Sneak Peak: Darby Williams tackles jazz classics with stellar lineup of producers, musicians
The word out of New York is that everything old is new again.
It's certainly not news when someone covers great songs such as "Mood Indigo" or "Lush Life." What is newsworthy, though, is a new appreciation of honored pieces of the American Songbook set for release on the eve of the centennial of Billy Strayhorn's birth.
Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Linda Ronstadt to Frank Sinatra has covered the collaborations of Strayhorn and Ellington. And producer Richard Flanzer has heard them all.
"Yes, there have been countless covers and even Joe Jackson's attempt last year," Flanzer said. "Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn songs have sold more than 300 million records worldwide. So I understand why people try to capture their magic."
The New York-based producer (Amnesty International 50th Anniversary Concert from Paris, Britney Spears Live at Woodstock), manager (Roger Daltrey) and former owner of New York's iconic Electric Lady Studio also famously worked with Jimi Hendrix producer Alan Douglas to bring Hendrix' music to a new generation of fans. Douglas remains a Flanzer mentor and is the only living producer who's worked with both Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.
"I produced this, as I believe Duke and Billy would've wanted, for a new generation, while trying to maintain all the basics in each song," said Flanzer who shared producer credit with Grammy winning mixing and recording engineer Jason Schweitzer. "I knew we must stay true to Ellington/Strayhorn."
Staying true to perhaps the greatest collaborators in jazz history meant assembling the right mix of musicians and technicians, maintaining a light touch on the production - and choosing the right singer.
The choice of singer came out of left field. Out of Oregon, actually. 'Google' singer Darby Williams. I dare you. The 31-year-old daughter of a World War II flying ace and newspaper reporter has no professional credits, unless you count singing "God Bless America" during a Yankees game, but she puts her own stamp on these great songs. There's no getting by on just phrasing, as some singers have done in the past. She is right-on every note, technically marvelous but emotionally in the moment.
"Darby Williams was chosen for two reasons," said Flanzer. "We first talked about using different stars for different songs. Alan talked me out of it and advised me to select only one artist to sing these songs. Second, her demo of her own material reflected both the style and vocal range I sought."
Having managed Jessica Cleaves from Earth Wind & Fire and Roger Daltrey of The Who, Flanzer knows a great voice when he hears it.
"She's so meticulous," Flanzer said of Williams. "She recalls every single note on every single song. She knows the instruments, what each musician is playing."
The CD is set to be released prior to and in conjunction with the Billy Strayhorn Centennial.
The CD includes ten Ellington and Strayhorn standards:
• Something to Live For (Strayhorn)
• Mood Indigo (Ellington)
• No One Knows (Strayhorn)
• Lush Life (Strayhorn)
• I Didn't Know About You (Strayhorn)
• Daydream (Strayhorn)
• Do Nothing (Ellington)
• Prelude to a Kiss (Ellington)
• Sentimental Mood (Ellington)
• Sophisticated Lady (Ellington)
Christopher Cherney, pianist
The pianist, composer, arranger, conductor and scholar of the Ellington/Strayhorn songbook, he worked with Mercer Ellington to present "A Drum is a Woman," Ellington and Strayhorn's allegorical history of jazz. He's conducted and played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra often and is director of music education at The Duke Ellington Center.
Andy Snitzer, tenor sax
Snitzer has toured and performed with everyone from The Rolling Stones ("Voodoo Lounge" and Bridges to Babylon" tours), to Eric Clapton to My Morning Jacket. Flanzer knew Snitzer from his playing with Paul Simon's touring band. "He loved playing sax on this record and his solos reflect this."
Jean Caze, trumpet
Haitian-born Caze, 27, has performed with Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau and George Duke, among others. His current gig is with Michael Buble. "If you listen to his sweet solo on "No One Knows," maybe you'll agree he'll earn a Grammy nomination for best instrumental solo on a jazz record," Flanzer said.
Julian Lage, guitar
Californian Lage was a childhood prodigy whose debut album, Sounding Point, was nominated for a Grammy in 2009. He plays everything from chamber music to folk to pop. "Still young, I felt his sensitivity was perfect for such an important song as 'Mood Indigo,' when I decided to use guitar," Flanzer said. "I think the younger generation will like it.
Ulysses Owens Jr., drums
Multi-Grammy Award Winning drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., is a native of Jacksonville, Florida and a Juilliard graduate. He has performed with Patti Austin, Wynton Marsalis, Maceo Parker, and Dianne Reeves to name a few. "Ulysses is one of the hottest drummers in the country right now, and immediately understood what I wanted him to play given the new arrangements."
The Michael Buble Horn Section
"Well, Michael was going to do the vocal duet with Darby on 'No One Knows,' then his new album exploded, which already has five duets. His manager, Bruce Allen, has been just great supporting this project. It was a natural to use Michael's horns. I mean, he can afford the best!"
To co-produce and mix this concoction of outstanding musicians and standards Flanzer turned to Jason Schweitzer, Grammy winning mixing and recording engineer. Schweitzer has been a pioneer of the modern rap/hip-hop genre from his early work with Kurupt and Xzibit. His rap, pop and R&B cred was built working with Ludacris, Eminem, Snoop Lion, Dr. Dre, Pussycat Dolls and other genre-bending artists.
Hassan Shakur, bass
Tony Romano, acoustic guitar
Bashiri Johnson, percussion
Paul Carlon, tenor sax
Mary Cherney, Flutes
Recorded at Sear Sound, New York, NY