Johnny Mandel’s Legacy Shines Through New Album by Ukamusic
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • October 2, 2019
There’s a specific kind of sophistication to the music of Johnny Mandel, the great composer-arranger responsible for the music to “Emily,” "Close Enough for Love," "A Time for Love," “Suicide Is Painless” (the theme from M*A*S*H) and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” The elegance and economy of his melodies, and the balanced drama of his string writing, are simply matchless. On any given weekend night, you can hear a jazz musician, pop crooner or big band performing one of his works on stage; and in the audience, you’ll find more than one couple falling in love (or falling in love again) to a Mandel creation.
You could build an entire curriculum out of studying the way Mandel voices his brass and woodwind sections. But as he explains it, his process for arranging is all about trial and error, and learning from the masters.
“I started writing arrangements early, before I studied at all,” Mandel reveals in a private interview. “I’d just hear something - four trumpets, or four trombones, and I’d say ‘Okay, is that it? That’s it.’ I’d write that down, that cluster, so that I’d know how it was voiced as I wanted to go forward. It was a ‘hunt and peck’ kind of thing…I’d screw around for a long time to see what made that sound.
“It’s a lot of hard work figuring out what it looks like on a keyboard, because I wasn’t piano player...I was amazed that a lot of the guys that did what I did - which was write for big bands - weren’t originally piano players...You’re anchored by your technique, or lack of it. If you want to imitate what it sounds like in the brass section, I just have to figure that out and write it.”
Many of Mandel’s most enduring songs are rooted in the cinema, including the Oscar and Grammy winner “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Mandel tells the story of its creation: “I was doing a movie that I thought was going to break through, The Sandpiper. I...saw the movie as it was being shot. And then I saw that gorgeous panorama, shooting from Big Sur out onto the ocean. How do you write that? I figured, you write it with a solo voice...I’d try to translate that into what it looked like.
“I don’t have a methodology, except ‘Let’s see, I gotta write a piece that’s gonna be a minute and 38 seconds.’ And if I don’t have something visual...what am I gonna have to have to go the distance? It started to get more natural, and it’d come and feel right. When it felt right, boom, I’d pounce.”
Mandel’s masterworks have been interpreted countless times. Now we have another welcome chance to explore their many facets with the release of The Songs of Johnny Mandel, a sleek new album by Ukamusic - the duo of ASCAP singer-songwriter & keyboardist Naomi Louise Warne and the late saxophonist Charles Neville (one of The Neville Brothers).
Warne and Neville’s tribute is an homage to the diversity of Mandel’s art. From their sensual bossa nova take on “Cinnamon & Clove” to the spare elegance of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the darkness of “Theme from M*A*S*H” to the sly groove on “El Cajon,” the many layers of Mandel’s compositions shine through every moment of this album.
With the encouragement of her globetrotting partner Charles Neville, Warne recorded alternate versions of many of these songs in French and Japanese. The fact that they are just as beautiful in languages other than English is testament to the durability of Mandel’s melodies.
Warne’s investment with this project is a deeply personal one. “Johnny Mandel’s music began as a meditation when my husband was not well,” she says. “When my husband passed, and I began to work on the music, it was like a meditation. And then it became a benediction...then, the element of the music became celebration, as these melodies of Johnny’s just rise higher and higher. Now, his music is pure transformation for me...it’s really the story of my life.”
For his part, Mandel sounds genuinely touched and impressed by the album. “[Naomi] didn’t just study the music - she got to the insides of everything. She probably thought a lot like I did - like why did certain things sound a certain way? And what made them sound that way? It’s very earnest work...to get to the inside of that kind of music...It’s a hard way to express it, but this lady did it. There’s a great deal of depth in what you do, and I respect that a lot.”
A family friend of the Mandels, Warne has a long history with the master songwriter’s music. “My big band teacher, in Sydney, Australia, he used to say ‘Listen to these arrangements…this is Johnny Mandel,’” she says. “To actually come completely full circle, and to be doing the songs of Johnny Mandel, is a beautiful thing for my life.”
Download Ukamusic’s The Songs of Johnny Mandel at ukamusic.com