he said, ‘How would you like to do something with the orchestra?’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I would be honored, truly honored.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that the orchestra plays American popular music.’ He said, ‘as a rule, we don’t, but this would be a special concert. I think it would be wonderful.’ I said, ‘Absolutely. I would love to do that.’
We would talk about it whenever we would run into each other again, but it never happened. I ran into him in a New York hotel lobby, and he said, ‘this is silly. We’ve got to make this happen.’ So, after leaving each other from that chance meeting in the lobby, we both made arrangements for it to happen. I finally made it over to Tel Aviv. We had a magnificent concert and subsequently recorded the album." JazzReview.com
: What was the experience in Tel Aviv like? Michael Feinstein
: "It was a marvelous experience. I had never been to Israel before. It was March of 2001 when I went there. Even though things were not great, they were not as bad as they’ve become. But, the spirit of the orchestra was extraordinary. They are generally regarded as the finest orchestra in the world. They played this music with full commitment. There was no snobbism about the fact that they were not playing Beethoven, which sometimes occurs with American orchestras.
In addition, I had a fantastic bass player Avishai Cohen, who lives in America, but is from Israel. He came back to be part of this concert. He’s worked a lot with Chick Corea. He’s really great. That was a wonderful experience. I had Albie Berk on drums so I had some great jazz guys to work with in addition to the orchestra.
I was concerned about the reaction of the Israeli people to the music, not knowing how it would strike them and not knowing their familiarity with it. The night of the concert, they were a wildly responsive group. I was thrilled at the reaction. It all went better than I could have hoped." JazzReview.com
: Was there a song on the CD that proved to be the most challenging? Michael Feinstein
: "We had the luxury of a great deal of rehearsal. We had several days of rehearsal unlike most albums that are done with a studio orchestra. You rehearse a couple of times while the clock is running and then you do a take. In this instance, we had several days to rehearse so we were able to perform and record extremely difficult orchestrations. The orchestrations were by Alan Broadbent. Alan is a phenomenal jazz pianist and a fantastic orchestrator, who won a Grammy for one of his arrangements with Charlie Haden. I would say the most difficult was probably ‘Stormy Weather’ because that is an arrangement that is more of a theatrical type of chart There’s an extended orchestral introduction that gives an effect of thunder and rain. It eventually goes into rhythm, but it’s more of a theatrical showpiece. That was hard." JazzReview.com
: Do you have a favorite track? Michael Feinstein
: You know, my favorites seem to change from day to day. It’s sort of what feels like my favorite in the moment. At this moment, "The Folks Who Live on The Hill" is one that is resonating in my bones." JazzReview.com
: How did you choose the songs for the album? It’s always a challenge to narrow it down to the 12 or 13 that make it onto a CD. Michael Feinstein
: You’re so right. It’s always a problem of narrowing it down. Usually when somebody asks me how do I choose, the first thing that I say is, ‘It’s like creating a sculpture where you have a raw block of marble and then you chip everything away until it becomes what you want it to become.’ It’s the same way with a recording where you start with infinite possibilities, and then it’s a slow process of winnowing until it somehow is gleaned down to a few songs that for whatever reason feel appropriate to be grouped together.
In this instance, there were several considerations. The main one being songs that would not only work for me, but would work in an orchestral setting. Also, Alan and I wanted to be able to create arrangements that would have swing. Or, as we would say to each other, ‘Do you think the Israel Phil can schving?’ We knew that they could play extraordinary well. Yet, we didn’t know if we could do things like "By Myself" or "The Best is Yet to Come," both swing arrangements. There were all those considerations." JazzReview.com
: It’s interesting that all the songs are by Jewish writers. Was that deliberate? Michael Feinstein
: It was deliberate, but it wasn’t something that I was going to emblazon on the cover of the CD. So many of the repertoire of American popular song is written by Jewish composers. It was not difficult to ‘limit’ myself to that because 80% of the most famous American songwriters of the 20th century of the material I sing are Jewish. Basically, it meant I couldn’t do anything by Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter. But everybody else by and large were Jewish. It’s an extraordinary statistic." JazzReview.com
: When the project was completed, what was the biggest surprise? Michael Feinstein
: I think the most surprising thing for me was the response from the orchestra. I’m accustomed to orchestras being somewhat hard-boiled these musicians would applaud at rehearsal after takes and when we were recording. They would pay me compliments on my singing and compliment Alan on his arrangements. It was real feeling of camaraderie that was on a level that I have not normally experienced. Many were thanking me for coming to Israel because few people were traveling there. Of course, I was the one who felt so lucky to be working with such extraordinary people. JazzReview.com
: You wear so many different hats. You’re a singer, pianist, writer, music historian and nightclub owner. Now, you have another role. With Concord Records, you recently developed your own record label. Tell us about Feinery. Michael Feinstein
: We formed Feinery because there are a lot of recordings that have disappeared with time or have fallen through the cracks. Whenever there is a change of recording technology, there are recordings that disappear from the catalog just as there are many, many jazz aficionados who treasure their 78s of Wingy Manone, Carl Kress or Mildred Bailey because these are recordings in many instances have never been reissued past their initial issue. It’s happened with the passing of LP to CD. Therefore, there is a lot of music that’s lost. In addition, there are many performances that were ephemeral, which means they were radio performances or rehearsals that happened to be captured by someone that were never meant for commercial release, but exist and deserve to be heard by a wider audience.
I’m lucky enough to have some of these recordings in my own collection and know other people who have extraordinary recordings that they are willing to share. Because of that, I went to Glen Barros of Concord Records, and he was quite enthusiastic about the concept of making some of this material available. In addition, Feinery affords me the opportunity to make recordings of material of repertoire and performers who might not necessarily be mainstream, whatever that means anymore, and yet give them an opportunity to be heard. For example, the first release, the "Livingston and Evans Songbook" is a collection of songs by two great, triple-Oscar winning writers who’ve never really had a complete album of their songs made previous to this, which is extraordinary. They’ve written jazz standards like ‘Never Let Me Go’ and a lot of things for Nat Cole. They haven’t been properly served on record. I did this recording with Jay Livingston, the composer, at the piano. I also worked with jazz musicians like Page Cavanaugh, who is now 80 years old and playing better than he’s ever played. It’s an act of preservation and gives people an opportunity to hear wonderful music." JazzReview.com
: It’s really more than entertainment. It’s history. Michael Feinstein
: I agree. I was listening to some wonderful Fats Waller recordings this morning, live recordings from the Yacht Club made in 1938. A guy in L.A. had these acetate discs and put them out on CD, and they are just delicious because they are not constrained by the three-minute limits of the recordings of that era. You can hear people in the nightclub clinking their glasses and rattling their silverware and coming over and talking to Fats. It really gives one a sense of being there. It’s quite a different experience from just hearing a carefully planned recording made in a studio. JazzReview.com
: You described how many recordings are lost when there’s a change in technology. What are the other challenges of preserving our musical heritage? Michael Feinstein
: There are great challenges. I’m a member of the National Recording Preservation Board, which was formed by an act of Congress. President Clinton signed the bill into existence. The board is dedicated to preserving our recorded musical heritage. It consists of members of every aspect of the music world, people from the jazz field and folk and choral and symphonic. We’re all working together to preserve this mass of recordings. There’s so much of it out there from radio air checks to private recordings to demos to film soundtrack recordings on nitrate to wire recordings to defunct tape technology and even digital technology that is superceded by even more contemporary means. In some instances, there isn’t even a way to play some of the recordings. There are Dictaphone belts that have important music on them, field recordings made of Appalachian musicians that only exist on these precious, fragile discs that need to be transferred. It’s a much more difficult task then preserving our movie heritage because there’s a lot more of it. We’re grappling with the problem of how to preserve all this material that is deteriorating. It’s an extraordinary problem. JazzReview.com
: On this first release, the "Livingston and Evans Songbook," one hidden gem is a demo of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer singing a song called "Anywhere But Here." Is there a story about how that recording was unearthed? Michael Feinstein
: Yes. When I started to work with Jay Livingston on the songbook, I asked him about songs that were lesser known, songs that he had written that never found their way to the public and he immediately responded that he had written a song for his Broadway musical ‘Oh, Captain!’ that was cut from the show. As they rewrote the book, they had to delete the song. He lamented the fact that the song was cut. I said, ‘I would like to hear it.’ He said, ‘I have a demo of it.’ He made me a cassette of this demo, and the demo was Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer, who directed the show. He explained that Rosemary sang on the track because her husband was directing the musical and she agreed to do the demo with him, so he had this fantastic tape. I said, ‘Jay, I can’t sing this better than it’s heard on this demo with the great jazz pianist Buddy Cole accompanying.’ He said, ‘Why don’t we use the demo?’ I thought that’s kind of weird on an album that was otherwise new recordings. The more I got to thinking about it, it made sense to me because if we didn’t issue, it would be lost. There’s only one tape that exists. It’s an act of preservation that would keep that piece of music alive. JazzReview.com
: What’s coming up next for you? Michael Feinstein
: I’ve just completed a multi-part series called "The Great American Songbook," which is going to air on PBS in the spring and will be on DVD and video release by Warner Home Video. It’s a show that I co-produced and host. It’s a mini-history of American popular song up to about 1960 in which I try to focus on the great songwriters and performers of the great songs, so that’s coming out soon.
I’m working on a stage project also called "The Great American Songbook," which will have its first workshop in February.
I’m working on a new recording of the songs of Jimmy Webb, featuring Jimmy at the piano. It will include some of his classic songs like ‘Didn’t We,’ ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ and ‘MacArthur Park.’ It will also include about eight or nine brand new songs that he’s created that are fantastic. He’s one of my favorite songwriters and writes with a particular kind of depth and lyrical eloquence that I find sometimes lacking in today’s music. It’s a real honor to work with him.
And for future releases on Feinery, I want to reissue an album that Jo Stafford made called, ‘Ballad of the Blues.’ It’s a very, very interesting concept album that has an extended four-movement suite that was created for her by her husband Paul Weston, who composed the music, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman who wrote the lyrics. Marilyn and Alan are quite enthusiastic about it being reissued on CD. I feel that’s an important album to make available again.
In addition, I’m working on a multiple CD set of Bing Crosby to come out next year. It’s all recording of Bing Crosby that have never been heard before, going back to the 1930s, featuring him working jazz musicians and radio air checks that have never seen the light of day.
Then, in the garage of a friend of my parents in the San Fernando Valley I found several tapes of Matt Dennis, the great Matt Dennis, performing. He wrote such classics as ‘Everything Happens to Me’ and "Angel Eyes.’ These are recordings, made for his own amusement, that I would like to reissue sometime because they are great performances and they’re unique. So, there’s a lot more of that on the way. JazzReview.com
: JazzReview would like to thank Concord Records for the opportunity of arranging this interview, and Michael Feinstein for his outstanding talent and effort in the preservation of our national musical heritage.