I have always wondered what sort of Gandhi-esque character it takes to teach elementary school music. A million years ago I taught at the junior high level, and it nearly broke me. But earlier this year, I decided that I really, really wanted a children’s chorus to open for my band, Chaise Lounge, at our annual hometown Christmas concert. Since no music teacher wants to take on another concert at this time of year, the only solution was for me to start a glee club at my local elementary school. For the past six weeks, I have been rehearsing holiday classics with fourth-grade volunteers after school. I think I now see that you don’t have to be a saint to do this. You just have to show up and accept the kids as they are: with all their energy, earnestness, chatter, and distractability coming at you all at once. I don’t think I have put together an award-winning performing group, but these kids sing with passion. At the show, they will perform eight songs by themselves, and then join Chaise Lounge for the first song of our set: “Snow Day,” a local hit with students and teachers alike. When this all started, I wasn’t sure I would be up to the task. Now I find that I am already thinking about next year.
I was recently approached by the music director of a string ensemble with one of my favorite requests. He wants his group to play in concert with Chaise Lounge. We love to perform with full orchestras—if you’re anywhere near Stevens Point, Wisconsin on December 6 or 7, I hope you’ll come hear us with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I have written several pieces just for strings, but it will be a new challenge to write string accompaniments for Chaise Lounge. (Naturally, I jumped at the chance to try.) One thing that’s great about orchestrating for strings is their flexibility in terms of size: a string group can be as intimate as eight or nine players or as large and sweeping as the lush sound of fifty players. The fun will be found in integrating all the things a string ensemble can do into a Chaise Lounge arrangement that’s already pretty tight. Stay tuned!
I have recorded with many wonderful singers in my life, but maybe none who can inhabit a song the way the actress Gia Mora does. When we set out to make her second album, Gia Mora Sings Charlie Barnett, I gave her total access to my catalog, including my film and stage work as well as pieces I’ve written over the years for my jazz band, Chaise Lounge. It was amazing to see what she picked and why. Her ideas on some of the songs completely transformed them. For instance, on “One Thing I Have Learned About the Weather,” which I wrote for a documentary about a fallen soldier, she suggested that we take a simple 4/4 folk-ish song and twist it into a slow Cajun waltz with some stray bars left in for dramatic effect. The result was startling, even to me. I couldn’t be prouder of this record. We will debuting some of these songs in Los Angeles on November 20 at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club. If you’re in the area, I hope you can come by.
Last week I was lucky enough to do some recording in Los Angeles at the legendary Capitol Studios. Yes, that one! The one in the iconic Hollywood building whose architecture is meant to evoke a stack of 45s.
My singer was late—no big surprise there—and I found myself warming up on the nine-foot grand piano in Studio A. The soundproof door of the studio opened, and an older man with a big smile walked in. “Sounds great,” he said.
“I’m just playing scales,” I replied.
“Hey,” he said kindly, “there are scales, and there are scales.” And then he introduced himself: “Steve Lawrence.” That took a second to register. It was indeed Steve Lawrence of Steve and Eydie. He looked terrific—or should I just say that, at 79, he looked exactly like Steve Lawrence has always looked.
Steve and his wife Eydie Gormé were a part of my show business education in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, I was in the thrall of a lot of sub-par ’60s rock, so it took me a while to admit how very good Steve and Eydie were. But I finally got there. Eydie was an amazing singer, and Steve was the perfect partner for her, in music and in life. She died last year. They were married for 56 years.
After gushing over how great he looked, I grabbed an opportunity that will only come once. I asked him to sing a song with me. He walked to the piano and said, “Sure, give me a B flat.” I did, and without a pause he began singing “The More I See You.” Luckily, I know that song. And for the next three minutes I was living in a 1962 dreamscape where I was suddenly part of the hippest fraternity on Earth—call it Sigma Alpha Hepcat—made up only of great musicians who know terrific songs and perform them in Studio A or at The Sands in Vegas. It was a fantasy, but for those three minutes, it was also very real. Steve’s voice is still young and strong and perfectly his own. And I really do know that song.
Then it was over. My singer arrived. She had no idea who Steve Lawrence was. I was forced to return to 2014. It was a great moment, though. Thank you, Steve.
For our session, we used one of Capitol’s classic microphones. It was the Neuman U-41 that has the tin Capitol emblem on it. It has been there since 1963. I have pictures of that exact microphone on at least three record covers. The one I like best is from a June Christy album called June’s Got Rhythm. The microphone is a faint drawing at the bottom right. It always seemed to me that only true insiders would know which mic that was. The true insiders are, of course, thousands and thousands of people who have seen pictures of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. singing into that exact same mic.
We also used the famous reverb tank underneath the studio. I later posted on Facebook a picture of the patch bay inputs that tied the vocal track to that analog reverb. One of my favorite responses to that picture was: “Capitol Recording Studios, where it’s always 1962.”