Michael Feinstein and George Shearing have just released an album on Concord Records entitled "Hopeless Romantics" [catalog 2152] that combines their unique vocal and piano stylings with the beautiful music of unsung composer, Harry Warren.
Michael Feinstein was introduced to Harry Warren by Ira Gershwin, for whom he worked as a secretary. After his introduction, Michael spent many days hanging out with Harry whom he says, "was something of a grandfather and a mentor." Much of their shared time was spent talking about their love of music, including Harry’s music. Therefore, Michael is uniquely qualified to interpret Harry Warren’s music. Additionally, the pairing of George Shearing with Michael Feinstein was way past due. Michael has been a friend with George and his wife Ellie for close to two decades, during which time they have "tossed tunes back and forth at the piano."
I spoke with Michael Feinstein on September 22, 2005 in Las Vegas, the day before his concert at the Artimus W. Ham Concert Hall at ULVN.
JAZZREVIEW: Hello Michael, this is Jerry O’Brien from JazzReview.com.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Hi. How are you?
JAZZREVIEW: Just fine thank you. You are getting ready for a concert tomorrow night.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Yes, I am.
JAZZREVIEW: Whose music will you be singing tomorrow night?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I will be doing a whole variety of music by composers from what has come to be identified as the Great American Songbook. The music that I perform is mainly the compositions by songwriters that created music that was popular between the '20’s all the way up to the 50’s and 60’s, even though I do stretch those parameters. I don’t care about the age of the song, all I care about is the craft or the quality and if it speaks to a contemporary audience. Certainly a lot of these classic songs have stood the test of time and are amazingly malleable in the way that they can be interpreted. I think that is one of the things that have kept them alive.
JAZZREVIEW: I’ve just listened to "Hopeless Romantics" and At Last is performed on there, as well as I Only Have Eyes for You. Those are magnificent songs that have really become a major part of our musical and cultural landscape. I think everybody knows them.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Yes, and everybody is able to identify them in connection with a different recording or a different interpretation. At first I didn’t know that I wanted to include At Last on the recording because every time I hear it, it is somebody doing a knock off of Etta James’ record. They always do [singing] "At last my love has come along, My lonely days are over, [singing higher] And life is just a song." Everybody goes up at the end of that phrase and they do the exact vocal phrase that Etta James sang. That is not how the song is written, but everybody does that as an exact knockoff. I find that really irritating. [Laughing] I love Etta James’ record, but if I want to hear that phrasing, I will listen to Etta James. I don’t need to hear anybody else do a copy of that. I decided to do the song closer to the way that it was originally written just because, for me, it made it fresh. George wanted to do it that way too, simpler. And when he came up with a spontaneous idea of interpolating phrases from An American In Paris, it just sort of gelled.
JAZZREVIEW: You are a piano player and a singer. How does it feel for you when you sing and George Shearing plays the piano?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Well, in a single word: thrilling. It’s always interesting for me to sing with any kind of accompaniment. When I play for myself, I can back phrase or do whatever I want. I know where I’m going to go. George is so extraordinarily tuned in and sensitive that he feels where I’m going and knows what I am going to do. So there was rarely an instance in our collaboration or any question of what was happening. It was not a conscious experience; it was simply interpreting the songs and feeling our way.
Working with George is quite amazing, really. I have worked with other people where we are not in sync, but I think that George, not only being a musical chameleon and having so many influences from classical to bop, is somebody who is able to synthesize any musical experience in the moment and recreate it in a different way.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you think this is in part because you have known him for nineteen years?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I think that is part of it. George knows how I sing and he knows how I phrase. Yes, I think that’s a part of it, even though he is so amazingly present and in the moment with his music that he can pick up on just about anything quickly. There was a famous singer who was supposed to work with George and George told me that it didn’t work at all. They just could not get it together. It was someone who had worked with other pianists and is quite well known but they just couldn’t; it didn’t jibe. Just as Alan Broadbent told me that many years ago when Nelson Riddle was working on his first album with Linda Ronstadt . . . Alan was asked to be the pianist for the recordings and when he rehearsed with Linda, she wasn’t comfortable with him. She didn’t get his phrasings, which I find shocking actually, but as a result, Alan did not play on the Nelson Riddle-Ronstadt albums. And years later, Alan worked with her quite successfully. So things like that happen.
JAZZREVIEW: I was looking at the list of songbooks you have done-Irving Berlin, Burton Lane, Jules Styne, and it goes on and on. Who do you think you want to commemorate next?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: They fall into two categories: living and dead. What I mean is I still hope to do living songbooks with the composers at the piano as I did with Burton Lane, and Jules, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin. The thrill of working with the creator of a song is always amazing for me. It is always illuminating and challenging because my focus is on interpreting the song the way the composer wants to hear it sung. So with living song writers, there are a number of them with whom I hope to work.
Charles Strauss, who has a wonderful catalogue, his most popular shows being "Bye- Bye Birdie" and "Annie," has written much more, which is great beyond those shows. I was hoping to do an album with Sy Coleman, but he’s gone. He was one of the great jazz pianists, as well as a magnificent songwriter.
I’d love to do a songbook with Billy Joel, for example, because I am told that he has a lot of songs that he has written that have never seen the light of day. That would be a thrill, similar to what I did with Jimmy Webb where I recorded some of Jimmy’s standards and then did a bunch of new things. Jimmy’s an amazing writer in so many different traditions. He is another one of those geniuses who listens to Von Williams, as well as the Beach Boys, and writes in a style that is truly his own. So pushing the envelope or stretching the boundaries of what a classic song can be is always exciting.
As far as the classic songwriters and songbooks go, there are so many that I’d like to do. Jerome Kern is high on the list, eventually Cole Porter, Johnny Green, Ralph Ranger, Richard Whiting. There are so many composers whose works are not known as well as they were a few years ago whose names are obscure to the public. But the quality and quantity of great songs that exist will conceivably keep me busy for a long time.
JAZZREVIEW: Yes, you have quite a bit ahead of you, which is very good for us.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Thank you.
JAZZREVIEW: It seems to me that there are people who are landmarks on the American cultural landscape and Harry Warren is one of them. His music is well known despite the fact that people do not know him. How do you think that it is that somebody like him gets missed?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: There are a number of reasons that Harry is not a household name today, even though in these times George Gershwin is not a household name either. Harry Warren did not work extensively on Broadway with a single collaborator and if he had, he probably would have become as well known as a Richard Rogers or a Cole Porter. He had that kind of ability. He chose to work in Hollywood. Working in Hollywood, most composers or songwriters who wrote for the movies or musical films are not very well known unless they had prior careers in New York, such as Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen or Porter. But Harry worked in the studio system and did not have one individual collaborator. So when he worked on a musical film, it was either a Ruby Keeler film, a Busby Berkeley film, a Judy Garland film or a Glenn Miller movie. He was part of a package of artists who created any given movie, and so he could not have achieved the same kind of recognition working in the studio system. Consequently, when he collaborated with Johnny Mercer and they wrote hits like On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, Mercer made his own recording of the song and Harry was very angry that there were banners all over the record shops in Times Square Area saying, "Johnny Mercer’s hit "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." Harry was frustrated that he was not mentioned, but of course, Johnny was also the artist. So when a composer or a songwriter is also a performer, it propels their popularity-like Hoagy Carmichael as another example.
JAZZREVIEW: When you were first getting started you met Oscar Levant’s widow and she introduced you to Ira Gershwin and you worked for him for six years. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Meeting Ira Gershwin was an extraordinary experience for me because I was twenty years old and had not gone to college. I was playing in piano bars, which were a great and valuable education for me, playing four and five hours a night, learning songs and learning how to hold an audience in a situation that could be anywhere from friendly to drunkenly hostile. But Ira was this time capsule from an era that is very important to me. It is because he had written songs at a time when America was very different and the cultural landscape was very different. He did not conceive that what he wrote would last. He didn’t think in those terms. None of those songwriters thought about immortality. They were writing on assignment or writing for a show, or trying to write a Tin Pan Alley hit for commerce. But as time progressed, Ira realized that he had created a body of work that was transcendent.
He was surprised and proud of that achievement and he instilled in me a certain respect for what the songwriters created. So I interpret songs largely due to the way Ira taught me-not necessarily consciously teaching me the interpretation, but just by example, by lesson, and by listening to recordings that he liked-listening to him talk about lyrics, about collaborators, about other singers, things he didn’t like about this one or that one. So it was a constant lesson and education that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
JAZZREVIEW: Have any of the music schools offered you an honorary doctorate in light of those six years of intensive work?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I do have an honorary doctorate from Cal State L.A., a wonderful college and a good music school.
I have only on two or three occasions worked with students on interpreting popular song. There still is not much in the way of academic education available for those who wish to sing this music, because it is an interpretive art that is quite different from classical singing and classical music, especially when you get into jazz interpretation. There are so many components that are involved in gaining ability and it is so easy to misfire. So in retrospective, I had the best education I could have hoped for.
JAZZREVIEW: That’s great. Now you say that it is somewhat different from classical; it is somewhat different than jazz singing. What do you consider it? Do you just consider it interpretive singing?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Well, classical music is more based on singing the notes exactly as they are written, and interpreting the words takes a back seat. In jazz, singing is about stretching what is there and creating a new form out of an existing form-seeing how far you can go with it yet retaining integrity.
With a more classic performance of a standard, it is about the lyric first and foremost and getting the meaning across of the words and then I’ll incorporate jazz elements. I’ll take liberties. I’ll change notes. I’ll do all of those things, but never at the expense of the meaning of the lyric. In a jazz interpretation, the lyric is not the predominant component. Yet for me, the best interpreters who are jazz influenced are able to retain all of those elements. Shirley Horn is considered a jazz performer, yet she remains pretty true to the original intention of the song by virtue of the way she accompanies herself, and the settings that she puts the songs in. She is able to make the songs live in a jazz forum, yet they are very respectful to what the writers created. To me, that is the hallmark of great jazz performance.
JAZZREVIEW: Then do you write songs?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I do. I’ve recorded a few of my own songs and I’m actually embarking on writing a musical for the first time. I’m just at the beginning stages of that, which is probably madness, but I’ve got to try it and see where it takes me.
JAZZREVIEW: Do you mind talking about that a little?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too early. We don’t even have a contract yet.
JAZZREVIEW: But that’s something for everyone to look forward to.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Well, hopefully.
JAZZREVIEW: Now you’re also in the restaurant and food business to some extent. You have two Clubs?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I have one club. I did have two clubs. I have a club in New York and I did have a club in Los Angeles, but as management changed at the Hollywood Roosevelt, I realized that we didn’t have a like-minded vision for the club in LA. So I gracefully withdrew my presence there. In New York, I‘ve had a club called "Feinstein’s at the Regency," which has been at the Regency Hotel five years. It’s at sixty-first street and Park Avenue, which is a great location. It’s a very comfortable club and it’s a place that is the kind of club that I’ve always dreamed of having. It’s a place that is elegant, but very casual, very comfortable and it’s a great room for music. And, I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of great performers there, everybody from Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell to Keely Smith and Rosemary Clooney. John Pizzarelli plays there regularly, and Cleo Lane, Linda Edder, Dee Dee Bridgewater, George Shearing. It’s been a real cross section of extraordinary musical talent. I still wake up some mornings in shock that I actually have the club. I don’t take anything for granted.
JAZZREVIEW: That’s nice. You’re able to enjoy it.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: I am. I am, because we have a wonderful staff and the Regency is a five-star hotel. Knowing how the Tisch Family runs their business, I knew the club would be in safe hands. They do everything first rate and they don’t undertake any project unless they can do it right. Being able to work with them and open the club at the Regency is what made it possible to have a club called "Feinstein’s."
JAZZREVIEW: I’ve kept you on the phone now for twenty-five minutes and your agent told me that you were very busy.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: That’s no lie.
JAZZREVIEW: I have one last thing that I’d like to ask. I noticed that your fan club is here in Orange, California. I can practically throw a rock from my office to Orange. Are you very involved with that?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Well, I’m in regular touch with Susie and Dianna who take care of all of my fans. I help put together the newsletter and keep things up-to-date on the Website. Yes, I am involved. Fans of me and appreciators of this music are very important. Without people wanting to listen to what I do, I wouldn’t be here. I’m very grateful and mindful of fans.
JAZZREVIEW: Thank you so much for your time, Michael.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Thank you Jerry, it was nice speaking to you. And thanks for wanting to speak to me.
JAZZREVIEW: Not a problem, you have done some really nice things for us musically.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Take care.