Readers of these pages know that Mark Winkler is one of the premiere vocalists in jazz, with more than 16 albums to his credit, two of which we have covered here. Now we bring you his collaboration with old friend, pianist/composer David Benoit. The aptly titled Old Friends is a collection of favorites as well as three originals. Winkler’s lyrics have been covered over 200 times by top artists and he has produced several albums for other vocalists. Benoit has received multiple Grammy nominations and has recorded more than 35 projects as a leader as well as film scores. Given both of their busy schedules, it was the intervention of the pandemic that brought them together after Benoit’s Japan tour was cancelled. He invited Winkler to dinner and afterwards they engaged in some music, with Winkler singing and Benoit at the piano. That’s when this recording was born.
This is their first duo project even though Benoit has played on a couple of early Winkler albums and produced his 1987 Ebony Rain. While the collaboration primarily features the two of them, they brought in accompaniment from fellow L.A.-based musicians Gabe Davis (bass), Clayton Cameron (drums), Pat Kelley (guitar), Stephanie Fife (cello), and Kevin Winard (percussion). Winkler then went to his go-to producer Barbara Brighton, making this the seventh album she has produced for him. This is a warm, intimate recording, devoid of any vocal histrionics – a classic example of taste, restraint, and emotive delivery.
Three songs were co-written by the two. Winkler wrote the lyrics to “Dragonfly,” for an album he di for Jane Monheit in 2015. “In a Quiet Place” was composed by Benoit with lyrical assistance form both Winkler and Shelley Nyman. In its original form it was a popular instrumental composed for his wife. “Thirty Years” is another Benoit composition with lyrics by Winkler and Heather Franks, who was Winkler’s private student in lyric writing. The song is dedicated to Christopher Loudon, the late journalist who was a strong supporter of Winkler and mentor to Frank.
Among the covers are Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just About Everything” and Dave Frishberg’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham.” In “Better Than Anything’ Winkler added his own fun lyrics that mention some of the favorite musicians in L.A. that he’s performed with. Standout track and the impetus for the album is Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” They also cover another Mandel tune that was co-authored with a friend of Benoit’s, Richard Rodney Bennett in “I Wish I’d Met You.” The most intimate of the bunch though is the piano-vocal duet of Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse “Two for the Road.”
Blues colors the piano intro to “When This Love Affair Is Over” which is later buoyed by Kelly’s guitar and Benoit doubling on B3. The familiar Paul Simon title track medley “Old Friend/Bookends” owes its sensitive rendering in part to Fife’s cello. Winkler has been singing Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” for years such that it has become as natural as breathing. Benoit knew Leonard Bernstein and wanted to close the album with the composer’s upbeat tune from On the Town – “Some Other Time.”
The veteran Benoit was most impressed with the date, saying, “Working with Barbara Brighton and Mark was a highlight for me. I think this is Mark’s best work. He is restrained and heartfelt. He never overdoes it, but always stys true to the melody, respecting the composer but adding his own imprimatur when needed. The song selections are fresh and original, and I must say, I’m happy with the arrangements. Again, never too much, but elegant and tasteful. You can hear the communication with Mark and me and it’s superb. This is a result of a certain maturity that only comes with age and a willingness to put time and effort into the project. This could be a happy result of Covid-19 giving us all the time we needed to make it right and the results are self-evident.” ‘Enough said as it’s impossible to add to that commentary.
- Jim Hynes