SV: I don’t think people in general know what a Musical Director is or what their role is with an artist. Most touring artists have one and he or she gets introduced as that on stage but the general perception to the wording is that it is the person who picks music for a radio station or a church choir. What does a musical director do?
JT: I’m still trying to figure that out as we go along. For me with Al it is in that same spirit. I first heard Al in 1973. I think it was when I was working as a singing busboy at the Great American Food and Beverage Company, a restaurant in Santa Monica. There are some great stories that come from my time there; it made a big impact on me as far as getting started in the music business. A friend who also worked there told me there was this guy I needed to hear because she felt like we were kindred spirits so she took me to the Bla Bla cafe. It was still light out so it must have been a daytime show, and here’s Al and a piano player. I remember listening and just being blown away. Through the years we sort of crossed paths but I was going in one direction and he was going in the other. All these years later we were able to connect. Since I became his musical director I feel like it is my job – and it is a joyful undertaking – to take this unique gem of a musical talent and just try to support that. I see my role as part coach and part cheerleader, and I try to make sure things don’t interfere – that he doesn’t get in his own way, the band doesn’t get in his way. I am always trying to find ideas that he has, and keep the spirit of that always reflecting where he is now as an artist. Al is always reinventing. He’ll pick songs he has recorded 30 years ago and he is still tweaking them. In that spirit he’ll tweak something and I’ll tweak something, then he will take that and play on it and come up with something else, and we work that way. It’s that freshness. We’re always stirring the pot. I love that because it’s who I am and who he is. It’s this wonderful collaborative thing so that’s what being the Musical Director in this situation means to me.
SV: So here we have Al coming off a series of reissue packages with his first true solo album in eight years. That one was off the beaten path and this one is too. Vince Mendoza has worked with an incredible variety of gifted musicians in all kinds of genres and he always brings out new facets of their artistry.
JT: The people who work best with Al over the years going all the way back to the We Got By album- and this probably goes with any great artist who has a strong sense of individuality- have had strong personalities and strong musical visions but they did not tamper with the artist they were working with. They brought something that underscored the essence of Al Jarreau and brought it out into a new thing. I think Tommy LiPuma did this as a producer, and Jay Graydon, and David Foster and all those guys did that because you’ve still got the essence of Al Jarreau and you’ve got these other elements. Vince was right in the spirit of that with these arrangements because you don’t feel like Al gets swallowed up. Instead, he does what he does on this bed of a whole other thing.
SV: You go into this thing where you have been working with a spectacular cast of musicians as part of Al’s band but there are five of them, plus Al. Now it’s an orchestra. So you basically have to translate this language of these songs into a different language that is similar but with different nuances and a lot more instruments.
JT: That’s what Vince did. I can’t take credit for that obviously, however I was kind of the bridge. I think the role I served here is another aspect because I connected with Vince on a level of artistic sensibility. When I am hearing what he is coming up with I start to think of songs that would work and so is he, and we bounce those songs off each other and he goes with it. My role in this has been twofold. Part of it has been suggesting songs that we bounce off each other and I also came up with some from left field like “Scootcha Booty,” which was a trio song from Accentuate The Positive. I love it as a trio piece but I could hear it with more – with the orchestra he has a canvas he can do so much with. Then I was working with Al and encouraging him to relax and just get into it. Yes, it is an orchestra, and yes, it is unfamiliar but he trusts my judgment and from that comes learning to trust Vince and learning to trust himself. He’s singing, he’s Al Jarreau, this is all there to support him. All he has to do is be himself and the rest will take care of itself. I can’t take credit for what Vince did except that sometimes Al and I would suggest edits for length or form. Vince learned very quickly that we were not trying to undermine any of his artistic expression and it was all about trying to make it work. Once that was established between the three of us and by extension with the orchestra it was a lovely experience. I can’t tell you what it felt like to be listening to that breathing, 50-some piece orchestra with Al on top of that. It is just incredible!
SW: Why live? That puts the pressure on. In the studio you can tweak, obsess, perfect, redo, and all that. Going out and doing it live, doing this totally new thing with reworked arrangements. That’s brave to the max.
JT: I think that was because Vince was feeling that it would work best. The economic realities of doing an orchestral studio recording were also a factor. So doing it this way, I think, was the child of necessity. There is always the option to go in and redo parts of it but it was kind of largely my decision to not do that. I felt like if we went in and rerecorded the vocals and generally started altering it too much we would lose something major. It’s magical to me and I think keeping it all live was the right call.
SV: When I first saw the titles I think two of the songs a person would least likely imagine in an orchestral setting are “Scootcha Booty” and “Cold Duck.”
JT: (laughs)”Scootcha Booty” was my idea and “Cold Duck” was Vince’s. He’s right on the money with that. It was his idea for the arrangement and his idea to lead off the record with that song.
SV: Having a rock guitar solo less than two minutes into an orchestral album makes a statement too.
JT: Absolutely. And what a great guitarist! These are all great musicians. Not a weird vibe ego thing in the bunch. I’ve never felt more welcome around a group of musicians, certainly not an orchestra. I’m a “seat of the pants” guy. I didn’t go to music school. I wanted to but I couldn’t afford it and neither could my family – which is another story – but I have had to deal with that sense of inadequacy over the years, however mistaken it is because I’ve got natural talent and I have worked very hard. With this group there was no attitude, I felt nothing except respect and the feeling that I was welcomed.
SV: You’re a seat of the pants guy and Al is a major seat of the pants guy. I think he mentioned when we were talking that this is a whole new way of working for him, because you can’t really be like that when your band has 50 people in it and you have a budget to bring this thing in.
JT: He had to fit within that. It was a challenge for him but not as much as he thinks it is because he is so great. Vince was going intuitive places and Al is intuitive so, again, what I did here is I reassured. I knew Vince was doing nothing foreign, nothing jarring, that and nothing that didn’t enhance Al. I encouraged him to get into a mindset where he was relaxed and using that intuition because I bridge the two. I’ve always had a strong ear but I got into some fast company out here in LA and I realized I was not going to get by and do what I want to do if I didn’t learn to read music and learn all this other stuff that professional musicians have to know. Now my heart is still with going by ear, but I know the other stuff too. Part of it, for me, was about making him feel at ease in this structure and he does rely on me for that. He probably doesn’t need me but it makes him feel better and I’m glad of that.
SV: You have to know that I was thrilled that the album revisited and revitalized some songs from Accentuate the Positive, one of the most underrated albums ever. Then there are the crowd pleasers like “We’re in this Love Together, “ “After All,” and “Spain” and there are songs from the GRP albums that did not get the exposure they should have like “Something That You Said,” and “Flame.” It’s a wonderful showcase but it had to be a process to weed out songs when you have somebody that has such a lengthy and eclectic catalog to choose from. And then there was the matter of making it fit together and lure the people who come for the hits into deeper territory.
JT: Some of that was intended, some of it was an accident. Once I saw where Vince was coming from, and as he and I developed a relationship and learned that we were on the same wavelength, we could toss ideas for songs back and forth. What came out of that was real organic. Song order for instance. A lot of times I play a big role in that. I didn’t think I had a sense for that until I became Al’s musical director and realized I have that skill. I seem to have a knack in that direction and a sense of what flows well. “Jacaranda, Bougainvillea” is one that I think I brought up. He brought up “Something That You Said” he already had that arrangement in that key and he adapted it to Al. He and Al and I kind of weeded it out to make more room for his voice, it was a collaborative effort. “Beginning To See the Light” is so Basie-esque. Al just kills that stuff. I don’t remember who suggested it but Vince took it and turned it into a tour de force. The more well known songs we did were not concessions to the hit factor as much as a realization that they get a huge response from the audience and that is important. And they continue to evolve; Al keeps tweaking them so they don’t get stale.
SV: It seems like when an artist who has some chart success they are expected to dwell in the place where those hits happened and just continue to perform songs from that era instead of continuing to grow artistically and put out new music. And to perform the songs exactly the way they sounded on the record.
JT: When that happens it sets up a dynamic, whether people realize they are participating in it or not, of something that is frozen in amber rather than living and breathing and developing and growing and Al is not about that at all.
SV: I used to work for a radio station cluster that had a bunch of oldies driven stations. We did a lot of promotions with bands that had hits in the eras the formats covered and were doing tours where they just did their older hits. I thought it was kind of sad. Then you see artists from the same generations that are evolving, changing, and using the skills they have built over the years to do some of their best and most original work but it seems to be harder for them too get their music released or get bookings.
JT: What occurs to me is that it is a double edged sword, I notice it with myself. I notice it with Al obviously because it is within my experience. When we are young things spill out if you are a creative person – the good, the bad, and the ugly, it all comes out. During that process you are refining and growing . When you get older, as those skills are getting refined and developed, there is also something else that creeps in. Maybe the weight of the world, the responsibilities that come day to day. Everything changes and there is not quite that freewheeling atmosphere. We judge things more, which can be good, but it can also be contributing to possibly shutting down the faucet to a little more than a trickle. That’s why as artists “of a certain age” we need to encourage each other to continue to reach and challenge ourselves creatively and just generally let people know it’s OK. It’s important to keep it going because wonderful stuff comes out. Stuff that is different and valuable, maybe more so. It would really be helpful if the infrastructure encouraged it but that is not the case.
SV: There’s a tendency to second guess and that can be reinforced by pressure to say inside your history and where you success was previously. Jazz tends to be a medium were grown-ups can continue to grow but if a jazz artist expands their horizons by stepping out of the genre then has a hit, they get pressure to get stuck in the time and place where that hit happened. So someone like Kurt Elling or Cassandra Wilson is not going to have this pressure put on her that someone like Al, who has pop radio hits, gets put on him to stay in the “safety box”
JT: He does get that pressure and he puts that pressure on himself. There’s nothing wrong with having something that is accessible and commercial. Part of the genius of Al Jarreau is the ability to meld the two in such a form that people who aren’t listening for the nuance or the jazz riff or the groundbreaking stuff are still caught up emotionally and get the joy of it, but the more serious jazzers get it too. He has blended that so perfectly over the years. He lights up when that stuff happens so we need to let him do that and he needs to let himself do that.
SW: And it lights us up when it happens. That’s important. During our conversation he spoke of you being one of the people who pushed him not to play safe.
JT: I’m trying to mitigate my feelings about the conservative point of view musically – for lack of a better word – that is dominant in the industry. It rankles me to no end personally, so I have to be aware of where people who have that point of view are coming from. They can be coming from a genuine place. Sometimes it’s a subjective taste thing and sometimes it’s driven by fear that anything different will not work. I’m trying to be better about understanding it and being in a position where I play my role and let them play their role, and in helping find those areas where there is common ground with what Al is doing.
SV: I think the way radio stations do music research created that mindset. A song had to be recognizable in seven or so seconds or would not “test well” and get airplay so artists had to create songs that were recognizable or sounded like songs that were recognizable. The focus keeps getting narrower as more music tests are done and pretty soon the industry views anything interesting as being unsafe.
JT: I heard Steve Jobs being asked about how he kept developing new ideas. The topic of focus groups came up and he was so disdainful of that approach. He observed that people don’t know what they want and he thought it was his job to show them what was possible. Then that would expand their idea of what they wanted. Then he could constantly move forward and keep creating things that further expanded that. If nobody steps forward things can get very stagnant.