Table your politics and any pre-conceived notions about Barbra Streisand. In fact, forget everything you know about her. If you can do this, you'll find that her new album, Love Is the Answer, is a beautifully crafted document of vocal warmth and arranging. Rather than turn out another battleship-sized production that winds up too many miles from your heart, Streisand here is intimate, familiar and downright cozy. To be fair, the new album's seductive power owes a great deal to the bold vision of producer-pianist Diana Krall and the historic hand of composer-arranger Johnny Mandel.
In fact, Johnny's arrangements are so exceptional and Krall's playing so tasteful that the album feels like a trio recording. Each time I listen to the CD, I hear something new in Johnny's blending of reeds, woodwinds, harp and strings around Krall's quartet. Rather than lay back and passively fill in the gaps, Johnny's arrangements reach out to engage Streisand, pull away, rush forward and play tag with her impassioned vocal treatments. The result is one of Johnny's finest singer-supported orchestrations since his work on Krall's 1999 album, When I Look in Your Eyes.
Johnny's arranging sensibilities were forged in the mid-1940s, when the measure of a big band chart was how hard it could swing. Johnny's also a veteran of the 1950s studios, when singers emerged as recording stars and arrangements had to frame and dramatically provoke. And, of course, Johnny is a champion 1960s songwriter, penning the melodies of some of America's most-loved contemporary songs, including Emily, Shadow of Your Smile, A Time for Love, Where Do You Start, The Shining Sea, Theme from M*A*S*H, and so many others.
In Part 1 of my interview with Johnny on his mood-setting work on the new Streisand album, the 83-year old composer-arranger talks about how he worked with Krall and Streisand, his scoring process, and the big trick he uses to end songs on an ascending note:
JazzWax: What goes through your mind when you get an assignment like this?
Johnny Mandel: Committing suicide [laughs]. No, I’m just kidding. These projects are always more involved than you imagine at the start.
JW: Did Barbra call you?
JM: Actually, in this case, Diana [Krall] did. She was the album’s producer and principal pianist. There’s nobody I’d rather work for than Diana. She’s my favorite singer. And my favorite pianist. She’s superb.
JM: She has the best taste of anyone I know as a singer and as a pianist. I’ve always liked working for singers. I’ve worked with Barbra before, a little here and there. Barbra’s great and, bless her, she records my songs. Tony Bennett does, too. On the other hand, Diana’s never recorded a song of mine. But that doesn’t matter. She’s still one of my favorite musicians.
JW: When did you work with Streisand before?
JM: The first time I arranged For All We Know, on James Newton Howard’s score for Prince of Tides. We played it down once and did a perfect take. Barbra wanted to do additional takes. She likes to push herself, to extract that something extra special. To my ear, her first takes are always the best.
JW: How did you, Krall and Streisand work together on the new album?
JM: Barbra first got together with Diana and went over the songs she wanted to do and the keys in which she wanted to sing them. Then Diana and I spoke about the approach. Diana is always on the road, and she works 28 hours a day. So we did a lot of talking on the phone. Then I had a month to finish five songs.
JW: Five arrangements in a month? That sounds impossible.
JM: [Laughs] I wasn’t writing full orchestrations at that point. Just the arrangements for Diana’s quartet. Once those were completed, Barbra recorded her vocal tracks with just Diana’s quartet. Then those tracks came back to me for the orchestral arrangements. After those were added, Barbra listened to the results and in many cases re-recorded her vocal tracks. As I said, it's a process. For me, the goal initially when writing for Diana's quartet was to avoid writing any little traps for myself that I'd have to deal with later with the orchestration.
JW: What do you mean by traps?
JM: Things I’d be sorry I wrote for the quartet because I'd have to deal with them when adding strings, woodwinds, reeds and so on.
JW: Pick a song from the album to illustrate what you mean.
JM: OK, for example, Here’s That Rainy Day. Barbra likes songs and keys she feels comfortable with. In this instance, Here's that Rainy Day was in D-flat, I think. But toward the end of the last chorus, Barbra descended a half step to a C, which is very uncommon for a singer at the end of a song. Obviously, she felt more comfortable range-wise with what she wanted to do there. Most singers end by finishing on a higher note. But that’s what Barbra wanted, to drop down a half step. I would have created a trap for myself if my arrangement followed her down a half step. My trick is to make the song sound like it's going up at the end, in this case without stepping on the feeling Barbra wanted to deliver vocally.
JW: Did you talk about what you were going to do there before the recording?
JM: No. It’s just one of my arranging tricks that I’ve used over the years. It’s uncommon for an arrangement to go down a half tone at the end of a song. It’s a downer, unless you deliberately want that feeling, dramatically. So I created the illusion with orchestration that the song ends up without crushing what Barbra wanted to do there. It's subtle.
JW: When arranging the album's songs, how did you work?
JM: At the piano. And then with Diana. Her quartet is at the heart of this album. The trick for me on the orchestration side was to elegantly surround the arrangements I wrote for Diana’s quartet. You don’t want to hear the quartet accompanied by the orchestra, or first the quartet and then the orchestra. I hate that sound—hearing one and then the other. Barbra has never recorded an album like this before, with a jazz quartet plus orchestration. She had mixed feelings about it, mostly over concern that just the sound of a quartet might be too spare for her sound. Which was perfect for me, since I like when a quartet and orchestra overlay are completely integrated as one.
JW: For those who know little about what a producer does, what was Krall’s role?
JM: Holding the whole thing together. Diana never lost her focus, regardless of the many creative places Barbra wanted to go. When Barbra is on and does it, there’s no one who can compare. Diana has always admired her tremendously. Which is why they worked beautifully together.
JW: So when you approached the orchestral arrangements for Streisand, what are you doing?
JM: Without getting technical, I write down every note Barbra sings as well as what I've written for the quartet. Then I go everywhere Barbra and the quartet aren't. You need to know where Barbra's going to be so you aren’t in her way. I listen carefully to all of that. I don’t want to write something that sounds like there’s an anchovy in there. It takes a little more time, but I like working that way. [Pictured: Johnny Mandel with songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman]
JW: On Here’s to Life, you have a flute sailing through swelling strings, and then you have the strings sort of playing tag with Streisand's vocal. What were you doing there?
JM: I don’t’ know [laughs]. I don’t know anything about the violin. That doesn’t matter because I know what I like to hear the strings play, and I know what I don’t like.
JW: Such as?
JM: I hate hearing strings in octaves. It’s a sound I consider the epitome of schmaltz. My approach is to write strings in chords the best way I know how. There’s no format. I’ll voice them a certain way that sounds right to me [pause]. I know that’s kind of a stupid explanation, but that’s how it works with me. I try not to write them like the world’s largest sax section [laughs].
Tomorrow, Johnny talks about his focus on instrumental textures and personalities for each of the 11 songs he scored, the special way he treats the piccolo and harp, and why arranging two of his own songs was so challenging.
JazzWax tracks: Barbra Streisand's Love Is the Answer is available at iTunes, Amazon and other online retailers. I have not heard the deluxe edition, a double CD that includes the quartet versions.
JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny's arrangement for Streisand's Here's That Rainy Day. Note what he does with the flute and strings to build enormous drama in the intro before backing off as Streisand enters. Streisand's vocal is superb by any measure, and Krall's piano lines backed by a soft samba beat are gorgeous. Most of all, dig the ending note Streisand chooses—and how Johnny inches the strings and piano up at the tail end to play against her vocal choice...