Much has been made of the fact that during the pandemic, many of us have been urged to stay apart, socially distanced from family members and dear friends outside our immediate households. Fortunately, longtime pals and musical compadres, jazz singer Mark Winkler and multiple GRAMMY-nominated pianist David Benoit – whose shared writing and recording history dates back to the mid-1980s – found a hip, emotionally compelling yet elegant workaround. They reconnected creatively and collaborate on a sweetly intimate yet often whimsically swinging set of classics (some well-known, some delightfully obscure) and originals whose Simon & Garfunkel borrowed title says it all: Old Friends
. JAZZIZ: You guys have known each other for 37 years. You’ve collaborated on numerous songs and David produced Mark’s debut album Ebony Rain. Why has a duets album like this never happened before now? David Benoit:
Good question. We have collaborated on other projects, from my producing Ebony Rain
years in 1987 to writing songs for the 2 in Love
album I did in 2015 with Jane Monheit. I think as Mark moved away from smooth jazz and more towards straight ahead, he was working with top pianists in that world like Terry Trotter and John Beasley, real trad-jazz cats; I wondered how I could fit into that picture. Mark Winkler:
David’s right. There’s a big divide in the jazz community between smooth and straightahead jazz. That’s where I started my career with Ebony Rain
, which he produced with Eddie Arkin, and which I still love. I’m with Duke Ellington, who said there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, but as I realized smooth jazz was going in a different direction, it took me a while to find my footing in the other world where the “jazz police” didn’t talk about anything related to smooth jazz. But we’ve worked together on and off over the years and have always been big fans of each other’s work.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5MKX1-kU9I When and how did you first meet and when was your first musical collaboration? David Benoit:
We met through Charlotte Crossley from the vocal group Full Swing in the early ‘80s. She kept telling me about this great young songwriter I had to meet. Our first collaboration came when I needed a lyricist for “Land of the Loving,” the song Dianne Reeves sang on my This Side Up
album (1986). Mark wrote beautiful lyrics and we recorded live to two-track. Mark Winkler:
David, did I ever tell you my (producer) Jeff Weber story? I was there for the session when you and Dianne were recording the song at Ocean Way on Sunset. There was this full orchestra, great session players and Dianne was singing her heart out. She got one of the lyrics wrong and I turned to Jeff and told him that. He said, “That’s the beauty of live recording.” Tell me how Old Friends came about. I believe it’s one of those beautiful unexpected COVID-19 silver linings stories. David Benoit:
It is. Strange as this sounds, I’m starting to miss those early COVID days. There was a certain peace about that time, where I didn’t have a lot to do or anywhere specific to be. As Mark and I took the bull by the horns with the project, he reminded me that in the normal world, we would probably have been out on the road. I enjoyed getting out of the house, driving without traffic from Palos Verdes to the San Fernando Valley, working together over lunch, dinner and wine. That process made the record what it is. Old friends getting together, getting reacquainted. My wife Kei was in Japan visiting her elderly mom and I was supposed to join her but my tour got canceled. So I was home by myself and invited Mark over for dinner. Mark Winkler:
We kept our social distance with me at the end of his 9 foot grand piano. He started playing and I began singing. We did “Waltz for Debby” and I looked up the lyrics to “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Something clicked on that one and David said, “Let’s do an album together.” It was crazy that we had not done one. Ironically, I had been thinking about this idea for a long time. I was a huge fan of the classic Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album and had always wanted to do a project like that. How did you go about picking the repertoire? Mark Winkler:
We had the time and luxury to listen to tons of material and there were a good 12 songs we liked but ultimately felt weren’t right. David suggested Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just About Everything,” which I love. I always wanted to do Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” David Benoit:
I love that you found the Dave Frishberg gem “Sweet Kentucky Ham.” It reminded me of being on the road, feeling lonely and trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. Mark Winkler:
The criteria for the non-originals was songs by our favorite composers, which is why we also chose ones by Henry Mancini (“Two for the Road”) and Leonard Bernstein (“Some Other Time”). As David said, these were songs that had a lot of emotional content and gave us chills. They spoke to us. David Benoit:
The minute Mark started singing with the band, the songs practically arranged themselves. One of the best decisions we and our producer Barbara Brighton made was to not try to re-invent them. At first, we thought, “The Shadow of Your Smile” has been covered so many times, why do it again? Then we thought, forget it, we’re gonna do it, too. So I didn’t put a ton of thought into the arrangements. I just let the brilliant musicians – guitarist Pat Kelley, bassist Gabe Davis, drummer Clayton Cameron and cellist Stefanie Fife– put their magic on it and let the songs play themselves.
"These were songs that had a lot of emotional content and gave us chills. They spoke to us." Mark Winkler:
“Old Friends” became the title when I was watching a bunch of YouTube videos of Simon & Garfunkel. It immediately reminded me of David and myself. David Benoit:
I wasn’t knocked out by it at first. It has weird three-bar phrases that are hard to decipher. It’s not in a friendly key. It’s beautiful but has a lot of twists and turns and is not structured normally, which I suppose is the genius of Paul Simon. Over time, its unusual signatures and phrases grew on me. Then in my mind, I started hearing an Erik Satie quote in the middle and used that. A lot of great jazz albums have been recorded this past year using solely digital transfer technology. Was Old Friends done in the studio using protocols, digitally or both? Mark Winkler:
We did it in the studio with strict protocols. David Benoit:
I don’t like working with digital transfers. I’ve always recorded with the guys in the studio and I’m glad Mark was confident enough to have everyone come in, wear masks and stay pretty much isolated from one another. I don’t think we could have achieved the magic here any other way.