Friday, April 24, 2009

Free Association with Wendy Lane & Laurel

We must admit that being performers has made us just the tiniest bit solipsistic, or maybe we became performers because we saw that we were indeed the center of the universe. This being the case, we’re taking our naval gazing public with a new feature where Laurel and Wendy Lane take turns interviewing each other on a wide variety of topics. In honor of her gig this Monday at Birdland Miss. Laurel gets to take the interviewee chair first.

Laurel had the great good fortune to start her career at the top with the Manhattan Transfer. Her seven year tenure with the group took her around the world, into the recording studio on onto the television. The following clip from the Transfer’s TV show inspired today’s round of questions.

WLB: This Clip is from the short lived Manhattan Transfer TV show, what do you remember most about working on the show?
LM: This is a clip from one of the four Manhattan Transfer shows that we did for CBS in 1975. Our show was a summer replacement for The Cher Show. Janis and I shared Cher's dressing room, as I recall, and the makeup man on her show, Brad Wilder, also worked ours. My strongest memories of the show are of working nonstop. This was basically a variety show, but we didn't have musical guests from week to week, which meant that we had songs, dance routines, and skits to learn every week. I remember getting to the makeup chair at 5 AM on taping days so that Barbara Lorenz could start curling my hair. I also recall that there were two teams of writers, some successful old-time TV comedy writers who had done the Dean Martin Show, and our younger, wilder folks who included Bruce Vilanch, I think. I have an image in my mind of us ping-ponging back and forth from one little room to another, doing shuttle diplomacy.

WLB: What specifically about this clip do you recall?
LM: Lush Life is a beautiful and difficult song. The challenge is to make all those impossible intervals seem inevitable and easy, and the sophisticated lyric seem casual, as if one always talks that way. And to keep the fox stole from slipping off my shoulder.

WLB: What goes through your mind when you watch this clip now?
LM: Oh, I wish someone had suggested I be more still until I moved on purpose, but the most pressing thought is that I was a far better singer than I thought I was then.

WLB: Since the time of the Transfer and the TV show how do you feel you have changed as a singer and performer?
LM: How have I changed? I am much more confident. My voice is richer. I know a lot more about music now. And I trust the audience's goodness. I am grateful for the privilege of singing for people, wherever, whenever. But the most important change is that I am 33 years older than I was in 1975, and nothing - nothing! - is better for an artist than the living of life over time.

WLB: If you could have a conversation with the girl in the video clip what would you tell her?
LM: If I could talk to 1975 Laurel, I would tell her that she was good, and she was right (she would know what I was referring to), and that eventually she would have a dog. Eventually she would live in the country for a time as she had always dreamed. I would tell her that happiness is a decision made every day, and that God was and would remain extravagantly in love with her.

WLB: What was the most valuable thing you learned in your time with the Transfer?
LM: I think my time in the Transfer taught me that people have different learning styles. No two of us worked on the music in exactly the same way. And we came from different backgrounds, and had very different tastes. We argued a lot. But we worked so hard on our music, and, in spite of all the differences, we made a sound that was unified and beautiful, and performed shows that made audiences feel good. I am very proud of that. I am also proud of the way we influenced education. There were not very many jazz choral programs when we started - now there are jazz choruses in thousands of colleges and high schools, and a lot of those groups sing Manhattan Transfer arrangements. I am happy to have contributed to the keeping of the flame, happy to be continuing to sing music I love.

WLB: Okay, let’s wrap this up with a plug for your Birdland appearance…
LM: As a solo artist, my musical taste has remained very eclectic. In my upcoming show at Birdland (Monday, April 27 at 7 PM) I will be singing tunes from Broadway shows, from Tin Pan Alley , music by Lester Young, Harry Nilsson, Bach, and yes, something from the Manhattan Transfer songbook. And I am looking forward to every moment.


Enrique said...

Thank you for this moment!I enjoyed very much the interview!

AitchD said...

For someone (like me) who didn't watch any TV in the 1970's (except for Steeler games), YouTube is like taking a Mulligan.

This is great stuff, Misses - it's better than a DVD's commentary feature!

I have a question about some (superb) phrasing in Laurel's performance, and if you teach about it, but I'll post it after y'all fly Monday night.

AitchD said...

Dear Miss Wendy and Miss Laurel - Is knowing how to handle the 'ai' diphthong (as in 'I', 'my', 'life', etc.) part of your lessons and teaching?

Laurel Massé said...

Hi AitchD -
Yes! Diction is very important to me and we work on it quite a lot. If the listener can't understand what you are saying then you are not saying much of anything, are you?

AitchD said...

Hi Laurel - may I ask your indulgence with a follow-up about diction and particularly the [ai] sound? In your performance of "Lush Life" I hear several different pronunciations of that diphthong - even with the same word; so I wonder (a lot!) about what choices you make and how much of it is instinct, how much is experience, ear, aesthetics. Is there something like a deep diction, where a singer decides whether she'll pronounce an instance of 'I'll' to sound like 'aisle', 'all', 'ahl', or 'ull'? (Most indulgent of you if you would be sooo kind and comment on your exquisite turn of 'dive' in "... some small dive" - please?)

Laurel Massé said...

AitchD, That "Lush Life" was taped 34 years ago, so I don't remember much about my thought process while singing it. Any variation in the vowel sound in the word "life" or anywhere else in the song probably had more to do with trying to hold the southern accent that character (Champagne Lady) had in the monologue preceding the song (which is not in this clip) than with any artistic decisions.

In general, I (present-day) work while singing to pronounce words in a way that is consistent with how I speak, unless the context of the particular tune calls for something else. For example, in my own show, I sing "On the Street Where You Live" (from "My Fair Lady") as a medium-tempo swing tune, and without any assumed accent. I sing it like I talk it. I may put a little "English" in the rhyme "bother me / rather be", but only if I'm feeling frisky in that moment. However, if I were to be cast as Eliza Doolittle, I'd be singing "I Could Have Danced All Night" with a British accent, and talking that way as well. The character would be consistent.

When creating a character, I think there is such a thing as "deep diction", but most of the time what we are hearing in recording or on the stage is just sloppy diction. Which brings Mick Jagger to mind. When he chats, there is no doubt that he's a Brit, from somewhere in or near London. But when he sings, he is suddenly from the Mississippi Delta. I have always thought of this as a rock and roll convention, as most rockers sound southern, but am more inclined now to think that there is also some self-creation involved.

Finally, I am not sure what it is you are referring to in "some small dive". I'm pretty sure I am simply singing Strayhorn's notes. But am glad you like it.

AitchD said...

Laurel, I'm glad you mentioned Mick Jagger (as an example) and the affected "sloppy" diction, which I often find, instead, to be artful in many singers, the way they omit most consonants ('Le[t] me te[ll] you how I fee[l]'). Though much has been said and written about the influence of old blind blues singers, it's likely that their toothlessness has had much influence.

(I gather from your comment that you had some fun working out "Heart's Desire" back then? A woman in John Sayles's "Matewan" pronounces 'desire' to rhyme fully with 'bizarre' - accurate for Appalachian West Virginia. Also, a piece on NPR reported about Hollywood dialect coaches, how Georgia native Julia Roberts had to be coached for "Steel Magnolias" - according to the reporter, Hollywood wants its Southerners to sound like Foghorn Leghorn.)

Probably I haven't been clear: the 'vowel sound' in 'life' (and 'I') is two vowel sounds made separately (hence the linguist's term, diphthong - [ai] in the International Phonetic Alphabet). The first sound is the vowel sound in 'hot' or 'father', and the second is the 'i' sound in 'machine'. The first is a slack vowel, the second very tense (in English). If you say 'a' and then 'i', and say them again faster, and faster again, it becomes 'one sound', the diphthong [ai].

It's been on my mind with singing since I heard an amateur on YouTube cover "Love Has No Pride". I was impressed with his handling of that [ai] diphthong, which is ubiquitous in the song; if I were a singer, I'd think twice or 200 hundred times before attempting that song. Surely a knowing singer has to weigh how long to hold the 'a' part of the sound, especially when the word's notes slur; so, I was wondering if you 'formally' deal with that kind of technique.

Thanks again, Laurel (I HEART your indulgence!)

Cynthia at A Shimmy in My Spirit said...

I loved the advice you gave your younger self - especially the part about happiness being a decision we make every day. It's good advice for our older selves as well.