“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Michael Franks
Smitty: Well, it’s certainly a pleasure to welcome to Jazz Monthly one of the most distinctive voices in music, period. He is certainly a child of the cool school. He’s got a wonderful vibe and a wonderful new record called Rendezvous in Rio. Please welcome the fantastic Mr. Michael Franks. Michael, how ya doin’?
Michael Franks (MF): Good. Thanks, Smitty.
Smitty: All right. So let’s see, man, you’ve got this great new record and you had some great cats in the studio with you. Talk about that experience because I know we’re gonna talk about the record, but I wanna talk about what took place making this record, it had to be really cool to be in the studio with some of these great cats.
MF: Well, I started writing it in the fall and started thinking about producers and musicians, and I’ve always had the luxury since my first couple of records at Warner Brothers, of kinda choosing producers and choosing players, and most of the time having my wishes fulfilled, so it was kinda the same process this time. I hadn’t made a studio record in a while and of course there were some favorites of mine that I wanted to work with again in the category of producers. So I spoke to them and then we would then try to cast the material for each producer and then together we would decide on the players.
Smitty: Very cool. Well, you guys made some great decisions because when you think about working with Jeff Lorber, Jimmy Haslip, Russell Ferrante, and Chuck Loeb…how could you go wrong?
MF: (Laughs.) Well, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with those guys, that’s true.
Smitty: Absolutely, man. Now, you studied literature and music in college.
MF: I never studied music ever, unfortunately. I studied a lot of literature and some comparative literature. I think I might’ve taken one class when I was an undergraduate at UCLA on the history of jazz, which was really interesting, but never, I mean, I thought it was kind of a class that was open to non-music majors, so I didn’t really learn any music in it, but I certainly got to listen to a lot of great stuff.
Smitty: (Laughs.) Yeah. So, you know, talk to me about how you have melded literature into your music, how much literature plays a part in your music.
MF: Well, I think it does. I used to wonder when I first started out, how it could be an asset, but I think in retrospect if I think about all the years I’ve been doing this, it’s been a great advantage to know something about modern English poetry, modern American poetry, for example, and to kind of pick up certain ideas about language when you study literature that I don’t think you probably would otherwise acquire, and though sometimes when you’re actually in the student phase of it, it can be kind of, you know, a little laborious. (Both laughing.) It’s been a real advantage for me over the years to just try to use some of that energy and language in my lyric writing, and my fans, bless their hearts, have kept me employed all this time doing that. So I’ve been able to kinda pursue that idea.
Smitty: Well, you’ve got a wonderful fan base because everyone’s excited about this new record coming out on the 27th of June and I know I’m totally diggin’ the record.
MF: Oh thanks.
Smitty: Yes, man. Talk to me about the title Rendezvous in Rio. Was there some history there?
MF: I’ve always wanted to go back to Rio. I was actually only in Brazil once, which always disappoints people, but I was only down there one time. I came down at the suggestion and invitation of Antonio Carlos Jobim to work on my second record for Warners, which we recorded in the summer, I think, of ’76, and that was the only time I was ever down there. I’ve always kind of fantasized about going back and this particular melody was actually written by Charles Blenzig, with whom I work on the road because he’s my musical director on the road, and I’ve worked with Charles for about 16 years now.
MF: And he came up with this tune which he had recorded on a record of his own and I said “Wow, that is a great thing and it’s so kind of upbeat and happy” and I said “I think I’m gonna sit down and try to write lyrics for this with your permission.” He said “Oh yeah, please do” and the result is “Rendezvous in Rio.”
Smitty: Yeah, man, it’s a great tune. And I must say I love “Scatsville.”
MF: Me too, thank you.
Smitty: That is a kickin’ tune.
MF: Well, there is some actual anecdotal history in that one. I did a blindfold test with the late Leonard Feather way back in the mid-seventies, and he played me a bunch of interesting stuff, but he played me Mel Torme, who was singing, I think it was kind of a medley of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “You Are My Sunshine,” and somehow….I mean, I love the Stevie Wonder part of it, but there was something so kind of loungey about the way it was done. Even though Mel Torme was a great singer, had a great instrument and could do anything, really, and always sang in tune that I ever heard him sing, he was always like perfectly in tune. But he was doing a lotta scatting in this particular medley that Leonard Feather played for me on my blindfold test, so actually I was able to identify Mel and the tunes and all that, but I made some kind of a comment which ended up in Downbeat when he actually wrote the article, and it seemed sort of disparaging. It was about scatting and so since then I’ve always kidded around with people and said that the 11th commandment for me was “I shall not scat” and that I never have really done any scatting or ever been inclined to….
MF: ….so it was kind of a fantasy and story, really, of getting on the train coming up from the city, coming up the Hudson on the Hudson River line and getting off at the wrong stop, which in this Twilight Zone kind of scenario turned out to be a place called Scatsville.
Smitty: Yeah, man. Well, you seem to tell great stories in your music, it seems.
MF: Thank you.
Smitty: Yeah, I love that.
MF: I think that’s a kind of songwriting that very few songwriters seem to practice now these days where it’s actually kind of a story and a narrative and, for instance it’s alive and well in country music, for example, but in….
Smitty: Yes, it is.
MF: ….other genres you don’t hear it quite that often.
MF: I thought I would try one of those.
Smitty: I think that lends itself to your literary background.
MF: Well, thanks.
Smitty: Because the lyrics always seem to fit the music so tightly, you know what I mean?
MF: Well, I always start with the music, so I’m sort of at liberty to work on the lyrics and make them kind of conform to what I’ve got there in terms of a melody and, of course, I can always go in and alter the melody somewhat too. But that has always been a good way for me to work, to actually get the music into some kind of shape, just a very informal demo that I make at home and then just be able to kind of refine the lyrics on the music.
Smitty: Yeah. Is that how the music comes to you usually?
MF: The music always comes first for me. I know a lot of other songwriters can sort of do it both ways, either with music first or lyrics first, but I’ve never really been able to. But the few times I’ve collaborated and had some very good luck with collaborators. Joe Sample a couple of times and Don Grolnick and a few others, like the late John Guerin, and I’ve always started with their music and then it varies, but most of my songwriting is music and lyrics of my own so, yeah, the music is always something that seems like it has to have some kind of shape, at least, before I start the lyrics.
Smitty: Yeah. I’m sure with this record I’m sure you’re getting out on the road and gonna share some of this great music live.
MF: Yes, we sure are. We’re starting in Japan and coming back to the States and I think by the time the year’s over we will have moved through the loop pretty well.
Smitty: That’s always cool. I have to tell you that I really like “Hearing ‘Take Five’” and I know there’s some history there with “Take Five.” Talk to me a little bit about this great song.
MF: Well, as we were saying earlier, I never really studied music, unfortunately. I bought a guitar when I was in high school and the blues were really popular then, the folk music and the blues, and so I kinda taught myself how to play. I met a few other people in school that played and sorta taught each other. By the time I was a senior in high school, we played kinda blues and folky kinds of music and a little bit of rock ‘n roll, I guess, and I was in a couple different bands that sorta played all that stuff, and I think I was a senior in high school. I went over to my best friend’s house and his father, who was from New Orleans, and my friend’s father knew that I was learning the guitar and was in a couple bands and was interested in music. So he invited me into the living room where he had a Hi-Fi set, which was really seemed exotic….a sort of bare bones kind of a Hi-Fi set with all the tubes still visible and he was a real audiophile type guy. And he said “I wanna play you a couple of records and would you come in and let me play them” and he played me Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing, which totally blew me away. He played Mose Allison, I can’t think of the name of the record was The Seventh Son, where I heard “Your Mind Is On Vacation and Your Mouth Is Working Overtime.” And then he played “Time Out,” the Dave Brubeck Quartet record, which was actually about to become a huge hit, “Take Five”, it was destined to actually go to number one on the pop chart, which was such an amazing thing. But in any case, those records are particularly, the Dave Brubeck record, it was like I felt that I had had like this kind of musical cataract surgery and then I could suddenly see things that I hadn’t really been able to see before, and since I never went to school and studied music per se. It was a real kind of education listening to those couple of Dave Brubeck’s records, “Time Out” and “Time Further Out,” where on the liner notes on the back of the big album cover. He gave you a little bit of information about each tune, what time it was in and how to count it and that was like fascinating for me. It was like all this new information and it was like a real kind of moment of enlightenment musically and education too, musically.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, that was a great tune and Brubeck, what can you say about him? What a great musician.
MF: Yeah, and there was something so incredibly pristine and great about that quartet, you know, with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright, and Dave. It was just, and I had the pleasure of seeing them shortly thereafter when they came to San Diego, where I lived, and it was just was very enlightening.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, you have some great entertainers….I know we talked about this earlier, but you have some great entertainers and musicians on this album. I mean, Eric Marienthal that we didn’t mention, Andy Suzuki, ….everyone who lended themselves to this…Dwight Sills, I mean, you have such a stellar list of great musicians that you just know this was going to be a great album.
MF: Well, thank you. I feel the same way. It’s a treat to get the performances of all of theirs on one project. That’s kinda the advantage of working with different producers. Sometimes it can be confusing, and it can involve a lot of logistics trying to figure out everyone’s schedule and how to make things happen at a certain point in time. But the upside of it is to get all of these great performances by all these different players, and although it’s fun to sit down and make a record with one rhythm section as I’ve done in the past, especially like the Art of Tea and Sleeping Gypsy with that great rhythm section. And on Burchfield Nines, which what used to be like a stuffed kind of rhythm section. But I also really enjoy working this way where you’re using different players in different locales much of the time, and there’s so much interesting personality with all those players, the personalities which may then really contribute their talents and their point of view to the music. So, yeah, it was great to get Eric Marienthal on and Gary Meek played some beautiful stuff too on “Scatsville.”
Smitty: Yeah, it was great to see him on there, he’s been around for a while.
MF: Yeah. And it was a treat to work with those guys. I’ve run into them on the road over the years but never actually recorded with them, so that was a treat for me.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely. Talk to me a little bit about how Jeff Lorber with “The Chemistry of Love” got your creative juices flowing. I remember reading something about that.
MF: Well, that was the one tune on the project that I had written before. I wrote it while just sort of sitting around, and a former producer of mine, John Simon, who produced and arranged Tiger in the Rain for me, did such a beautiful job; I ran into him and he was working on a project with a Japanese flugelhorn player who also sings, and he said “I’m looking for material for this guy. He sings sorta like a Chet Baker. He sings in English and he tries to sing that way and he’s actually a really interesting musician, a great flugelhorn player.” So I said “Well, I’ve got this tune,” I was nearly finished and I said “I’ll send it to John Simon.” It was recorded then by this great young musician named Toku, who was like a big sensation in Japan. So John Simon did a really beautiful arrangement and it was more in this quiet, sinuous kind of production where I think he had Ben Riley and Kenny Barron and Ron Carter. Actually then, he had this beautiful string quartet thing happening, but it was very different from the way I had heard the tune and the way my demo actually sounded, which I had recorded on a Fender Rhodes on a rhythm drum machine kind of groove. I’d always liked that tune and I thought it’d be interesting to record it and take it in this other direction, which was the way I had originally heard it, so I sent it to Jeff and I sent him my original demo, sent him the produced song by Toku, the Japanese flugelhorn player, and I said “You know, we should have more of a groove and with a strong kind of bottom and a foundation.”
And he knew exactly, almost without me saying anything what I had in mind, and it was a few days later he sent me a really great demo, which actually we ended up using almost all of on the final track, and that’s always the way it’s been with Jeff. When I first worked with Jeff in 1989 for Blue Pacific, which came out the following year 1990, I remember going to Jeff’s house with a tune called “Speak to Me” and I just played it for him on the acoustic guitar, and right on the spot he came up with the stuff that we actually ended up using on the record. So I’ve always had that kind of very easy communication with him and he always seems to find exactly the right point of view for the material.
Smitty: The cover art…I know you’re very particular about the cover art and it seems to really fit with the record title and the music itself so, yeah, talk to me about how you chose that one particular scene because it’s a beautiful scene on the front cover of the album.
MF: Oh, thanks. Well, that’s a painting that my wife and I bought it a few years ago from a painter up here who’s sort of a well known painter up here in New York. This area where I live is, to some extent, that kind of artist community, and he’s a very senior kind of guy now in his mid-eighties and he has a gallery here that’s quite well known. Anyway, he paints mostly winter scapes and beautiful kind of winter scenes of the mountains up here. But he does winter in Florida and I saw this one painting which he had done down there, which was the one on the cover, and this was about the time I was thinking about the cover and actually we didn’t even have it hanging. It’s kinda sitting in a corner, we were gonna re-hang it somewhere, and I said “Wow, this is great. This would be great for the cover,” although it was St. Augustine, Florida, I think is where he painted it.
MF: It really had this look of old Rio, the old parts of the city where many of the buildings have these beautiful courtyards and where many of those courtyards have these similar kinds of fountains. So I just thought that it would make a great image for the cover. (“The Yellow Fountain” by Dick Jeffery.)
Smitty: Excellent, man. It’s beautiful. Well, I must congratulate you on this great record and certainly look forward to seeing you out on the road and hearing some of this great music live because it’s a wonderful album you’ve put together, that’s for sure.
MF: Thanks, Smitty.
Smitty: All right, my friend. So give me your Web site so we can put that up there as well.
MF: It’s www.michaelfranks.com.
Smitty: All right.
MF: And I have a great Webmaster and of course he’s after me to be more frequent with my information with my updates. I’m trying to get better at it, but I have a lot of great fans who check out the site and I have a lot of interesting photographs of these recording sessions.
MF: But I like to take these pictures, kind of like arm’s length pictures where I’m actually holding the camera myself with each of the guys, so there’s some interesting shots that you can find on the Web site.
Smitty: Very cool. Michael, congratulations once again, you’ve scored another great album, as always. This is, what, number 16?
MF: I think so, yeah.
Smitty: Wow, that’s fantastic.
MF: (Laughs.) I’ve slowed down in my late middle age, but I enjoy it as much as ever, so….
Smitty: Absolutely and it shows in the music, trust me.
Smitty: Wow. Well, Michael, thanks again for chatting with me and I certainly look forward to seeing you on the road and enjoying some more of this great music. All right. We’ve been talking with the incredible Mr. Michael Franks. You must check out this great new record, it’s called Rendezvous in Rio and it’s got some great tunes with great lyrics, and this is a must for your collection. Michael, thanks again and let’s hook up again, my friend.
MF: Thanks, Smitty, my pleasure.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.michaelfranks.com or www.kochrecords.com
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