01/09/12

J.D. Souther Takes the Before & After Challenge

Singer, songwriter, actor, jazzer

John David Souther, better known to his many fans as country-rock singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, has a résumé sparkling with high-visibility achievements. Start with his critically acclaimed solo recordings in the ’70s, including the hit title track on You’re Only Lonely. Add his important role in the founding of the Eagles, and the hit songs he crafted for the stellar ensemble, including “Heartache Tonight,” “Victim of Love,” “New Kid in Town” and “Best of My Love.” And don’t forget the classics he wrote for Linda Ronstadt, “Faithless Love” and “Prisoner in Disguise” among them. On his latest album, Natural History (eOne), Souther delivers some of his best-loved songs in front of tastefully barebones accompaniment.

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Jeremy Cowart

J.D. Souther

Then there’s the actor J.D. Souther, with memorable roles on television (thirtysomething) and in films (Postcards From the Edge); and, more recently, the J.D. Souther who’s returned to recording and performing after spending decades writing for and with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Zevon and Brian Wilson.

What is less visible on that remarkable résumé is his lifelong fascination and love for jazz. Born in 1946 to musical parents—his father a big-band vocalist, his mother an opera singer—Souther was raised in a house in which jazz and jazz-oriented music was a constant presence on the stereo. “I knew,” he says, “who Gershwin and Berlin and Jerome Kern and all those people were long before I knew anything about rock ’n’ roll.”

And one could add Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra to that list as well. As we listened to the recordings in his Before & After session, Souther’s deep knowledge and understanding of jazz coursed through his commentary.

1. Johnny Hartman
“Moonlight in Vermont” (from Remembering Madison County, Warner Bros.). Hartman, vocal. Al Gafa, guitar. Recorded in 1980, soundtrack released in 1995.

BEFORE: Johnny Hartman? That’s probably Joe Pass playing for him. [he sings along with the melody] I love those octave jumps. Yeah, Johnny has to be the standard by which baritones are judged, you know.

He’s got a lot of control. And he sings it differently. Did you see how he changed the usual melody at the end? Very nice, very nice. It’s got to be an early one. Maybe late ’40s, early ’50s? By the time he got to the Coltrane recordings, he wasn’t moving around as much as he is here. Could be anything. Could be getting older. Could be just vocal maturity. I mean, let’s face it, there are plenty of records of Ella’s that are very melodic, that adhere very closely to the written melody—aside from those that are just, wow, scat-crazy.

Scat-crazy? Do you feel that singers like Johnny Hartman and Billie Holiday and Ella sticking closely to the melody suggests that one doesn’t have to scat to be a jazz singer?

Absolutely. I think the greatest jazz singer of all time is Frank Sinatra. Like, for example, I have four records, I think, of him singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The first is from [1946]. It’s a radio program with one of those vocal groups [he sings a long phrase: Oooo!] doing those kinds of swoopy things behind him. And the beat is a beguine. And then there’s the [Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!] one in the ’40s or the early ’50s. [Ed. note: The album was released in 1956.] Then there’s [another] Nelson [Riddle] chart in the late ’50s, early ’60s [a collection of re-recordings, Sinatra’s Sinatra, released in 1963]. And then, Sinatra at the Sands in ’66 with the Count Basie band. And Quincy Jones is conducting it. And that one screams. That is the most badass, hot version of that song, ever. By that time he’s got the thing so under control that he’s re-phrasing it whatever way he feels. And it’s always right. I think he’s a master.

2. Anna Wilson & Kenny Rogers
“For the Good Times” (from Countrypolitan Duets, Music World Entertainment). Wilson, Rogers, vocals. With big band. Song by Kris Kristofferson. Released in 2011.

BEFORE: Real clean piano. Is it Oscar? No, couldn’t be. [when the male vocal comes in] Steve Tyrell? No. And I don’t know about the girl, either. Looks like I’m not going to know either one of them. Her vibrato almost seems to give it away, but it’s the wrong person. Makes me think it’s Dinah or Sarah, but I know it’s not. Much newer than that, although she does have that little Dinah warble. Hmm … he’s a country singer, or a pop singer. [at the end] I have no idea who’s singing, but I love the fact that they’ve taken a sort of swinging big-band approach to a Kristofferson tune.

AFTER: Man, you suckered me with that one, for sure. Yeah, Kenny. But Anna Wilson I don’t know. So it’s her album? Interesting. And she’s got more bebop in her than he does. She’s singing dotted notes all the time. And when Kenny gets his own piece of the tune, it’s more regimented, more straight eighths. But, you know, man, “countrypolitan” or whatever, it all comes back to what Louis Armstrong used to say [imitating Armstrong]: “It’s all folk music, baby. I ain’t never heard a horse sing no song.”

3. John Pizzarelli
“Can’t Buy Me Love” (from John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles, RCA). Pizzarelli, guitar and vocal; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; Martin Pizzarelli, bass; Tony Tedesco, drums; Sammy Figueroa, percussion; Ray Kennedy, piano. With big band. Released in 1998.

BEFORE: Hmm. A little swing clarinet in the background. I play clarinet, too, you know. It’s my second instrument. But there’s still no clue to the singer. It’s not Pizzarelli. It is?! [he responds to the section of the tune in which Pizzarelli scats along to his guitar solo] Ah, yeah, OK, that’s it. That’s him. Very cool.

It sounded like John, but I just couldn’t picture him singing that song. But I love him. He’s really good. I did an ASCAP show, Tony Bennett’s 80th birthday party, with him—a lot of ASCAP writers singing songs that were hits for Tony. And I’ve always been a fan of Bucky Pizzarelli, too. What a player.

Have you ever tried to play seven-string guitar, like Bucky?

Seven strings? I can barely manage six. Guys like him are in another universe. Like Wes, who could play octaves on anything, anywhere on the guitar. And Stanley Jordan’s another one—tapping on the strings. But I’m going for something different.

Can you describe it? Is it closer to what John Pizzarelli does?

No, much as I love John. Freddie “Mr. Rhythm” Green is a guitar hero of mine. And what I really want to do is get to that Freddie Green style of playing, two or three notes in the middle of a chord, and be able to change on every quarter note and not have to play the whole six. The beauty of it is that only one of those notes can be moved to get a really different sound, instead of this thing of having to worry about what all six of them are doing. It gives the bass room to speak, and then it gives the piano player this aural headroom to fill up as he sees fit. That’s what Freddie did with Count Basie. That’s why he was the heart of the Basie band. And that’s the feel I’m looking for.

4. Esperanza Spalding
“Little Fly” (from Chamber Music Society, Heads Up). Spalding, acoustic bass and vocal. String arrangement by Spalding and Gil Goldstein. Poem by William Blake. Music by Spalding. Released in 2010.

BEFORE: That’s Esperanza, isn’t it? Gorgeous. It’s not fair that she could be a singer and a player and composer, and breathtakingly beautiful as well. Yeah, I have this record. I love it. The song’s not hers, although it’s her music. Based on a poem. I like that sometimes her high notes are a little flat, but she leaves them there. I love it. To me, that’s soul. Not that anyone would tune up these notes. Ray Charles didn’t have to, because he could start anywhere and wind up on the note. Yeah, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous piece. It’s gotten a lot of mileage at my place this year. What a talent. I talk her up whenever I do college things. I did something at NYU last year, and I’m going to USC this year, and I’ll always talk about her. If anyone ever thinks that there are no serious musicians coming up that can make it, that can have an impact, just listen to her.

5. Freddy Cole
“My Imagination” (from Talk to Me, HighNote). Cole, vocal; Randy Napoleon, guitar; John Di Martino, piano; Elias Bailey, bass; Curtis Boyd, drums. Song by Bill Withers. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Mac Rebennack? Leon Russell? Somebody Southern. And the guitarist is playing in a Grant Green style. Sounds like a cross between Mac and Leon and Steve Tyrell to me. And it sounds as though the singer’s the piano player, too, from the way he’s phrasing.

AFTER: Freddy Cole?! Wow. And it has that New Orleans feel to it. It makes me think that I should look into some more Freddy Cole, because I don’t really know his music. I like that he’s got that big open pronunciation like Nat. And Bill Withers wrote the song. Man, what a delightful guy. [Withers and I] did a panel once for ASCAP, and he is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met, and a hitmaker. He was like a post-Jimi Hendrix kind of guy, with some tunes that only had a few chords. But he knew how to make them work.

6. Roseanna Vitro
“Mama Told Me Not to Come” (from The Music of Randy Newman, Motéma). Vitro, vocal; Mark Soskin, piano; Sara Caswell, violin; Dean Johnson, bass; Tim Horner, drums. Song by Randy Newman. Released in 2011.

BEFORE: A jazz version of a Randy Newman song! [listening to the rhythm] Where’s one? Sounds as though they’re playing six like it’s four. Can it be Dee Dee Bridgewater? I have no idea. Can’t be Dianne Reeves. I don’t think she scats like that.

AFTER: Roseanna Vitro? I don’t know her. And she’s doing Randy Newman. Very shrewd. I’ll pay attention to her from now on. She realizes what a rich field Randy’s songs can be for a jazz singer—for any singer. I’ve done one of his songs; I do “Marie.” [he sings a few lines, emphasizing his rich-toned baritone: “I loved you the first time I saw you, and I always will love you, Marie” ] The truth is I can listen to Randy’s tunes in any form. Anyone can. That’s how rich they are. You never get tired of them.

7. Elvis Costello
“Lost in the Stars” (from September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, Sony Classical). Costello, vocal; Michael Thomas, Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello. Arranged by Michael Thomas. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: [he sings along with part of the song before identifying the singer] Elvis Costello. Very ambitious record. Beautiful. It’s not exactly his forte, but I’ll give him credit. He’ll try anything. To me, that’s a musician. I can think of singers I’d like better singing it, but he plunges right in. He’s not an accurate singer, but he heads for the wall. I think it’s pretty cool. I think he’s an interesting performer and a compelling singer. And I think he’s bringing people who’ve followed him all the way from “Watching the Detectives” into more sophisticated music. There are kids who never heard of Burt Bacharach until Elvis made that record, Painted From Memory, with him.

8. Giacomo Gates
“Gun” (from The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron, Savant). Gates, vocal; John Di Martino, piano; Tony Lombardozzi, guitar; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Vincent Ector, drums; Claire Daly, baritone saxophone. Song by Gil Scott-Heron. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: [he grins and moves with the rhythm] Gotta be a Gil Scott-Heron [song]. I love it, man. Don’t know who the singer is.

AFTER: Giacomo Gates? Really? Not familiar with him. But I like what he does with it. And he gets 20 points higher from me, just for doing a Scott-Heron song.

It’s actually a complete album of Scott-Heron songs.

Great! Even better. More than 20 points higher.

You said earlier you thought Frank Sinatra was the greatest jazz singer of all time. Who else stands at the top of your list?

Well, I’d say that the first half of the 20th century was dominated musically by Louis Armstrong. I think he was the originator, the fabricator and, for that matter, the curator in a way, too, because Louis not only kept playing good music, he encouraged good music no matter where he went. And I think the second half of the 20th century, as far as vocals are concerned, is Frank and Ray Charles. I think those are the titanic guys who had the talent and the length of career to be at the top. And on the female side, I would say Ella and maybe Aretha, too. I can remember when I was a kid, playing drums in my room with Ella’s [In Hollywood] album, where she does like a 10-minute “A Train.” Never heard anything like it in my life.

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