NEW RADIO SERIES: “MINNESOTA’S VOICES - CERTAIN STANDARDS”
(The following entry was written by PAMELA ESPELAND, for her column “bebopified”.
Thanks to Pamela Espeland for permission to use the article, and thanks to John Whiting for permission to use his accompanying photographs).
(THE ENTIRE “MINNESOTA’S VOICES - CERTAIN STANDARDS” SERIES CAN NOW BE HEARD AND PURCHASED FOR PUBLIC RADIO BROADCAST AT PRX.ORG)
Behind the scenes of Arne Fogel’s radio series “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards”
Arne Fogel by John Whiting
ALL PHOTOS BY JOHN WHITING FOR KBEM
Hear “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards” starting Monday, October 3, on KBEM/Jazz 88, 88.5 FM in Minneapolis/St. Paul, streaming live on the web at jazz88fm.com. The series runs for 13 weeks, and this is the order of the singers: Connie Evingson (Mondays), Nancy Harms (Tuesdays), Arne Fogel (Wednesdays), Maud Hixson (Thursdays), Debbie Duncan (Fridays). Each episode airs twice daily, at 8:25 a.m. and 6:25p.m.(cst). Allow for a few minutes on either side, depending on the day and the show host.
If you listen to public radio or frequent Twin Cities jazz clubs, you know singer, musician, actor, writer, producer, recording artist, and storyteller Arne Fogel. His radio series “The Bing Shift,” featuring the music of Bing Crosby, airs Saturdays at 7 p.m. CST on KBEM. Fogel is an acknowledged expert on Crosby; he wrote the liner notes for the first American release of Crosby’s 1975 album A Southern Memoir and the text for the radio section of the official Bing Crosby website.
For 12 years, he produced and hosted “Arne Fogel Presents” for Minnesota Public Radio. With Connie Evingson, he co-hosted “Singers & Standards” on KBEM from 2002–05. You can read more about Fogel on his website.
He’s a busy guy, an idea man, and when he has a good thought, he doesn’t let it go. There’s a Post-it on the wall in his home office on which he has written two words: “Certain Standards.” It’s been there for years. An old file on his computer describes a radio show of songs from the Great American Songbook and the stories behind them.
“Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards” premieres on KBEM on Monday, October 3. Written, produced, and hosted by Fogel, this 13-week program features songs from the Great American Songbook performed by Fogel and four of Minnesota’s top jazz vocalists: Debbie Duncan, Connie Evingson, Nancy Harms (who began her career as a jazz singer in Minnesota but now lives in New York City), and Maud Hixson.
Each song is introduced by Fogel. Pianist Tanner Taylor, who accompanies all of the singers but Hixson, served as music director for the series. (Hixson’s pianist was her husband, Rick Carlson.) Fogel chose Taylor because the two have worked together extensively and, in Fogel’s words, Taylor “embraces this music.” The series was recorded by Matthew Zimmerman at Wild Sound Studio for KBEM and funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Each episode—there are 65 in the series—lasts 3 minutes 30 seconds. (As long as an episode of “The Engines of Our Ingenuity,” which also airs on KBEM.) That’s not a lot of time. And when you hear one, you may think it doesn’t sound like a lot of work. Fogel introduces the series, talks about the song, we hear the song, Fogel goes through the credits, and it’s over. Easy-breezy, right?
Not exactly. For each singer, there were two three-hour recording sessions (that’s 30 studio hours), followed by another three-hour mixing session (another 15 hours). Then came hours of recording Fogel’s scripts, and still more hours to link all the pieces together. The series theme—a new waltz arrangement by Fogel and Taylor of “In the Indigo,” an original composition written by Nancy Harms, Robert Bell, and Fogel—had to be recorded. And we haven’t even mentioned the out-of-studio work: determining the singers and the songs (the singers chose their own songs; interestingly, there was no overlap), preparing to record them, writing the scripts, and the myriad other tasks of which I’m not even aware.
If you’re thinking of producing a radio show, you might want to clear your calendar.
Thanks to Fogel’s and Zimmerman’s gracious hospitality and the musicians’ benign tolerance of our presence, photographer John Whiting and I were able to observe several sessions at Wild Sound studios beginning last October. Following are notes, images, and impressions of what turned out to be an intriguing and illuminating experience. We had fun; we learned something. As will you, when you hear “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards.”
Monday, October 11, 2010: Nancy Harms
This is my first time in a recording studio, and I don’t yet know I’ll be writing about this series; that decision comes later. Today I’m here out of curiosity.
It’s fascinating to hear the various takes, stops and starts, Fogel’s precise and incisive comments, the performers’ decisions, and the results of Zimmerman’s work at the console. He turns two takes into one and the seam is indistinguishable. The studio’s speakers make my home speakers sound like tin cans.
Because this is Fogel’s show, “Certain Standards” has at least two meanings. Obviously, it applies to the songs he and the other singers have selected, all American standards from the golden age of song (roughly the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s). But it also applies to how he chose the singers, and it applies to how they approach the music. Harms treats each song with the respect it deserves, then puts her own stamp on it.
I’ve heard her debut CD, In the Indigo (2010), and have seen her perform live on several occasions, but the studio experience is a whole different thing. Start, stop. Do it again. Do this part over. Do the whole thing over. Listen, assess, decide—is it good enough, or can it be better? How’s the time? To leave room for the intro, outro, and story, each song can be no longer than two minutes, or two minutes 30 seconds at the outside. Yet each must sound complete and intact. Jazz singers are more accustomed to taking their time with a lyric, spinning out a verse or a chorus. Harms sounds as if she has all the time in the world.
“I’ve Got the World on a String”
“If I Were a Bell”
“On a Clear Day”
“A Kiss to Build a Dream on”
“I Could Write a Book”
“The Days of Wine and Roses”
“How High the Moon”
“Almost Like Being in Love”
“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”
“Cry Me a River”
Rick Carlson, Arne Fogel, Maud Hixson
Maud Hixson is not happy with her latest take of “Laura.” She makes that abundantly clear with words never heard in a Johnny Mercer song.
It’s one of several funny moments during this afternoon’s session at Wild Sound. Recording is hard work, but there’s an easy, relaxed feel to this group: Hixson at the mic, her husband, Rick Carlson, at the piano, Zimmerman at the board, Fogel beside him.
When Hixson sings, it’s like she’s whispering in your ear. There’s a profound intimacy to her style and interpretation. Also a delicious coolness; think Chet Baker in a dress. Rick is known as a singer’s pianist. He’s tuned in and receptive, a true partner in making the music, simultaneously weaving a safety net and expressing his own complex, lyrical ideas. Both are students of this music and experts at performing it.
For “All My Tomorrows,” take 1 is too long. Fogel calls for take 2 and suggests, “More salooney.” Take 3 is magical. Throughout the session, he listens, then asks for more of this, less of that—time, tone, legato, rubato, attack, mood. Zimmerman works his juju, at one point patching in a four-word phrase Fogel has asked Maud to sing several times.
The last song of the day, “I Wanna Be Around,” includes some devilish intervals. Maud, the purist, sings the original chart. I thought I knew that song, but the chart seems different. As it happens, the version I know (and most people know) is Tony Bennett’s Top 40 hit from the 1960s. Backed by strings and tinkling piano, it swings hard. Maud has Frank Sinatra’s version in her head, those intervals are waiting to trip her up, plus this is the final recording in a grueling session already running overtime. She nails it.
These are the songs Maud Hixson sings for “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards,” accompanied by Rick Carlson on piano:
“Nice ’n’ Easy”
“I Got Rhythm”
“I See Your Face Before Me”
“I Fall in Love Too Easily”
“Young at Heart”
“Look for the Silver Lining”
“I Wanna Be Around”
“The More I See You”
“I’m All Smiles”
“All My Tomorrows”
“Love for Sale”
“For All We Know”
Tuesday, November 23, 2010: Debbie Duncan
Although it’s late November, it might as well be spring. As we arrive at the studio, Debbie Duncan is singing the Oscar-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “It Might As Well Be Spring” with so much warmth that she could melt the snow on the ground.
Her voice breaks on an interval near the end of “Spring,” so she sings the phrase over twice, then takes a different approach. If something doesn’t work for her, she has a hundred more choices in her pocket. She also knows what she wants from pianist Taylor. When she hears a chord she doesn’t like, she asks for a do-over, Fogel concurs, and Zimmerman punches it in.
On the ballad “Where or When,” she and Taylor do two complete takes, one faster, the other more laid back and swinging. The gorgeous first recording of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” turns out to be too long; the second is shorter, yet somehow more touching and wistful.
With Duncan, songs are all about feeling and expression, honesty and truth. Rhythm and melody are malleable and open to interpretation. While some vocalists are introspective and perfectionistic, Duncan projects and takes chances—whatever it takes to communicate emotion.
Her final song, the one she’s been working up to over two days in the studio, is not officially a Great American Songbook tune, but Duncan wants it in and Fogel says okay. “I’ve Gotta Be Me” was first sung by Steve Lawrence in 1968, but it took Sammy Davis Jr. to loosen it up and make it a hit. Duncan sings an arrangement she did with bassist Gary Raynor; Taylor plays a walking bass line. It’s simple, passionate, and convincing. The third take, fast and swinging, is the winner and a wrap.
Duncan explains why the song matters to her. “It’s kind of a mantra for me. All the lyrics are good. ‘Do it now, do it righteous. Live, don’t just survive.’ It used to be my theme song, and when I sing it, I really mean it.”
These are the songs Debbie Duncan sings for “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards,” accompanied by Tanner Taylor on piano:
“Where or When”
“There Will Never Be Another You”
“I Loves You, Porgy”
“I Concentrate on You”
“September in the Rain”
“This Can’t Be Love”
“The Gentle Rain”
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”
“I Thought About You”
“Cheek to Cheek”
“It Might as Well Be Spring”
“I Gotta Be Me”
“Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards” is Arne Fogel’s show, but that doesn’t mean he’s easier on himself than he is on any of the other singers. In fact, he’s harder on himself. For “Dancing on the Ceiling,” he insists on several takes of the final phrase, “just for my love.” Even then, he’s not satisfied.
On “Day In, Day Out,” he’s unhappy with the key, unhappy with the results. He thinks he’s singing too high because he has to belt, and belting with the piano sounds silly, and there’s pressure involved in bringing it down too much, and maybe it’s too loud for a radio series, and now he has 20 minutes left in this session to record two more songs and there’s a sense of urgency on top of everything else.
“Day In, Day Out” doesn’t make the final cut.
As Fogel works through “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” at the mic on the other side of a closed door, John and I learn a bit about Zimmerman. He’s a musician who studied piano as a child, played drums in a band, and worked for a while in a music store, so he plays many instruments “a little.” For a time, he had his band, his recording studio, and his marriage, and his wife suggested that he pick two. Bye-bye band.
“Isn’t This a Lovely Day” is an upbeat end to the day’s session. You can hear Fogel smile his way through the lyrics; “Let the rain pitter-patter” sounds positively sunny. He’s been singing for two days straight, three hours each day. It must feel good to wrap things up.
These are the songs Arne Fogel sings for “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards,” accompanied by Tanner Taylor on piano:
“Dancing on the Ceiling”
“The Very Thought of You”
“ ’Deed I Do”
“It Could Happen to You”
“I’ll Never Stop Loving You”
“You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”
“The Second Time Around”
“Pennies from Heaven”
“You Took Advantage of Me”
“Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)”
Connie Evingson, Tanner Taylor
Connie Evingson is a class act and no stranger to the recording studio. Her latest, Little Did I Dream, features songs by Dave Frishberg. Lately she’s been interested in the songs of Norman Gimbel, and we expect a new CD before long. (Gimbel wrote the English lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema” and the lyrics to Roberta Flack’s huge hit “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” among many others.)
At Wild Sound, she’s singing “Old Devil Moon.” It’s a long song. She swings hard, adding a bit of lilt and growl to the lyrics.
As Maud Hixson discovered new things in the original chart of “I Wanna Be Around,” Evingson realizes she’s been singing “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” differently until today. While many jazz singers know parts and pieces of the Great American Songbook, they may not mine it that often, and even if they do in live performance, their opportunities to record these tunes are few. Fogel’s series is doing a service by giving us new takes on classic American songs.
As Evingson sings “You’d be so nice/You’d be paradise,” her voice is lush and velvety. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is lovely but too long. It won’t make the series. (Each singer comes prepared with a few extra songs, in case one or two of their main choices don’t work out.) “On the Street Where You Live” exudes happiness; Evingson inhabits the story told in the lyrics. When the time signature changes from 3/4 to 4/4, she and Taylor are in perfect step, like dancers.
The “ooh ooh ooh” in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” is Evingson’s alone, a reminder of how many ways there are to handle a single phrase in a song everyone knows. After two takes of this song, the session is over, and all of Evingson’s songs have been recorded.
These are the songs Connie Evingson sings for “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards,” accompanied by Tanner Taylor on piano:
“Old Devil Moon”
“Come Rain or Come Shine”
“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”
“Body and Soul”
“On the Street Where You Live”
“After You’ve Gone”
“Close Your Eyes”
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”
“Get Out of Town”
“All the Things You Are”
“Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”
Thursday, April 14, 2011: Mixing
You got a song that just won’t swing
Lord knows, you’ve tried just about everything
Don’t worry about it, baby,
’Cause we can fix it in the mix.
—Kevin Mahogany, “Fix It in the Mix” from Another Time Another Place (Warner Bros., 1997)
Whenever artists talk about mixing a record, I hear Kevin Mahogany’s voice in my head singing, “Don’t worry, baby, we can fix it in the mix.”
Today Fogel and Zimmerman are working on Nancy Harms’ recordings. Not that they need fixing. This is more about perfecting and polishing, about getting precisely the sound Fogel wants.
“Let’s give her a fuller voice, a bit of an echo, a concert-hall feel,” Fogel says. “I want it to sound live, like old-time radio.”
Zimmerman describes an old-school mixing trick he’s using. “It’s all about the relationship between piano and voice,” he says. “I want to make sure it sounds as good on a car speaker as it does on good speakers. I’ll test it later on really bad speakers and a boom box…. We’re trying to make this sound like the records we love. The old equipment did that naturally. With digital equipment, we have to add it.”
“Each label used to have its own sound,” Fogel adds. “You could tell labels apart like you could tell cars apart. The Capitol Records sound was dry and crisp, with a sparkling clarity.”
He explains, “Nancy’s singing is all about subtlety, and I want to hear that.” He asks Zimmerman to bring out the special moments in Harms’ voice—the occasional buzz, growl, and catch. He calls these “the essences of jazz and swing; the ebb and flow of the physics of swing; the tiny vibrato connected to swing.”
There’s talk of the Steinway in Zimmerman’s studio that Taylor (and Rick Carlson) play during the recordings (“Steinways have more color than other pianos,” Zimmerman says), and of the special equipment and experience he has accumulated over time. Zimmerman has made hundreds of records.
Listening to “Almost Like Being in Love,” Fogel notices a half-step difference between Harms’ voice and Taylor’s piano. In seconds, Zimmerman brings them together. But he isn’t satisfied. “There’s too much chocolate,” he says. “I want a little more pepper.” He lifts Harms’ voice up and brings it forward without losing a note or embellishment on the piano.
When I ask, “How long does it take you to set up for a recording session?” Zimmerman says, quite seriously, “Eighteen years.”
Tuesday, August 16, 2011: Adding the Words
Each episode in “Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards” lasts 3 minutes 30 seconds, and each has four parts: a spoken intro over the theme song, a story, a song, and a two-part spoken outro, ending over closing music.
The spoken intro (“Minnesota’s voices, setting the standards for new interpretations of great American standard songs…”) was recorded once, then reused for every show. The first part of the outro was recorded five times because there are five different singers. (Example: “Debbie Duncan, with Tanner Taylor at the piano.”) This is followed by the credits (“ ‘Minnesota’s Voices—Certain Standards’ is a KBEM/Jazz 88 production….”) mixed with the theme music.
Two versions of the credits were recorded, fast and slow, to allow for variations in story and song length. “If we’re tight for time,” Fogel says, “you hear me racing through.” Each episode ends with a slight arpeggio chord from Taylor’s piano.
“It’s modular,” Fogel explains. “There’s a nine-second intro and a thirteen-second outro—twenty-two seconds of business. The songs are anywhere from two minutes to two minutes thirty seconds long. The rest of the time is the script—the story. There was no prerequisite that any song have a story. But it turns out that every song does.”
Fogel wrote and speaks all the words. Each story is unique. Which means that in addition to producing 65 songs with five singers (including himself), Fogel is researching and writing 65 scripts. How many hours does that add up to?
Today at Wild Sound is about recording scripts. Fogel worked for many years as a copywriter and broadcast producer, so he knows all about fitting words into temporal spaces. He and Zimmerman get busy.
Here’s the script Fogel wrote for “Embraceable You,” one of the songs he recorded:
“…The show Girl Crazy was a smash hit for tunesmiths George and Ira Gershwin in 1930. And though it was introduced to post-market-crash audiences, it had something of the heady, carefree, frothy feel of pre-crash, Jazz-age entertainment. That doesn’t mean the songs provided by the Gershwins were without depth, however.
One of the pair’s most poignant songs was written for this show, the timelessly tender “Embraceable You.” Lyricist Ira Gershwin once claimed that he viewed his brother’s melodies as “rather mosaic-like.” Ira’s challenge was to fit words to these textured, occasionally uneven melodies, adding a quaint and witty cohesion to these idiosyncratic creations.
With “Embraceable You,” Ira took advantage of the tune’s odd rests and pauses by crafting playful rhymes that straddled rather than avoided these rests. Today, after decades admiring this marvelous creation, it’s hard for us to imagine the song any other way.
Here’s “Embraceable You.” ….”
“I love the modular aspect so much,” Fogel says weeks later. “I was inspired by Crosby’s radio shows of the 1950s with Buddy Cole, when they first perfected the use of tape. They recorded dialogue and songs separately and made them work together.”
(THE ENTIRE “MINNESOTA’S VOICES - CERTAIN STANDARDS” SERIES CAN NOW BE HEARD AND PURCHASED FOR PUBLIC RADIO BROADCAST AT PRX.ORG)