JazzTimes is honored to present the premiere of the video for “Manhattan Melody (That’s My New York)” by Chris Stamey and the ModRec Orchestra. The track leads off the first disc of a double album, New Songs for the 20th Century, released June 28 by Omnivore Recordings. Like the rest of the album, the song was written, arranged, mixed, and produced by Stamey, a respected indie-rock veteran and cofounder of the dB’s. But both the song and the album aren’t quite what you’d expect based on his résumé—the influence of the Great American Songbook is strong, and the overall sound is much closer to jazz than rock. It doesn’t hurt that Stamey brought in some ringers here: Branford Marsalis on tenor sax, Matt Douglas on clarinet, Jim Crew (along with Stamey himself) on piano, Jason Foureman on bass, and Dan Davis on drums. Django Haskins is the vocalist, one of more than a dozen singers who alternate tracks throughout the album, including Nnenna Freelon, Ariel Pocock, and power-pop maestro Marshall Crenshaw.
You may notice that not all the instrumentalists on the original track appear in the video. Elijah Freeman plays Branford Marsalis onscreen, while Rob Ladd takes the role of Dan Davis. Freeman and Ladd do appear elsewhere on the album, as does backing vocalist Faith Jones. Other guests on New Songs include guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, tenor saxophonist Dave Finucane, pianist Charles Cleaver, and vibraphonist Mark Simonsen.
Stamey comments about the track: “I’d already written a number of these new tunes for New Songs for the 20th Century, and some of them were, frankly, getting pretty dense and complicated, harmonically—at least for a rocker like me. But one day I started thinking about rhythm instead, about Irving Berlin, ‘fascinatin” Gershwin, and even the oft-neglected Harry Warren—how they could take the simplest riff and spin something magnetic from it. This is when the Tin Pan Alley-ish ‘Manhattan Melody (That’s My New York)’ showed up. (Harry W. had had a failed project at the end of his life called Manhattan Melody, and, sadly, everyone leaves Harry out of the ‘best of’ lists and mentions Berlin instead; I think I wanted to give him a shout-out, too!)
“It’s all about that excitement of landing in NYC for the first time, in any era, with saucer-sized eyes. Branford Marsalis came over early one morning and blew through the song’s corridors like he was born to it, and the second take was ‘it.’ We both knew he had nailed it, and we didn’t look back. Originally there was a version of the lyric that referenced ‘Dizzy’ instead of ‘Wynton’ and ‘FAO Schwarz’ instead of just ‘Christmas shopping,’ but I wanted to have it be a song for us, today, and ended up with this ‘High Line’ version. (Maybe I’ll update it further, down the line, as the city continues to shape-shift.)”
For more information about New Songs for the 20th Century, visit Chris Stamey’s website.